Zwarte Piet

In het verleden is geregeld beweerd dat het Zwarte Piet-probleem geen echt probleem is: alleen de grachtengordel zou zich er druk over maken. En die is immers geen ‘slachtoffer’ van racisme. Maar die vlieger gaat niet langer op. Helaas publiceerde de Volkskrant onlangs nog een artikel van die strekking (hoewel een deel van de informatie in het artikel zelf zijn titel tegensprak: ‘Slaaf? Hij wordt niet geslagen’, 24 oktober). Maar zaterdag werd toch heel duidelijk dat het probleem niet alleen door ‘witte’ mensen wordt ervaren (Anja Meulenbelt publiceerde een mooie fotoserie). En eigenlijk had dit al veel eerder duidelijk moeten zijn, want diezelfde Volkskrant en uiteraard ook intellectuelen zoals Gloria Wekker waren hier tientallen jaren geleden al mee bezig.

En Amsterdam, waar de kritiek zich inderdaad deels concentreert, is nu eenmaal een migrantenstad.

Blijft over de ‘beschuldiging’ dat het probleem het meest en het eerst door hoger opgeleiden werd en wordt benoemd. Maar is dat dan iets waarvoor ze zich zouden moeten schamen? Dat is immers hun functie?

Dit is het vervolg op een eerder stukje over Zwarte Piet.

You may find an English version here.


Black Pete

In the past, the argument has been made that the Black Pete issue is not really an issue since only ‘white lefties in Amsterdam’ can get upset over it. The widely read newspaper de Volkskrant recently published an article with that logic, interviewing people living in the Bijlmer suburb (‘Slaaf? Hij wordt niet geslagen’, 24 October). That it is an issue became abundantly clear during last Saturday’s demonstration (photos). Indeed, to suggest that those people who in this argument are called ‘black’, do not care, is an affront to those who have been questioning the Black-Pete phenomenon for a long time.

For a Dutch version see here. This column follows an earlier one on Zwarte Piet.


Shoes like those would hurt my feet

When you think of archaeology, perhaps you think of digging in the ground for things that were made before people wrote anything down.

And the word ‘history’ might call up the image of handwritten papers hidden in archives.

Yet so much that is important about our past, falls in the crevices between these domains.

Luckily, good scholars from all disciplines have long realised this. They have braved the forces that keep them within their disciplinary boundaries (the way university departments, library shelves and academic degrees are organised for example. But foremostly their own exponential lack of time as the mass of writing about the past bulks up). So, they have studied the things in between – not just since the latest MacArthur award, as that jury report suggested, but for many years.

Classicists study what is written on objects, thus bridging the gap between things and words.

Medievalists, although often to be found within history departments, routinely use textless objects and images in their work.

Material culture scholars of North America have since long been interested in the homemade goods that European settlers were living by.

The archaeology of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century industrial sites is blooming, for example in Sheffield.

Anthropologists do not just exchange stories with the people(s) they work with, but objects, too.

And I could go on, mentioning sociology, geography, science and technology studies…

The truth is, the most interesting things are often not be found within disciplines, but in between. From all sides, we have to make an effort to figure out what is important. And we need all the tools we can lay our hands on to understand how things work, no matter whether we call ourselves historians (as I happen to do) or something else.

The challenge therefore is not to start to study objects, as the MacArthur Foundation claimed. It is in how we use objects as sources, as data, as bits of information.

To begin with a rather well-known use of things as sources: the BBC and Discovery Channel regularly broadcast spectacular shows about dives for Ancient Greek ships. Such investigations show with what other cultures, Mediterranean settlements traded their wares. So, objects can demonstrate links and networks of communication.

But things get really exciting (in my opinion) when they bring us straight back to how individual persons of the past lived their lives.


Marie Antoinette, painted by Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, Wikimedia Commons

The way objects were designed, for example, open up a view to all sorts of past practices. How else could the most famous Queen of France enter through a door but sideways, for example? Folding-up hoops might have been practical, but they would have taken away from the very decorum her dresses were meant to heighten. Perhaps the answer is that she avoided buildings with narrow corridors and doorways altogether?

Another example of arguing back from design to practice: did her contemporaries ‘switch off’ the heating in spring sooner than modern Europeans? After all, their many layers of clothing provided excellent insulation. Indeed, it seems they did, although there was quite a bit of regional variation in preference as well. (I must confess that I cheated here: I found this out using written sources. As I said before: you have to use anything you can lay your hands on.)

Secondly, the way things have worn out or broken down can reveal how often they were used and in what circumstances.

Many nineteenth-century and early-twentieth-century Europeans aspired to a fancy room in their homes. But did they ever use it? As you would expect, the actual living was of course done in the kitchen. You or your parents may remember sitting up in the drawing-room on Sundays, bored and afraid of breaking a china teacup. It’s the ugly and chipped crockery and furniture – the things that you don’t normally get to see in museums – that really tell the story of everyday life.


