This week a number of the wives went on the Black Heritage Tour of Amsterdam with Jennifer Tosch. She took us from Dam Square to a boat, navigating through the canals and pointing out features of the city’s history that are still visible – some of which have only recently been revealed – and that tell stories of Black presence, oppression and resistance throughout history. After the boat tour, Jennifer took us to the Rijksmuseum and pointed out paintings that contain Black presence – almost all made by white hands – and told us about the significance of these paintings, about the stories behind them and, more accurately, our lack of knowledge of these stories.
The Rijksmuseum contains a large Dutch cultural archive. It is the most well-known museum in the country and it positions itself as the embodiment of Dutch history, Dutch art and the ‘pride’ of the lower lands. Their website specifically states: “As a national institute, the Rijksmuseum offers a representative overview of Dutch art and history from the Middle Ages onwards.” The Rijksmuseum is featured in many school curriculums: Dutch students often visit the Rijksmuseum multiple times, including in high school classes. The museum is seen as an essential aspect of Dutch education, which is why it is so important to put the museum and what it contains under scrutiny. If this museum is the container of Dutch culture and history, we should be critical of what this Dutch culture and history entails according to the museum. Who does the Rijksmuseum include and who do they render invisible?
One painting especially stood out to us, namely a painting hanging in the Gallery of Honor in the Rijksmuseum. You know, the one where De Nachtwacht (The Night Watch) by the famous painter Rembrandt van Rijn is on show, where the works of “the grand masters” occupy the walls. It is possibly the room that summarizes the spirit of the Rijksmuseum most accurately: whiteness is central, with colonialism as the silent backdrop of all that is on show there. While Dutch colonial history is deeply interwoven into the majority of the paintings, it is strikingly absent from the descriptions of the art pieces. The painting that stood out to us most, however, was not made by Rembrandt, but was the one hanging on its right. Another huge canvas portraying white men that all paid great amounts of money to be represented on it. The more detail they were painted in the more they paid, Jennifer told us. On the frontline of the group of white men in elaborate dress and accompanied by weapons, however, there is another painted figure that stands out due to the depiction’s lack of attention to detail. One Black child, clad in red fabric and looking to their right is at the center of Bartholomeus van der Helst’s painting (ca. 1640 – ca. 1643).
Whereas those white men on the frontline are all bedazzled with buttons, with frilly lace detail in their fancy, puffy clothing, the child is painted seemingly one-dimensional. They seem painted in a hurry because of the lack of depth that has been brought to their presence. With minimal shading and highlighting, with the red fabric carelessly painted, the weapon of one of the white men behind the child can be seen shining through the bright red. Jennifer rose many questions. Why was the child there in the first place? Why were they painted so carelessly? Was the red fabric painted on later? Was the child in its entirety added in later? And if so, why?
Many speculate that there is much more to be known about this famous painting, more specifically about this Black child in the painting. There is more than enough reason for the Rijksmuseum to pull the painting back into the archive and get it examined, get it scanned, and get the results analyzed. Jennifer, amongst others, has been arguing for them to do so for a long time now, however, not much response has come from the institution. No matter how aggravating this is for many people, the power is with the Rijksmuseum in the end. Jennifer told us that no matter how pressing matters may be, no matter how good your arguments are, in the end no one can tell such institutions as the Rijksmuseum what to do, when to do it or how to do it. They are the ones in power and what they respond to mostly, is their visitors.
Generally, Blackness isn’t present in the Rijksmuseum. Where there are artworks depicting Black individuals, barely any attention is paid on them – both in regards to the research put into them and the information provided on them. The one Black artist whose work is on show in the museum is the art of Gerrit Schouten. Jennifer provided us with interesting backstory to Schouten’s diorama’s in the Rijksmuseum, about the dress and the symbolsm that was depicted. However, none of this information was provided by the museum itself. Since 2015 the Rijksmuseum and its partners have been attempting to ‘decolonize’ the informational texts that they provided with the artworks. Many expected that they would pay critical attention to the effects that colonization has had on the development of the museum and their data-collection and that they would find ways to expose this or improve this. Instead, they just looked for racist terminology and altered it, often it was simply removing it as a whole instead of providing alternative information or descriptions. Hence, it seems more like they wish to pretend that it never existed.
Now, what can we do about this? If the power is in the hands of the institution, all we can do is comment on it. Giving Rijksmuseum relentless and inexhaustible critical feedback and commentary on their expositions and the discourse they enforce will do more than being silent about it. Jennifer urged us all to speak up, and now we’re asking you to do the same. Eventually the Rijksmuseum is dependent on its visitors, and pressuring them to improve their collection and their descriptions will turn out to be productive. PISSWIFE definitely recommends the Black Heritage Tour, to school yourself on Black representations that are present in all of historical Amsterdam, and what they actually mean. Consequently, we urge you, just like Jennifer did with us, to speak up about the invisibilizing acts of the Rijksmuseum. Do what is necessary in order for any of this to finally change.
To check out the guide to Amsterdam that Jennifer Tosh made together with Dienke Hondius, Nancy Jouwe, Dineke Stam and Annemarie de Wildt, which features over 100 locations in Amsterdam and explores them in terms of Black presence, resistance and abolition of slavery, colonial trade and products, and museums and archives – click here. (the book is being reprinted as you read this)
Text: Helen Weeres & Tessel ten Zweege
Image: Misha Ragas