IN CONVERSATION WITH ASTRID KERCHMAN
Recently, museums have been the subject of emerging critique, media attention and societal pressure about changing the language that is deployed in these institutions to communicate the work they present. Departing from the belief that museums function as a cultural archive and that they should represent the different backgrounds of their potential audiences, a heated critical debate arose addressing the exclusionary language and mechanisms at play inside these institutions that operate as an example for society. One of the consequential questions that followed up was whether museums need to critically engage with titles given to works and reject certain deployment of language. On one side of the argument stand criticizers claiming that this intervention in language is solely an act of political correctness, or an oversensitive response. Others critique the movement for being an attempt of rewriting history. On the other side, people in favor of rethinking language, argue how this need for change is not about a revisionist agenda, but rather about removing from the museum’s vocabulary – as part of the demand for a shift in the broader societal vocabulary – words that have emerged in racist and discriminatory discourses that have resulted in stereotypes that find its roots in colonial regimes. As a result, these stereotypes keep on being reproduced and continue to shape how groups previously described this way, are still viewed like that. By focusing on the language that is deployed to illustrate these representations, I will demonstrate how the categories that these typifications create are “made up”, as Stuart Hall addresses. Changing words does not mean changing history. The discussion is a battle over language, representation, recognition, and respect. Mechanisms of power structures, situatedness, historical embeddedness, and privilege need to be taken into account while questioning issues of representation and the role of the museum in this debate.
Often, the argument is raised that an artwork or artifact should be regarded as a product of its time and that an attempt to intervene in the language is an attempt to rewrite history. However, as I will demonstrate by critically engaging with the deployment of language and representation of subjects in Jan Sluyters’ (‘s Hertogenbosch, 1881 – Amsterdam, 1957) work, I will critique this argument. Regarding Sluyters as a product of his time doesn’t justify his approach of representation and deployment of language when we compare his work to his coeval Nola Hatterman (Amsterdam, 1899 – Paramaribo, 1984). Hatterman and Sluyters addressed the subject of representation in a very different manner. By taking the current debate and movement towards a more inclusive museum one step back, I want to emphasize the intention of the artists and focus on their own agency in naming the work. Both Nola Hatterman and Jan Sluyters were white Dutch citizens, active in the same era. Both worked with black models, but their representation of black models could not be more substantially different.
Creating a System of Difference: Representations of Black Boxers
Let’s take a look at the following works: Nola Hatterman’s On the Terrace (1930) and Jan Sluyters’ The Boxer Rolf (1918) (click here for the artwork). Both paintings depict a similar subject; Nola Hatterman portrays boxer Jimmy van der Lak, and Jan Sluyters portrays – allegedly – a boxer named Rolf. For Sluyters, his choice of black models was explained by his artistic style and techniques: according to him, his models represented a certain color or shape, or were interesting to depict because they allowed the artist to highlight and create certain contrasts as he was strongly influenced by the use of color in Fauvism and Expressionism as well as his passion for ethnographic art. His Dutch contemporaries, such as Isaac Israëls and Kees van Dongen, shared similar beliefs. In an era of upcoming urbanism, the naked (female) body and the black body served as an antidote and obtained a symbolical role referring to closeness to nature and sexuality. This conception was based on the idea that the white man had lost these qualifications. Not surprisingly, this movement was complicit in depicting people of color in stereotypical manners that reinforced associations of exoticism, eroticism, and “primitivism”, installing a racialized and sexualized Other, rooted in colonial and patriarchal power relations.
It is already striking that not much is known about Sluyters’ subject, apart from his assumed name. Contrary, relatively much is known about Jimmy van der Lak, the subject of Hatterman’s picture. Van der Lak, whose artist name was Jimmy Lucky, arrived at the age of 21 in 1925 from Surinam in Rotterdam. He became a rising star in boxing, but was forced to end his career due to injuries. He started working as a waiter in The Kit Cat Cotton Club in Amsterdam, of which he has said:
I was an enormous attraction; I was the only black waiter in The Netherlands. When I showed my face on the streets, people stopped me. Busses stopped driving. My boss didn’t want me to take a day off because guests would show up for nothing. I was an attraction.
In Hatterman’s painting, he is not depicted as this attraction that he mentions. Contrarily, the painting presents a different image, one in which Van der Lak is all suited up, drinking a beer by himself, seemingly confident and enjoying himself. It is crystal clear that Hatterman’s depiction of Van der Lak meant something else than a visualization of the primitive, the exotic and the erotic mentioned above. She explicitly resisted these stereotypical imageries, whilst Sluyters reinforced these types of imageries in which people of color were depicted as “wild ones”, well-behaved Christian converted, lazy natives or comic entertainers. His black boxers were depicted as primal, dangerous, and unreliable fighting machines. Most of all, for Nola Hatterman, black models signified more than simply a title in an exhibition catalogue or wall text. Numerous works of Jan Sluyters are now regarded as having problematic titles.