Passport belonging to Baron W.H.J. van Westreenen van Tiellandt, 1833: Museum Meermanno/Huis van het Boek, The Hague, 70/154-161, photo by APHG

Take a look at this passport, for instance. If it had been your own expired passport, you might throw it away. So we are lucky to have this proof of how intensively it was used by its owner, an early-nineteenth-century Dutch traveller. It was taken out of his pocket and handled by customs officers all over Europe in almost every city he travelled through.

It is when we want to know not just how people went about their everyday lives, but how they liked it, that things become tricky.

When we see a photo of a nineteenth-century ‘slum’, for example, many of us are trained to judge this environment as dirty and uncomfortable. But this judgement has been passed on to us by the busybody elites that tried to gain influence over the working areas of their towns.

What we want to know is, on the contrary, how the inhabitants themselves of those workers’ quarters experienced their lives. It is quite plausible that for a great part of their everyday activities they were perfectly at ease there. But without recourse to their writings (and they did not leave many on the topic of interior decoration or city planning), it remains hard to tell.

The problem here is that when we try to conclude anything from material sources, we tend to assume a high degree of similarity between people of the past and ourselves. And it has been European elites who have determined the greatest part of our views on the past. If we give in too much to the temptation to see, for example, two-hundred-year-old slums through present-day European eyes, that would destroy the very point of doing history!

How to deal with this problem?


Jacob Olie, photo of the Amsterdam alley Gebed zonder end, 1892, from the Amsterdam city image base (beeldbank.amsterdam.nl).

One non-textual strategy would be to again take a look at practices.

People modify their environment when they are dissatisfied with the way it looks. Have a close look at the photo above: you will find that the inhabitants of these rooms have added potted plants to their view. So because we in fact find workers decorate their homes, it is reasonable to conclude that they cared about their homes and had the power to adapt them to their own liking – at least somewhat.

Another strategy works only with those things that we believe have not changed too dramatically over the course of history. Our bodies might be one such thing, at least partially (the history of body-shaping practices like wearing corsets and binding feet should not be overlooked).

If it is not too frivolous to assume, then, that the nineteenth-century British left foot was different from its right foot, just as it is today, what to make of the fact that before the twentieth century, many left and right shoes were exact copies of each other (this seems to be an example)? Even (ladies’) walking boots did not distinguish between left and right.

If we, again, may assume that feet could ache in the same way then as they can now, we (whether ‘we’ are art historians, archaeologists, or whatever) may have learnt something about nineteenth-century walking experiences from looking at an old shoe.

Note: A shorter version of this column appears on the History Matters website of the University of Sheffield.


Imagine a sea without shore.

Nothing but water, in the whole wide world.

They say this was the way it was in the very beginning:

and the spirit of God moved over the waters

or, in Dutch

en de Geest Gods zweefde op de wateren.

Before the waters had been separated between the clouds above and the oceans below, and before they had been withdrawn from the land, they were everywhere.


‘Chaos’, by Wenceslaus Hollar (1607–1677), print scanned by the University of Toronto and published on Wikimedia Commons.

It is an image that captured the writers of the very first book of the Torah and the Bible – Genesis – two and a half thousand years ago.

This same image surfaces later on in the story, in chapters 6 and 7. In God’s voice

Behold I will bring the waters of a great flood upon the earth, to destroy all flesh, wherein is the breath of life, under heaven. […] I will rain upon the earth forty days and forty nights; and I will destroy every substance that I have made, from the face of the earth.

The point receives quite a bit of emphasis: Noah

was six hundred years old, when the waters of the flood overflowed the earth. […] And after the seven days were passed, the waters of the flood overflowed the earth […] In the six hundredth year of the life of Noe, in the second month, in the seventeenth day of the month, all the fountains of the great deep were broken up, and the flood gates of heaven were opened: And the rain fell upon the earth forty days and forty nights. And the flood was forty days upon the earth, and the waters increased, and lifted up the ark on high from the earth. For they overflowed exceedingly: and filled all on the face of the earth: and the ark was carried upon the waters. And the waters prevailed beyond measure upon the earth: and all the high mountains under the whole heaven were covered. The water was fifteen cubits higher than the mountains which it covered. […] And the waters prevailed upon the earth a hundred and fifty days.

If we ignore for a moment the comical effect of reading such repetitive language nowadays (also thanks to Monty Python), we are left with a desolate picture.


Gustave Doré, from a mid-19th-century edition of The Holy Bible (London, Paris and Melbourne: Cassell), taken from Wikipedia.

