The Dutch language, Dutch youth culture and the Dutch visual arts are currently subject to great influence from the Caribbean and black culture from the United States. Nationalities and identities – black and white, North and South American, African and European – all are mixed up in everyday life and in the art world. Black culture has become part of European culture. European culture is creolising. Black people are no longer merely interesting and unusual models, attractive to paint on account of their colour.
There were a number of examples of creolisation at the Black is beautiful, Rubens to Dumas exhibition in 2008.
One of the categories chosen comprises black artists who have appropriated white icons: a simple adjustment has given Queen Beatrix an Afro hairdo, a (European) gnome is transformed into Bakru, a forest spirit of Surinam.
Artists such as Iris Kensmil function as contemporary history painters, adding black history to the repertoire of Dutch visual culture in an unmistakably Afro-Caribbean palette in which yellow, green, red and black predominate.
Iris Kensmil (1970)
Various titles: Anton de Kom,
Marcus Garvey, etc.
White Dutch artists absorb the new identities they encounter through the media, the world of entertainment and street culture, producing hard, magnified realities in which is role is played by displays of power in the ‘newcomers’ exciting world and sometimes envy of that world. Erik van Lieshout would love to be part of the black scene and provokes to obtain a reaction.
Charlotte Schleiffert magnifies the might of hip-hop with new mythical and erotically charged figures, derived from sources such as videoclips.
Berend Strik embellishes his erotic fantasies of black women with embroidery, turning smooth, hard photos into soft, touchable objects. Elise Tak dreams up black actors, her indisputable protagonists, to star in her paintings of imaginary films.
Relations between blacks and whites play a major role in the works produced by the ‘skin painters’ Marlene Dumas and Ina van Zyl. Dumas gets under the skin of the mother, the super model, the baby, the teenager and the lust object, feeling her way as it were over its delicate surface, intensifying their vulnerability, their touchability, their individuality and their power to elicit a feeling of identification with them. Black people and their beauty are main themes in Dumas’ work. While her models are often lovely, they are also sad and sensitive.
Ina van Zyl focuses on details of the body. As she paints her subjects grow darker: white hands and white breasts turn brown; a brown princess’ toes are found to be a white woman’s feet. All people become brown in her paintings, Van Zyl declares, explaining that everyone turns brown in the African sun. Another theme in Van Zyl’s work is South African’s extreme history, especially the impossibility of black and white reconciling. White makes overtures but these will fail.
In short, nothing is what it seems any more. We are constantly wrong-footed.
Esther Schreuder 2008 in: Black is beautiful, Rubens to Dumas
Research has been made possible thanks to a contribution of de Mondriaan foundation, AFK and VSB fonds.
In 2008 I was guest curator of the exhibition Black is beautiful. Rubens to Dumas. Important advisors: Elizabeth McGrath (Rubens and colleagues, Warburg institute Image of the Black in Western Art collection), Carl Haarnack (slavery in books), Elmer Kolfin (slavery in prints and paintings) en Adi Martis (contemporary art). Gary Schwartz made his research for The Image of the Black in Western Art available to me.
In 2014 my essay ‘Painted Blacks and Radical Imagery in the Netherlands (1900-1940)’ was published in The Image of the Black in Western Art Volume V (I). (ed. David Bindman, Henry Louis Gates jr.)
In 2017 I published a book about the black servants at the Court of the Royal Van Oranje family. More than a thousand documents have been found about their lives. (only in Dutch)
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