Blood Blocks History
I think I would, if I could
Lift up the streets of the Netherlands and America
Lift the streets like sheets
Like sheets in need of airing
All that misanthropic paperwork inked by the blood of those enslaved
Those streets replete prosper in complete denial of
profits royal confabulation
And underneath those streets
be there sand or stone
more than a whiff
reeks putrid of lives taken
We walk on their forced labor pained in government misrule
and popular comfort comments
Streets covered in smashed mint chocolates pale this stench
That seeps into breath sometimes
And underneath those streets
Be there water bed stained
maimed, ill, uncared for, starved, raped to death
Fed to a watery death
And underneath those streets
Their graven voices will you hear
A chorus call loud and clear;
"Do not let them deny what they do
Do let them forge who is who…"
The Artists Strike Back
In the 21st century, this “New Millennium”, contemporary artists, in the Netherlands (and Europe) are addressing Dutch (and European) racism, within their creative work. They face and “deface” racism in the Netherlands.
More people are becoming aware that contemporary Netherlands suffers from racism. In this New Millennium Mitch Henriquez, an Arubian tourist, visiting his family in Den Haag, was arrested, beaten and choked to death by the Dutch police. Mr. Henriquez had committed no crime. The mayor of the city, “temporarily” banned public gatherings after protests against the murder were held there.1
In response to racism in the Netherlands, there has been an increase in organizations and individuals working to end racism there. Moreover, in 2014, investigators of racial discrimination from the U.N. Human Rights Council’s Working Group: On People of African Descent,2 came to the Netherlands. The UN Human Rights Council chooses only one country per year. The choice of the Netherlands (in 2014) signifies that the racism occurring there is an issue of global concern.
Racism in the Netherlands, includes the Dutch public promotion of racism, and “ritualized degradation” of Black people, via their “Zwarte Piet” (Black Pete) portrayals. The performance of Zwarte Piet involves hundreds of white Dutch people in blackface and afro-wigs, with enlarged red lips and golden hoop earrings, behaving in a buffoonish fashion, every November to early-December. They parade through the streets, on television and in advertisements – throughout the entire country - as part of the Dutch end of year holiday celebrations. Zwarte Piet is the “companion” of white Sinterklaas; he speaks broken Dutch and does all the labour for Sinterklaas, such as carrying the gifts, giving candy to the children and carrying Sinterklaas’ belongings. Zwarte Piet and Sinterklaas “return to Spain” (where they live supposedly) with much expense and Dutch television news and other local media coverage.
Like many racist figures (think: early Mickey Mouse & Walt Disney, or the golliwog in the UK and Australia), Zwarte Piet is a character that is learned in childhood in the Netherlands. Thus, many white Dutch, and even some Dutch people of color support this racist figure because of their childhood association with him. Zwarte Pete, sadly, is not the only Dutch racist figure (for example, see also the Dutch “Gaper”), but the most prominent. The current Prime Minister, Mark Rutte has stated: “Black Pete is black and I cannot change that. Sinterklaas is an old children’s tradition; it’s not Green Pete or Brown Pete and I cannot change that.”3 Rutte’s statement echoes not only the racism involved, but also the ridiculousness of Dutch politicians, and others, defending the character.
For all the artists addressing Dutch racism, whose work is amplified in this piece, the public streets of Amsterdam have also been a “site” of their actions and performances. Each of these artists has created performances and/or participated in public events, addressing the racism they have experienced in the Netherlands, or racism received from white Dutch persons. They face the racism there and deface attempts at “white innocence”4 in the Netherlands, and with that, deface some of the colonial history of the Netherlands.
Each of these artists are also connected by the history of their birth countries. Sadly, each of these countries was formerly colonized by the Dutch, who profited from the enslavement of their forbearers.
Ntando Cele born in Durban, KwaZulu Natal, South Africa, has been educated as an actress, practices as a poetry improviser, in addition to as a performance artist incorporating music, text and video. Cele’s works are alluring and repelling, humorous and aberrant, deep and subtle, embodying the twists and contorted realities of “everyday racism”. She relates racism’s impact in the daily lives of persons of colour, historically and contemporarily. While studying at DasArts in Amsterdam, Cele created numerous performance and video works. She was also threatened with arrest for one of her public performances in Amsterdam. It came at the end of a performance in which she addresses racism and specifically that which is directed against immigrants in the Netherlands and the rest of Europe. As part of this performance entitled ‘Xenophobia’, Cele walked barefoot through popular areas of Amsterdam, with luggage balanced on her head (fig. 1-3).