The endless sea is meant to destroy

all flesh […] that moved upon the earth, both of fowl, and of cattle, and of beasts, and of all creeping things that creep upon the earth: and all men. And all things wherein there is the breath of life on the earth, died.

The ur-sea forms the central image of many creation myths, in both its chaotic and destructive aspects. The devouring sea also plays a large part in the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore. Around 1900, he wrote several volumes of poems exploring how people ought to deal with the exasperating reality of never-ending comings and goings on earth; the ever-present risk of loosing life and loved ones. (These volumes are titled, amongst others, Manasi and Sonar Tari, The Golden Boat.)

Destruction dances on the vast ocean waves –

A fearful festival!

Beating its hundred wings, the storm wind raves

In furious squall.

Ocean and sky conjoin – fierce intercourse,

While blackness shuts out heaven’s sight.

Terror-struck by lightning, the breakers roar:

Inert nature’s laughter, sharp, angry, white.

Unseeing, unhearing, frenzied giants come –

Homeless, loveless forms:

Where do they rush to die, bursting all bonds?

This forms the beginning of ‘Sindhutaranga’/’Ocean Waves. On the wreck of two pilgrim-ships bound for Puri’. Further on in the poem,

The surge stretches its million arms and calls “Give, give, give!”

Have you ever been in a pool, thinking you could stand up on the pool floor but, reaching for it, found yourself step underwater because the pool was deeper than you thought? Or, swimming in the sea, experienced one of those cool currents moving past your legs as you swim away from the coast, intimating that you are entering a literally un-fathomable expanse of the world? (A fathom-line was what seafarers used to measure depth with.)

Pink Floyd’s lyrics on the album The Wall express that feeling:

If you should go skating

On the thin ice of modern life […]

Don’t be surprised when a crack in the ice

Appears under your feet

You slip out of your depth and out of your mind

With your fear flowing out behind you

As you claw the thin ice

But unlike this song, Tagore also employs that more benign side of the endless ocean. The poem ‘Ahalyar Prato’/’To Ahalya’ compares the rebirth of a petrified woman to

the first slow dawn

On the blue waters of oblivion’s sea.


Ocean, first mother, the earth is your child (‘Samudrer Prati’/To the Ocean’)

Tagore described his ‘boat of life’ sailing ‘across unending oceans’ (in ‘Biday’/A Farewell’). In a letter, the poet wrote:

how can it be explained to one who does not feel it within his heart, face to face with nature in a setting of solitude? When there was no land on earth, when the ocean was alone by itself, my restless heart of today was tossed inarticulately amidst that unpeopled mass of water: I seem to apprehend this when I look at the sea and hear its single-noted murmur.

As a destructive power, the seas often feature in our common images and experiences. In their reflections on personal or shared disasters, many have turned to the regenerative, fertilising capacities of the sea, as of rivers and vulcanoes. But perhaps the most beautiful image is that of the first dawn rising over a calm sea, where life has yet to begin. Some solitary creative being hovers over the water, pondering what they might create, imagining all the million possibilities… and perhaps postponing the start of a new world, just for a bit, enjoying the silence.


P.S. I have used an English translation (the ‘Douay-Rheims’) of the Latin Vulgate Bible (itself a translation, but still used in Latin everywhere in the world), as well as the standard Dutch authorised Reformed translation from 1635 (the Statenbijbel). Although perhaps not the best translations we have, they are beautiful as poetry. With my apologies to those who regret I am not treating the Bible as the Word of God. The translations of Tagore’s poems and letter, originally in Bengali, were taken from the Oxford India edition edited by Sukanta Chaudhuri, which we are very lucky to have.


Bronzen Pete

The debate surrounding ‘Black Pete’, Zwarte Piet, the popular character accompanying Saint Nicholas (Sinterklaas) in the Netherlands, leading up to their celebration in December, has never been fiercer.


By Aloxe (Own work) CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0), via Wikimedia Commons.

Dutch expats who try and organise a Saint Nicholas celebration abroad have had to deal with it for years. Within the Netherlands themselves, most people were only confronted with the fact fairly recently: to most people in the world, Black Pete conjures the image of the ‘coon’. This racist stereotype has been around from nineteenth-century minstrel shows and old postcards up to post-War Hollywood films (think of Jar Jar Binks).


Still from the cartoon “Scrub Me Mama With a Boogie Beat”, Universal/Walter Lantz Cartoon Studio, 1941, from the website Authentic history, which publishes many more historical images and among others discusses Jar Jar Binks.

Because both the ‘coon’ and Black Pete tend to be played by pink, that is to say European-looking actors, the debate about Black Pete partly focuses on skin colour.

