IN CONVERSATION WITH THE BOLD AND THE SYSTEM
Good chance you have stumbled across The Bold and the System in the past year. Their intervention in the Rijksmuseum (see cover photo), exposing the framing of the narratives in the museum, was shared by The Black Archives and went viral. Combining their political activism and embodied knowledge with wit, humor and knowledge sharing, the collective reverses, disrupts and intervenes in dominant narratives presented in Dutch educational systems and museums. Flowing over with initiatives, projects, ideas, and essays, their website suggests the collective has been active for years. As it turns out, they only started in October 2018 – and they didn’t even know each other before that. Enough reasons for MOED to reach out to them and invite them for a coffee. In February 2019, we met up in café Heilige Boontjes in Rotterdam with three of the four members of The Bold and the System: Véronique Martins Cabral, Jessica Hamenyimana and Lieve Boiten.
The Bold and the System: the name is catchy, daring. It sticks to your mind. When asking about the story and meaning behind the name, they all start to laugh. They cannot exactly point at it right away. Véronique: “It was a lot of brainstorming, and we just thought of a lot of catchy phrases and names. We were thinking about ‘The Bold and the Beautiful’ and making references to that. Then it was like ‘the bold and the system.’ We thought about it as this Tom and Jerry thing: we reject the system, but we work inside the system in order to change it.” They met in the fall of 2018 while attending the academic minor ‘Cultural Diversity’, taught at art academy Willem de Kooning in Rotterdam. The four shared the same interest in colonization and decolonization. The minor was interdisciplinary, and therefore they all engaged with the topic from a different perspective. Lieve was interested in the question of diversity and inclusivity in museums, Juliette in these notions in relation to school curriculums, Jessica in the influence of the media in framing narratives, and Véronique in researching trauma, specifically intergenerational trauma as a result of colonialism. Lieve explains: “How were we going to combine all of our stories and interests into one thing? That’s how we came about creating a collective.” Their project manifested into a website, displaying everything they had researched. “Creating a website was the easiest way to share all of the things we wanted to share, without having to lose any kind of information.” “And without doing four different projects, which was a challenge,” Véronique adds. Lieve explains: “That’s also why we decided to make a zine. A zine was the most logical medium to choose: it allows you to write whatever you want, it’s cheap, easy to spread and you can combine it all in the same zine.” And, very importantly, zines have the potential of being a creative form of activism, as Jessica adds: “Zines are very independent. Regular magazines are often sponsored by brands, they won’t necessarily critique their advertisement. In a zine, you can just do whatever you want. The history of a zine is very independent and has the potential of being provocative.” The zine also brings their project to something that is tangible, you can engage with on a physical level.
Intervening in the Rijksmuseum
As will be addressed multiple times in the conversation, transparency is key for the collective. On their website, they are very open about the decisional processes they face, as a truly feminist way of handling such processes. Decolonization is a practice based on trial and error. Before they came to their intervention with Jan Mijnten’s painting Margaretha van Raephorst (d 1690). Wife of Cornelis Trump (1668) in the collection of the Rijksmuseum, they were planning an intervention in the museum that was more radical, more direct. Lieve: “Our initial plan was to make stickers with new descriptions of paintings and stick them on the walls of the Rijksmuseum. Because, you know, the descriptions of the Rijksmuseum are quite problematic sometimes – softly put.” But the illegality of the action and the potential consequences made them decide otherwise. “Juliette is studying to be a social worker, and I study to be a teacher, so we really need that certificate of conduct (in Dutch: Verklaring Omtrent het Gedrag)”, Lieve continues. They came up with another idea: printing the new descriptions on t-shirts, wearing it and standing in front of the paintings. They would document the reactions of the visitors. This initiative too got put aside eventually. Véronique: “I met somebody who was working on the slavery exhibition in the Rijksmuseum at a symposium we both attended. I told her about our t-shirt idea. She said we could do it, but if we’d decide to, it would very much decrease our options of us working together with the museum in the future – when the museum is actually right now starting to talk about what we wanted to talk about.” Véronique refers to the exhibition in the museum that will open in September 2020, entitled ‘Slavery, an exhibition’. It will be the first time that the Rijksmuseum devotes a whole exhibition entirely to the subject of slavery, an integral part of Dutch history still having its legacy today. The curators of the exhibition are mostly women, coming from diverse backgrounds. Lieve: “So, why break down a bridge if it’s already there? It would be a shame to do that.” Véronique explains how they don’t want to be activists just for the sake of being activists. “The museum is working on being more transparent on these topics, and their plans sound promising.” “We can’t really judge now”, adds Lieve. They are potentially impressed and thus decided to back down and let the museum do the work. For now.
