Art in Times of Corona: the history of hidden black stories coming to life
Imagine yourself in the historical centre of Amsterdam, looking at the canal houses of the 17th Century. You probably think you know what you’re looking at, but when you watch closer there’s something you have never seen before. What you see is not the richness of the upper class made possible by the Dutch East India Company (VOC) and the sugar or coffee plantations, but the untold side of it all: the forgotten stories of the black heritage of that period of so called ‘glory’. Today, anyone can take a boat, walking or horse carriage tour around Amsterdam and have those stories explained and shown to them by Jennifer Tosch or her colleagues, an eye-opening experience and a must for all Amsterdammers and beyond.
New York born Jennifer Tosch is of Suriname descendent. When Tosch came to the Netherlands for a postcolonial history course at Black Europe Summer School on black history and the African diaspora, she subsequently decided to stay here to study Heritage and Memory studies. She then realised how limited the historical discourse on Dutch history was. “The focus was so much on the ‘Golden Age’ of Dutch history and the glory of it, it was such a different narrative. As a descendent of that history I kept asking: why are we not also talking about Suriname, the Antilles, South Africa or the colonisation? My opinion is that we can’t talk about becoming the richest country in the world in this period of history without also talking about war and slavery,” she explains.
This was her inspiration to start digging into the history of hidden stories. Tosch found out that there was an incredible amount of that hidden history actually very visible in Amsterdam, that no one was seeing. “Because it was above our eye level, like the memorial stones on the facades of the canal houses (gevelstenen), or just not recognised. I started taking small groups of people on boat tours, colleagues and classmates, and from there it just grew,” she says. That’s how The Black Heritage Tours began. A couple of years later she created, together with Katy Streek, Sites of Memory, that offers a theatrical production based on the narrative of the Black Heritage Tours.
Along the itinerary of the tour, various dance, theatre, poetry and music performances give life to that forgotten narrative. But then the corona pandemic came along, and they had to find an alternative for this year’s production The Future of the Past. While still able to take along small groups of no more than ten people through Amsterdam, they now hand every visitor a tablet which allows them to take a virtual, 360-degree tour with performers from Cape Town - unable to travel - interpreting the stories on screen. Although this means that the virtual component of the tour will be visitable from all over the world, the idea is still that the experience contains live performances. An interesting mixture of virtual and reality for sure. Tosch: “Although it’s very beautiful, I hope, it might also be confronting. We really try to challenge the use of language, how do we frame these colonial histories and transform the old language into the new, and from what perspectives? What do we tell, but also: what do we leave out? That matters.”
When I ask Tosch how she feels about the recent discussion on how to deal with the history of colonisation and slavery in society, for example by changing street names or taking down statues, she replies that this is a very important debate. “However, this is not a new one. It is something activists have been campaigning about for a very long time. But it didn’t receive as much global attention as it does now because of the Black Lives Matter movement, which has amplified the discussion. And it’s not just about slavery, it’s also about racism and what the implications are for us as a society. As for built heritage, like statues and gevelstenen for example, I think we should ‘recontextualise’ these monuments. I’m not in favour of removing them, because that is in some ways erasing or sanitising the history, which means we’d forget this heritage too easily.”
One way to avoid this would be to take monuments down from their pedestals and surround them with other monuments of resistance fighters, so it changes the narrative. And we should certainly not name new tunnels after Jan Pieterszoon Coen, Tosch adds. “As for the gevelstenen, we can add pins that identify them as historic sites of memory. By scanning them you can find out more about the site, that way you have a symbol on the building and information to contextualise it. And there’s many more ways. A colleague of mine came up with the idea to create a statue cemetery, where all the colonial statues stand. You can still go see them, but within a historical context.”
Sites of Memory presents a corona-proof interactive walk through Amsterdam from 2 until 11 October. A journey back in time to the connected colonial past between The Netherlands and South Africa. Artists from both countries translate their vision to this history in music, poetry, dance, visual art and theatre. Buy your tickets here.
DutchCulture's Shared Cultural Heritage Matching Fund supported this project.
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