While Sluyters was actively producing a system of difference by painting and representing black people as the exotic, erotic and with “primitive” instincts possessed Other, he actively mobilized a distinct classification system and reinforced ideas about who belongs and who doesn’t. On the contrary, Hatterman’s work expresses solidarity with marginalized people. The subordination of Indonesian Dutch people and especially (Afro-) Surinamese people became substantial to Hatterman’s work, propagating a ‘black’ instead of a ‘white’ beauty ideal, working against the anthropological or ethnological perspective in which black art and models of color of her time were often placed.
The Double Standard: The Very Different Receptions of Hatterman and Sluyters
The double standard of the deployment of black models by the two painters is striking. Whereas Hatterman was often asked to defend and justify her choice of models, this was barely the case for Sluyters. Sluyters’ depictions of black models were commonly regarded as obvious and were often left unquestioned and unmarked. His work was, in fact, commonly met with praising critiques, being described as having an “animal like, powerful vitality”. Since Sluyters was inspired by black people and their bodies because of their color and appearance, his depictions of black models were commonly regarded as an obvious choice.
However, even though the use of black models was justified and explained in the context and time of these artworks, it is striking how Hatterman received so many critical questions about her reason of and motivation behind why she deployed black models. Hatterman’s work functioned as a critique on these art movements that deployed black models in an objectifying, anthropological or ethnological framework. Her motives and critiques were strongly founded in the function of art in creating a collective anti-colonial stance and consciousness. In an interview with Nola Hatterman on her choice of subjects, she has stated:
I am often asked why I always paint black people. To me, this seems like a weird question: no one will ask a painter why he always paints white models. However, that doesn’t take away that my preference is easy to explain. The reason is two-folded. On the one hand, I have always been strongly attracted to the non-European. And, obviously, you paint models you think are beautiful. The other reason goes deeper. As a child, I already suffered from the discrimination that women face … Even though a woman can on many levels achieve the same things as men, – even though by no means I want to state it’s always equal work, equal pay – she often encounters a barrier. The same thing goes up for people of color living in a white society. That is why, as from my own perspective of being a woman, I feel like I can relate to these socially subordinated. Under other circumstances, I would have perhaps become a warrior for the rights of women. As a painter, I have committed to the representation of people of color, rooted in pictorial and social feelings.
The difference with Sluyters’ justification is immense. The multi-layered reasoning of Hatterman says it all.
Nola Hatterman: A Double Sided Coin
Hatterman’s own positioning, as a white painter, cannot be neglected. Taken from the quote above, she has stated: “… [A]s from my own perspective of being a woman, I feel like I can relate to these socially subordinated.” In the 1970s, Hatterman got a black Afro wig that she wore in the streets of Paramaribo. While being a white woman, she has claimed to feel black from the inside. Was she in the position to make these sorts of claims and perform these types of action? The problematic positioning of Hatterman needs to be taken into account. It raises important questions of who is allowed to take up space and who is able to receive the space, having everything to do with power mechanisms. It is not far-fetched to argue how Hatterman was innocent – and, I would argue, problematic – towards her own postcolonial situation she was embedded in.
In 1953, Hatterman moved to Paramaribo, in order to escape the Dutch/European art scene and because of her Surinamese friends. In Surinam, she encountered a, what she has called, ‘amateurish’ art scene and felt the need to develop the scene into an own national art, one that was not modeled to Europe. She became principle of an art school and started teaching aspiring artists in Paramaribo.
However, despite her good intentions, her own postcolonial condition proved to be inescapable. Around 1970, her teaching methods became more and more subject of critique: they were considered “one-sided and old-fashioned.” It was the time of the black power movement, the independence of Surinam and Frantz Fanon’s publication The Wretched of the Earth (1961). Critical questions and enquiring about the reason for having a white European school principal instead of someone from Surinam arose in young students. Hatterman took this with great shock, since she felt ‘black’ from the inside. Shortly after, she left Paramaribo to move to the inlands of the country to focus on her autonomous artwork. Despite her revolt against colonialism and her intentions, mechanisms of power structures, situatedness, historical embeddedness, and privilege proved again to be inescapable.
Astrid Kerchman is currently a second-year student of the research master Gender Studies at Utrecht University (NL). She also works at MOED as a research assistant and online editor and has been active as a guest researcher and campaigner for Mama Cash’s Feminist Festival 2019. Her research interests focus around the intersections of decolonial thinking, deconstructing “Western” discourses and modes of thinking, activism and (visual) art.
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