The project they ended up doing, an intervention in one of the Rijksmuseum’s portraits, resulted in a revisitation of the artwork (see cover photo). The clothing and jewelry of their version cite the original. It is the result of a good DIY-session: with little resources they went to the market, bought a cloth, asked their friend and photographer Iris van Oord to take pictures, and there it was. “We improvised a lot and were so surprised by the outcome. We made the dress ourselves: it’s just this big cloth and a towel. We thought it would be okay for just one shot, but the outcome was perfect!” Véronique explains. Lieve: “The dress was made in twenty minutes.” The project was picked up by The Black Archives. They published it and shared it on their social media – and got a lot of attention. Lieve: “Yes, that went really well. We were like ‘Oh my God! People are liking it SO much!’” But, at the same time, social media doesn’t go much deeper than that: it just gives you a number of likes. “We didn’t really know what people were actually thinking. In the end, they’re just likes, and we don’t really know if people were surprised, shocked, or happy to see it. We did get a few reactions from people saying ‘oh, that’s really cool,’ but…” Lieve complements: “People are more likely to share positive reactions. People who came across the post on social media, we’re already interested in the subject.” However, if the Rijksmuseum were to share the post with its audience – wider and significantly different from The Black Archives – the outcome of their intervention would be up for debate. The Rijksmuseum is, as far as they know, not aware of their project, but they are definitely planning on making them aware. The collective would actually like to receive critical responses in order to open up a critical debate. Jessica explains: “It has a lot to do with why we put everything on our website and why we are so transparent. We don’t have all the answers. We’re not like ‘oh, we’re fixing it’. We want to start a conversation.” The content that The Bold and the System creates is a perfect conversation starter: it’s playful, it’s humorous, it catches the eye, and, most importantly it is very powerful: it makes you smile, while simultaneously addressing urgent, serious and important issues. It goes straight to the point. “When people don’t understand the work, which happens in a lot of art already, or essays, for example, people won’t share it,” Lieve states. And it’s true. They’ve been meaning to send another one of their projects, EHBD: ‘Eerste Hulp Bij Dekolonisatie’ (in English: First Aid for Decolonization), as little, physical packages to museums. This five-step guideline provides institutions basic steps for (re)constructing frameworks.
Decolonization as a marketing tool: can colonial museums actually decolonize?
At the time of the interview, The Royal Museum of Central Africa in Tervuren, Belgium, just opened its doors again. The highly publicly debated museum was closed for five years due to renovation. During the restoration, a decolonial approach led to a critical engagement with the artefacts in the museums’ collection and to a reconsideration of the coloniality of the building itself, which was embedded with colonial, racist and problematic statues, engravings, and plaques. Guido Gryseels, general director of the museum, attempted to approach these problems in different ways, with different strategies. For example, the work Ombres by the Congolese artist Freddy Tsimba has been integrated into the memorial where 1508 Belgians, who died during the early colonial period (1897-1908), are commemorated. None of the killed Congolese were mentioned in the memorial. Tsimba’s artistic intervention departs from the story of seven Congolose who were brought to Tervuren in 1897 (the year of the Universal Exhibition) and who died there. Their names, place, and date of their death have been inscribed by Tsimba on the windows of the gallery, along the central courtyard. Thus, when the sun shines, the shadow of these inscriptions is projected under the names of the Belgians.
Tsimba’s intervention shows how the museum and its staff have been trying to engage with their structurally problematic history, without neglecting its own past. While succeeding in some, a strong debate sparked up about the issue of restitution. There is clearly a tension with how far the museum engages with the process of decolonization. How far should one go? Lieve: “I recently saw an interview with this white, fifty-years old French man, Didier Rykner. It was so shocking. He was talking about stolen art, and claimed how it wasn’t art before, but how Europe made it art.” “We should be grateful,” adds Véronique cynically. Jessica: “Can previous colonial museums actually decolonize? I find it really hard to believe, they’re undoubtedly still profiting from their coloniality.” Lieve adds: “It’s scary how the notion of decolonizing can become a marketing tool, something that works in the advantage of the institution. I think museums should return the artefacts. On a more practical note: I think it’s impossible to give everything back at once but maybe like, over the years, I think it’s a good goal to keep in mind.” Jessica agrees: “I also think it’s still good that people have a place to learn about colonial history and stuff – to make it a long-term project and be very transparent about the process.” So, transparency is again very much valued by the collective. Véronique states: “If you really want to start decolonizing museums, you have to be transparent. You have to say: ‘yes, it’s stolen, it’s not ours. They still have the right to have it back so we will show it to you for four or five years, but then we are going to give it back.’”
