PRINT November 2021

on site


Box attributed to Jean Saint made for the Dutch West India Company in Africa, 1749.

A PAIR OF FULL-LENGTH PORTRAITS by Rembrandt van Rijn hung side by side in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum. Painted in 1634 on the occasion of the wedding of Marten Soolmans and Oopjen Coppit, they depict the well-heeled newlyweds in their late twenties, attired in velvety black garments ornamented with lace collars and rosettes—the kind of austere finery typical of the ascendant mercantile class of the so-called Dutch Golden Age. The twin canvases were jointly acquired by the French and Dutch governments in 2016, becoming, behind Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi, ca. 1500, the second-most valuable old-master paintings ever to be sold at auction. In them, we glimpse a world of comfort and privilege paid for by the stolen labor of others. Marten’s father, the wall label informed visitors,was one of the largest sugar producers in Amsterdam. The raw sugar came from colonial Brazil, where enslaved people harvested and processed sugarcane.

Rembrandt’s pendant portraits were but two examples of the network of complicity between local elites and the plantation system in “Slavery,” on view at the Rijks-museum this past summer. The institution’s first exhibition to focus on the Dutch role in the slave trade during its globe-spanning 250-year empire, “Slavery” wore its title plainly, without poetic ornament. The show succeeded in speaking honestly between the cracks of a museum collection that, like most European historical holdings, is deeply entrenched in a machinery of power whose roots are to be found in slavery and colonialism. A frank acknowledgment of this patrimony was inscribed on a gilded, Rococo-style box displayed in a vitrine in the second gallery of the exhibition. Its lid is encrusted with raw gold, surrounded by intricate metalwork depicting Mercury, the Roman god of trade, and subjugated African figures; the bottom shows a partial map of West Africa and its major slaving hubs. Given by the Dutch West India Company to William IV of Orange in 1749, it originally contained the document in which the stadtholder was offered supreme command of that chartered enterprise, which competed with the Spanish and Portuguese empires for dominance in the transatlantic slave trade.

Rembrandt van Rijn, Portrait of Marten Soolmans, 1634, oil on canvas, 81 3⁄4 × 52".

A historical exhibition dealing with human trauma can hardly avoid two problems: first, that of the curatorial voice, the authority of which is justified by the discipline of art history and its allegedly disinterested view, insuperably distant from the subjects it represents; second, the haunting obsession with ethnographic methods, insufficient for the telling of a truly plural history of the world. “Slavery” maneuvered around these traps with some success. 

By this, I mean that it sabotaged the officialism of its own discourse by developing a unique dialogue among objects, visitors, and the subjects of slavery. It evaded the ingrained hierarchies and scientistic gaze of ethnography via a method that art exhibitions have used for some time now: by relying on the power of informed speculation and storytelling. The exhibition was structured around the narratives, often partial and indeterminate, of ten people whose lives were defined by slavery. Among them were Surapati, an enslaved Balinese man who died leading a rebellion against the Dutch East India Company; Dirk van Hogendorp, a liberal Dutch officer who wrote a play criticizing slavery but later became a slaveholder in Brazil; and Lohkay, a heroine of Saint Martin’s oral tradition who, after having her breast cut off as punishment for fleeing a plantation, escaped again, taking refuge in the surrounding hills.

Rembrandt van Rijn, Portrait of Oopjen Coppit, 1634, oil on canvas, 81 3⁄4 × 52".

When curatorial discourse aims at speculation, it breaks with its supposedly objective role. Doing so is a bold step toward a noncolonial gesture, from which we as curators can learn a lot. To work through the histories of enslaved people is to make room for imagination amid dire pain. Imagination is not the exclusive property of the future; it is also a matter of the past. Take, for example, a 1708 oil painting by Dirk Valkenburg that shows a congregation of Black women and men dancing, drinking, and kissing. This kind of fellowship is a rarity in representations of life under slavery. The figures are gathered in one of the sugar plantations owned by Amsterdam municipal clerk Jonas Witsen in Suriname, where enslaved people were allowed to celebrate once a year, often following the harvest. These occasions were moments of collective catharsis and, we may speculate, opportunities to plot rebellion. In fact, one such uprising broke out, and was viciously quelled, on Witsen’s Palmeneribo plantation in 1707, around the time Valkenburg painted this canvas. The conspirators were sentenced to be tortured, burned alive, and decapitated.

Dirk Valkenburg, Gathering of Enslaved People on One of Jonas Witsen’s Sugar Plantations, 1708, oil on canvas, 22 7⁄8 × 18 1⁄4".

The Dutch empire was as brutal as any other, but the Dutch East and West India Companies largely kept the slave trade away from the Netherlands. Slavery was, in the Dutch collective mind, a distant phenomenon. One of the consequences of this is a twenty-first-century Dutch society alienated from its own imperial legacy. It is not by chance that this prosaic denialism parallels the anodyne caricature of the world as imagined by liberal multiculturalism: a global village of ethnically diverse subjects abstracted from their historical entanglements. This erasure was confronted with audacity in “Slavery.” For instance, a display of an earthenware sugar funnel and collecting jars from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries connected the extraction of raw sugar in the territories to new labor conditions in the metropole. These vessels, the catalogue explains, “were made in specialized potteries that provided employment to large numbers of Amsterdammers.” In other words, local families—even those without direct contact with the colonies—were enmeshed in relations of exploitation and profit that benefited them and the generations to come.

As a nonwhite viewer of the show, I was aware of the fact that the labels and guides were not speaking to me. Rather, they seemed to address the descendants of these Protestant artisans and workers: white, middle-class Amsterdam residents, some of whom, after visiting the exhibition, might have strolled through the Museumplein toward De Pijp before stopping for a rosé and a risotto for dinner. I have nothing against rosé or risotto. But I do believe a genuine assessment of the confrontation with history staged by the Rijksmuseum must also consider the race and class composition of its audience and how these particularities inform structures of identification, feeling, and memory.

To work through the histories of enslaved people is to make room for imagination amid dire pain.

The exhibition at the Rijksmuseum used information as a bridge to empathy, a way to build certain affective connections. As the introduction of the catalogue reads:

Connection or recognition is an important aspect of any visit to a museum. An inhabitant of Wijk bij Duurstede will recognize a depiction of the town’s windmill; a mother will be affected by a painting of a sick child. That sense of recognition, of being able to relate to the objects on display—and therefore to history—is vital.

It is vital, I agree; but it is also insufficient. The living histories of slavery cannot be fathomed, quantified, or—as scholar and artist Denise Ferreira da Silva argues in Unpayable Debt (2021)—recompensed. They exceed the empathic powers of storytelling and the methods of knowledge production handed down to us from the so-called Enlightenment. These include the didactic museum display, however rebellious against its colonial inheritance it may be.

In one of the first exhibition rooms, I encountered a manuscript from 1686 sitting alone in a vitrine. It was a logbook of the slave ship Coninck Salomon written by the clerk Jan Wils. He recorded the number of people onboard who were ill or dead or who had jumped overboard in desperation. Of the 333 men, 167 women, five girls, and three boys who embarked, fifty-four did not survive the passage from present-day Ghana to Suriname. What do we see when we look at this fragmentary accounting of human misery and cruelty if not a loss that can never be measured, a trauma that can never be represented, a debt that can never be repaid?

Pablo José Ramírez is a curator, art writer, and cultural theorist. He is Adjunct Curator of First Nations and Indigenous Art at Tate Modern.