Cele says she creates work as an “interaction/reaction/exclusion” to what happens around her. I find her varying mutations of her body are the tangible enactments, capturing “felt” effects of racism. At times these ‘mutations’ are mask-like. She employs varied forms of masking, also using make-up and/or costumes. She portrays fictional persons such as her white-face character Bianca (fig. 4). In her works the personal is public and the audience is witness and participant. Her wry, nervy, funny and disturbing performances are visceral and get under your skin. Some of Cele’s performance works can be viewed via her blog and Vimeo portal (click here and here).
Quinsy Gario, of Antillean Dutch descent, is a visual artist, activist, poet, performer, playwright, and radio/TV presenter (e.g. his programme “Roet In het Eten” / ”Ashes in the Food”). In response to a public, collaborative project, he initiated in 2011 called “Zwarte Piet Is Racisme” / “Black Pete Is Racism” (fig. 6), Gario has been physically attacked and brutalized by the Dutch police. He has been vilified by Dutch racists in the Dutch mainstream/popular Dutch media and received death threats. The campaign “Zwarte Piet Is Racisme” / “Black Pete Is Racism” engages the public, and creates public presence and awareness of efforts towards ending the use of this racist character and efforts to confront Dutch racism.5
Zwarte Piet Is Racisme has included handmade stencils used with spray paint (a nod to graffiti works, fig. 7) to emblazon these words on T-shirts, sold to the public (all funds going to support the campaign), creating forums for public discussions, and a means for individuals to join these anti-Zwarte Piet and anti-racism efforts. This statement has become a slogan against racism in contemporary Netherlands, encouraged individuals and the formation of other anti-racism groups and organizations throughout the country (fig. 8). Gario has also stood, with others, before local and national Dutch courts, arguing for an end to government funding of school and public events featuring Zwarte Piet. All of these efforts have led to some eventual changes.6 You can view more of his art works via his website (click here).
Artist, poet, performer and singer G. Holwerda-Williams, born in Brooklyn, NY in the US engages in sculpture, performance, collaborations with artists, drawing and graphic works. She was brutally attacked by police in New York City for being a Black woman, which led her to the Netherlands. In 2010, in Amsterdam, she began her project “A Sint You Want: 21st Century Sint & Piet”, a multidisciplined project which “flips-da-script” on current Dutch characterizations of Sinterklaas, and his “helpers”, the racist character Zwarte Piet / Black Pete.
G. Holwerda-Williams performs in self-made costumes, portraying either a Black man, or Black woman “Sint”, who sings humor tinged anti-Zwarte Piet and anti-racism songs (fig. 9). Performing with her are “21st Century Piet(s)”; i.e. one or more dancers, performers, artists, or children. She presents alternative characters, costumes and personas to the public, to advance alternatives to these current racist (and sexist) characterizations. A Sint You Want includes public performances, art workshops, posters and a free 21st Century Sint & Piet colouring book, with drawings contributed by international artists with Dutch and English text (fig. 10 and 11). Her project embraces certain traditional aspects of the Dutch celebrations including the practice of colouring book drawings offered in stores and public areas for free during the holiday (fig. 12). Also, the 21 Century Piet(s) assist the Sint by giving cookies and/or candy to the public/audience during performances. Her characterizations are intersectional and oppositional to predominant white male portrayals of Sinterklaas and similar figures. She hopes to bring A Sint You Want anywhere in the world it is needed.
Finally, one should mention the work of Patrick Mathurin, a visual artist and performer portraying Black Sinterklaas as part of his “De Nieuwe Sint"/The New Sint” (fig. 12). Mathurin also organizes public events for children and their parents/guardians as an alternative to these racist holiday parades.
The city of Amsterdam in 2019 included a few Piets portrayed by white people without blackface. But, even these Piets wore black gloves and leg coverings which are meant to be seen as black skin. These parades and other similar displays throughout the Netherlands still remain a disturbing public (and government funded) celebration of blackface.
All of these artists are creating performances and other art works that are making connections to the colonial history of the Netherlands and contemporary racism, by locating and expressing the multi-layered realities of racism, making tangible the weight of racism, its oppression, its popular misrepresentations and falsehoods. Also, these artists work towards producing material, which is positioned in opposition to the perpetuation of a culture of racial discrimination and inequality. Thus, their work illuminates and contributes to the efforts to end the racist blackface Zwarte Piet character in the Netherlands, and moreover, towards confronting and ending racism across Europe as a whole.
as still as a mouse
it creeped out
of its hole
as there is no
and blue and purple
of calm waters
by Quinsy Gario
Preview Image Credit: @Boluca
Gloria Holwerda-Williams is an artist, activist and educator originally from New York and now based in Amsterdam. She is known for her pioneering A Sint You Want campaign, as well as for the anti-racism efforts of her collective the InterNational Anti-Racism Group, of which she is the founding member.