Female artists show their perspectives on equality and difference


Nola Hatterman, On the Terrace

The work of Dutch painter Nola Hatterman has been of great influence on the art scenes of Surinam and the Netherlands. Both in her artistic and her activist work, Hatterman was a mediator between these two countries and their artistic development.

Nola Hatterman, On the Terrace, 1930

Hatterman was an active member of ‘Vereniging Ons Suriname’ (Society of Our Surinam), and her house became an important meeting point for the Surinam cultural-nationalistic movement Wie Eegie Sanie (Our Own Thing). In her paintings she often portrayed Surinam models, as we can for example see in the famous work Op het terras (On the Terrace). While contemporaries, such as Jan Sluyters, portrayed people of colour in stereotypical manners, thereby reinforcing stereotypical images of exoticism, eroticism, and primitivism, Hatterman’s work presents a different image. Op het terras shows the image of boxer Jimmy van der Lak in a suit, sitting on a terrace with a beer. Van der Lak is portrayed as a model for a beer commercial, inviting the spectator to identify with him. The painting was produced by commission of Amstel Beer, but the company rejected it, assumably due to the model’s skin color.

While Sluyter’s stereotypical images of black figures were positively received, Hatterman’s work was constantly questioned for its different figuration of Surinam models. Hatterman’s choice for models was partly motivated by her own experiences of discrimination. Being a white woman working in the art world, she experienced for example how her work was not paid the same as many male artists. Her own experiences of sexism made her aware of other forms of inequality, especially of racism in the Netherlands and Surinam. For Hatterman, art was a means for self-recognition. She saw art as an important tool for “the expression of black pride and anti-colonial awareness” (translation of Winter 2003, 258), which was a message that she also communicated in her teaching.

Source: Winter, M. 2003. “Een artistiek bemiddelaar tussen Nederland en Suriname”. In Rosemarie Buikema and Maaike Meijer (eds.), Kunsten in Beweging 1900-1980. Cultuur en Migratie in Nederland. Den Haag: Sdu Uitgevers. 257-274.

© Nola Hatterman, On the Terrace, 1930, collection Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam.


Charley Toorop, Working-Class Woman

Artist Charley Toorop developed a unique style of painting. She managed to acquire an important position within the mostly male-dominated Dutch art scene of the early 20th century. The starkly realistic painting Working-Class Woman (1943) was painted during the Second World War. A working-class woman is depicted in the front, the background shows the ruins of Rotterdam after the bombing of 1940. It is one of Toorop’s darkest paintings, drawing inspiration from the work of photographer Eva Besnyö, a member of the Underground Camera group.

Charley Toorop, Working-Class Woman, 1943

The threatening sky suggests that the horrors of the war are not over yet. The resting hands and clear gaze of the working-class woman give the impression that she is waiting for the future to come, and hoping for better times. Charley Toorop described this piece as the personification of the waiting proletariat, and chose to place a woman at its centre.

The working-class woman is depicted all by herself, and is surrounded by a sense of independence. Her grey hair, wrinkles and rough hands do not fit within the stereotype of a young and beautiful woman. Her body is barely visible due to the black dress that covers her body. When we look at her, we are drawn to her gaze. The painting does not invite spectators to objectivate the working-class woman. The image that Toorop presents here is in that sense different from dominant representations of women in the European art history, in which women are disproportionately depicted nude and as the object of the male gaze.

© Charley Toorop, Working-Class Woman, 1943, collection Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, c/o Pictoright Amsterdam 2018.


Wendelien van Oldenborgh, La Javanaise

La Javanaise was filmed in the Royal Tropical Institute and explores the inextricable ties between colonialism and globalization, authenticity, imagination and performance.

Wendelien van Oldenborgh, La Javanaise, 2012

In this work, van Oldenborgh zooms in the context and origins of Dutch Wax, which is a specific type of fabric which is created by the use of the traditional Javanese method of batik. The Dutch company that produces it is called Vlisco, and its products are highly popular at African fashion markets.

Wendelien van Oldenborgh, La Javanaise, 2012

In La Javanaise we see dialogues and performances featuring Vlisco model Sonja Wanda, together with artist and writer Charl Landvreugd and theorist David Dibosa. The video connects this Dutch company with the history of the former colonies in the East Indies, and the African fashion market in a globalized world.

© Wendelien van Oldenborgh, La Javanaise, 2012, production still, photography Bárbara Wagner, collection Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam.


Iris Kensmil, The Problem of Defense

Iris Kensmil displays her works in paintings, drawings and installations, which seek to give an account of the emancipation history of Black people. Part of her work emphasizes on iconic figures and movements who helped to shape this history, such as the Black Panthers and Marcus Garvey (founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League).

Iris Kensmill, The Problem of Defense, 2007

During the previous decennium, there was a lack of societal reflection of this theme in continental Europe. In an interview in Museumtijdschrift Kensmil points out the absence of references to the Black emancipation movements in Dutch museums. “When I visited a museum I could not recognize myself, and this is actually still often the case. Not in the images, not in the stories and not in the history.” Hence, during the previous decennium, Kensmil found most of her inspiration in the USA. Her recent works thematize mostly the Black counterculture and resistance in Europe and the Caribbean. With her art, Kensmil manages to add Black imagination to the European art-historical canon.

The wall installation The Problem of Defense shows five portraits of activists who were part of the SNCC (Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee) that was founded in 1960. The portraits’ neutralized background creates attention for the individuals that are part of this movement. They form a unity, but they are also each different. The portraits are accompanied by a quote from the movement’s minutes.

In 1964 the movement campaigned for voter registration for African-Americans in Mississippi. This ‘Freedom Summer’ action was suppressed by the state and the students were met with excessive violence, which led to the death and injury of many. More than a thousand activists were arrested due to their participation in protest. “The Problem of Defense Goes Beyond Mississippi” refers to discussions on self-defense and the abandoning of the anti-violence position, which took place after these events.

Through portraits and the quote from the SNCC minutes, The Problem of Defense draws attention to the activist struggle that precedes emancipation. Through her style of painting and the combination of text and portraits, Kensmil makes this struggle tangible. At the same time the piece leaves space to translate the discussions from the sixties in America to the context of the Netherlands today.

© Iris Kensmil, The Problem of Defense, 2007, 305 x 70 cm, collection Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. Photo: Gert Jan van Rooij.