Instead of speaking of restitution, Guido Gryseels speaks about the possibility of ‘lending’ the artworks. When hearing that, the collective responds indignantly. Lieve: “It’s a power thing! It’s like saying: ‘it’s still mine, but you can use it for a bit…’” Jessica: “It’s framed as a nice gesture of the museum to be lending out the artworks.” “That really hurts me. It’s stolen! You stole it! It’s not yours. How could you claim otherwise? You want to talk about culture and art and you want to decolonize what you did. But it’s not only about stealing; you killed people too, you did so much. If you talk about lending the works, it’s because you still think it’s yours, that you are still the master”, Véronique adds. Decolonization has no relevance if these power hierarchies are left in place, remain unmarked, taken-for-granted, and unquestioned, reproducing a paternalistic attitude. Véronique, critically: “Talking about it, while keeping it the same… What does this idea of decolonization mean, then?” Anyway, their process has given them a lot of publicity – and most likely an increase of visitors to the museum. Jessica mentions how the South African host Trevor Noah of the United States’ TV-show The Daily Show has recently stated how Europe should return all their stolen art, but with interest: some of the greatest European paintings and sculptures (click here for the article and videoclip, also containing the statement of Didier Rykner that Lieve referred to).
Subverting hegemonic narratives and images
Another method of museums attempting to decolonize their collection and to become more inclusive, is changing their descriptions and the language they deploy. “Language has the power of changing our way of thinking about something. For example, the word ‘slave’ is in a lot of museums replaced by ‘enslaved person,’ which makes a big difference. Calling someone a ‘slave’ refers to how it was his choice of being enslaved. Like it was a profession or something. ‘Enslaved’ has the connotation of ‘being forced’: I think that’s a really important difference”, Lieve explains. But of course, there are also other sides to this movement: it can lead to an uncritical engagement with the past. Jessica says she’s also hesitant: “Sometimes descriptions are changed in a way that neutralizes the artwork and intentions. For example, the Rijksmuseum changed descriptions containing the Dutch ‘zwart negerinnetje’ to ‘Surinaams meisje’, and I understand it, but I want the words that were used to be actually used, combined with an explanation. And also: I find it problematic if someone right now would call someone depicted in a painting ‘negerinnetje’ or ‘slave’. But if it was already there, I don’t think you should just erase that.” So, not just removing, but being transparent: “I think it is important to mark out that it is not right. Not to erase it, that would be a form of ignoring the bigger problem. Keeping it there, with explaining why it’s not right, but that acknowledges that we have used these terms,” Lieve adds. Véronique explains: “Same goes for the replacement of these terms into ‘knecht’: it makes it less serious. Like the person depicted is just an employee. I agree with saying it for what it is. I don’t understand why and how they went from ‘negerinnetje’ and ‘slave’ to ‘knecht’ and ‘Surinaams meisje’. Some people don’t even know about the Dutch colonial past, so when you see these descriptions, it doesn’t teach you anything about what and how it actually was.” Jessica: “Exactly. The problem is that, when you go to museums, the narrative is presented as a fact. It is very much from one perspective. People visit the museums and think they will learn about the full story.” How great would it be to have all these kinds of descriptions, all together, close to an artwork? Multiple descriptions to make visible different truths, points of view, lives, realities, story lines, narratives. Each one exemplifies a different power dynamic. But that might just be wishful thinking.
These ideas to destabilize the hegemonic objectivity, shaped by violent histories, very much resonate with the collective’s intervention on a Rijksmuseum picture. The original description is as following (in Dutch):
Véronique: “He is just there to serve the lady. He’s there as a symbol of the wealth of the woman. It is not about him. We want to make it about him, to change perspectives. Flipping the description to make it about the boy and not about the woman.” Therefore, The Bold and the System reversed the perspective:
Tot slaaf gemaakte jongen (gest ?) ,
Enslaved boy (d ?) ,1668
Olieverf op doek
Oil on canvas
Portret van tot slaaf gemaakte jongen, onder dwang aan het werk. Staand, ten halven lijve voor geboomte. De jongen hangt een parelsnoer om de pols van zijn witte meesteres.
Portrait of enslaved boy, forced to work. Standing, half-length in front of trees. The boy hangs a pearl necklace on the wrist of his white mistress.
They all aspire to continue the project and the photo series, ideally with different paintings and intevening in different museums. But first, graduation. Their ambition, passion and commitment to the subject, make us really hope they are continuing and expanding. They contribute to making necessary changes in the (Dutch) education system.
Véronique Martins Cabral studies Culturele en Maatschappelijke Vorming at Hogeschool Rotterdam.
Jessica Hamenyimana studies Branding at AMFI Amsterdam Fashion Institute.
Juliette van Eijk studies Social Work at Hogeschool Rotterdam.
Lieve Boiten studies Docente Beeldende Kunst at the Willem de Kooning Academy.
Click here for the website of The Bold and the System.
Click here for the Words Matter publication of the Research Center for Material Culture about the use of derogatory and offensive language in museums.
The conversation took place between Lieve Boiten, Jessica Hamenyimana, Véronique Martins Cabral, Elena Ascione (MOED), Núria Roca Farré (MOED) & Astrid Kerchman (MOED).