Caribbean/Exhibition 'Gedeelde Erfenis' (E)

An exhibition in CBK Zuidoost
‘Gedeelde erfenis. Slavernijverleden in de kunst’ [Shared heritage. History of slavery in art]

Twenty artists participate in ‘Gedeelde Erfenis’. They come from or live in Suriname, Curacao, Denmark, Panama and the Netherlands. They represent different generations. They all have their own history. They make use of various media. A colorful group, which by itself already results in great variety. Variety in approach, perception and visual results. Consciously or subconsciously, the exhibition raises the question about how divided that shared past is being looked at.

Frank Creton remains closest to the gruesome aspects of reality in his figurative paintings: the poor treatment of the slaves. On a slightly abstracted canvas, Runny Margarita shifts that reality slightly by confronting a frightened overseer with the ghosts of killed slaves. The photographic works of Brett Russel distance themselves in an ironic way. In Rode 2 he portrays a house slave. Vain, well conscious of his higher status, overly decked out, against a colorful, artificial background which is reminiscent of traditional photo studios that use dream world wallpaper. Nardo Brudet goes one step further in the photographic work Happy Ending. He shows a happy black family which keeps slaves as well. The house slave in his picture is white. Staging and theme remind me of Yinka Shonibare, the British/Nigerian artist.

In her work Sara Blokland often focuses on the way in which people are represented. In her Representation of a Family she prints family photos on expensive looking tableware. She presents it like an installation in a china cabinet. With this she not only makes a play of the way in which blacks were displayed to the public in the past – as public entertainment – but also of the way in which Western museums exhibit ‘colonial’ objects. The ceramic heads of Helen Martina denounce the prejudice among many whites, that all blacks look alike. “You can’t tell one from another.” Many representations therefore comply with that cliché. In the Rodchenko-like photo montages of Henny Overbeek the portrayal of the black man as being only out for sex and thus by definition unfaithful, seems to be the theme.
In her mixed media-works Patricia Kaersenhout shows, on the one hand, the wealth of black culture (in the fabrics for example), but on the other hand she also wants to draw attention to the vulnerability of the blacks. An illustration of the dualism of a black woman born in the Netherlands?

Carla Kranendonk and Renée Koldewijn each in their own way, express their admiration for the black woman. The first, places her at the center in large collages. She finds herself surrounded by pictures of black heroes – men – but she in no way gives the impression of being affected by this. Koldewijn chooses to make colorful little statuettes of women, who, through the way in which they have folded their traditional headscarves, communicate amongst each other in a language that cannot be understood by outsiders. It would not surprise me if the figurines were also an ironic answer to the prejudice confirming Aunt Jemima-like figures which have for a long time appeared in advertisements and which are still being sold to tourists. In a triptych Iris Kensmil has painted three black women in an expressionistic style, with lots of green, as if they have to be absorbed by their natural surroundings. Female slaves whose freedom was bought, who each in her own way accomplished something, that in Iris’s eyes, makes them heroes. (Note Rob Perrée: these works of Iris Kensmil were indeed made within the framework of ‘Gedeelde Erfenis’, but they are displayed solely in the Schuttersgalerij of the Amsterdam Museum.)

Remy Jungerman, Ken Doorson and Jeannette Ehlers portray black resistance heroes. The first made screen-prints in red, white and blue of a picture of his ancestor Broos. He thus refers implicitly to his double identity. Doorson uses dramatic colors to give his hero Boni a characteristic and valiant head. Ehlers shows, through the Haitian Toussaint, how successful a revolt can be. All three artists have chosen a hero who could be a hero because Winti spirits offered him protection.
Another form of revolt appears in the collage-like works of Hector Raphaela. In it he suggests that music served as a secret language. With it slaves could build or maintain their own culture. By opting for loose image elements on a monochromatic surface, Raphaela has succeeded in visualizing the improvisational character of music.

Both Antonio Guzman and George Struikelblok went in search of their own DNA. Guzman photographed the door of the fort in Ghana through which blacks were herded to be taken away. In his works he wants to show that that door can also symbolize coming home, being proud of your roots. Struikelblok comes home in a totally different way. In a moving painting of two black shadows separated by blood splatters, he proves that he is much more than an artist who paints somewhat interchangeable, template-like, colorful canvases. He comes home in an artistic sense.
How diverse, how layered and how individual can black be? In the video work Atlantic Transformerz, Charl Landvreugd illustrates that by letting black heads appear and disappear. The changes are accompanied by penetrating techno-music.

At the beginning of the exhibition stands a sculpture by Tirzo Martha. A traditional, wooden, African sculpture with combs stuck into it. A critical commentary on the blacks who cling to the clichéd image of their past: slavery. In fact Martha brings down those who continue to see themselves as victims and refuse to believe in themselves, in what they themselves can do and what they are.

This exhibition clearly shows that a shared heritage does not equal a shared opinion of that heritage. It also shows that engagement and visual art don’t have to bite each other.

‘Gedeelde Erfenis. Slavernijverleden in de Kunst’ is open up until August 31st in CBK Zuidoost, Amsterdam Zuidoost, the Netherlands. From September 12th thru October 20th the exhibition continues in the Kunstenlab in Deventer, the Netherlands.

TEXT Rob Perrée, Amsterdam, June 2013

The original Dutch version of this article previously appeared in the local Surinamese newspaper de Ware Tijd of June 29th 2013.

Rob Perrée works as freelance writer, art critic and curator, specialized in contemporary (Afro-) American art, African art and art using new media. His work has appeared in countless catalogues, books, magazines and newspapers. He is editor of the Dutch art magazine Kunstbeeld His website:

Translation by Cassandra Gummels-Relyveld