Yesterday, I visited the Chatsworth House sculpture collection. Among the Greek gods and the Roman emperors, suddenly there were these two bronzen busts. The website of the Musée d’Orsay shows a photograph of one of them (or possibly a sibling cast. Unfortunately, I am not allowed to reproduce it here).

It is Saïd Abdallah, a Mayac from the Kingdom of Darfur (but was not Darfur a sultanate at the time? I am no specialist, but the museum website might not be completely accurate here).

Both sculptures were made by Charles Cordier and displayed at the universal exhibition of 1851.

Saïd Abdallah and his companion stick out among the other sculpted persons on display because they look African, for example because of their dreads and the way their noses are shaped. But they are not Black. They are bronzen. Because bronzen statues are always dark (or become so after a while), skin colour ceases to be a determining characteristic of the portrayed person any longer. Unlike paintings, sculptures force the artist and their audience to remove their ‘colour’ glasses.

You will find the same in (single-colour) drawings. By Dürer, for example:


This is Katherina, who lived in sixteenth-century Antwerp. (This image and many more in the fabulous Bibliotheca Surinamica).

So, differences in skin colour disappear. But there is something of even greater importance to the approach Dürer and Cordier take. As artists, they focus on the individual posing for them: on their personal outward and perhaps also inward characteristics. Their works are genuine portraits. (For the sake of completeness I need to add that Cordier saw his models also as representatives of their entire cultures, and participated in the broader cataloguing-nations movement that has held sway over Europe since the eighteenth century.

One question that can be asked, is therefore whether Black Pete is not too exchangeable to ever make a genuine portrait of him (or her?).

A last note, which deals with exactly this issue of whether Black Pete has to be a man, can also be a woman, or is perhaps ‘neuter’:

The former ‘slave’ Saïd Abdallah has a name. The person who one day posed for Cordier in a French studio, is still known to the museums that put his bust on display, to historians, and to his visitors.

The second bust I saw yesterday is called the ‘African Venus’. Neither in Chatsworth House nor in the Orsay, the notices or the guides know who was the person behind the statue.

I would like to tell them that, for one thing, she is no Venus at all. She is, or was, a woman, a human being. And she was not just ‘African’. Very likely, she identified with a specific place in the world and in society, just like Saïd Abdallah. The European tendency not to see Africans as individuals reaches a new level in cases like these, and it continues there until today: the – female – muse has no name; let alone the African muse.

P.S. I later discovered the Black Art Depot Today, which tells us that the second bust represents Seïd Enkess. Her name, unfortunately, remains unknown to both famous museums.


Bronzen Piet

De discussie over ‘Zwarte Piet’ is weer losgebarsten, dit keer heviger dan ooit.

Nederlanders die een Sinterklaasfeest proberen te organiseren in het buitenland lopen er al jaren tegenaan. De meeste Nederlanders binnen Nederland worden er pas sinds kort mee geconfronteerd: in de meeste culturen buiten Nederland roept Zwarte Piet tegenwoordig het beeld op van het ‘coon’-personage. Dit racistische typetje kan gevonden worden van minstrel shows en oude ansichtkaarten tot in na-oorlogse films.

Still uit de animatie “Scrub Me Mama With a Boogie Beat”, Universal/Walter Lantz cartoon studio, 1941, gepubliceerd op de website Authentic History, die nog veel meer beeldbronnen bevat.

Omdat zowel de ‘coon’ als Zwarte Piet vaak worden gespeeld door roze, d.w.z. Europees-uitziende mensen, concentreert de discussie over Zwarte Piet zich deels op huidskleur.

Gisteren bezocht ik een Engelse collectie van beeldhouwwerken. Tussen de Griekse goden en Romeinse keizers stonden daar ineens twee bronzen bustes. De website van het Musée d’Orsay biedt een foto van één ervan, die ik helaas niet mag reproduceren. (Dit is overigens waarschijnlijk een ander afgietsel dan dat wat ik heb gezien in Chatsworth House.)

De linker was Saïd Abdallah, een zogeheten Mayac uit het Koninkrijk Darfur (of was Darfu nu een sultanaat? Ik ben geen specialist, maar het lijkt erop dat de museumwebsite haar geschiedenis ook niet helemaal op een rijtje heeft). Beide beelden zijn gemaakt door de Franse kunstenaar Charles Cordier en tentoongesteld op de wereldtentoonstelling van 1851.

Saïd Abdallah en zijn metgezel vallen op tussen de andere verbeelde personen doordat ze er Afrikaans uitzien, door bijvoorbeeld hun brede neusvleugels en dreadlocks. Maar ze zijn niet Zwart. Ze zijn van brons. Doordat bronzen beelden altijd donker zijn (of dat na verloop van tijd worden), is huidskleur niet langer een bepalend kenmerk van de geportretteerde persoon. Anders dan schilderijen dwingen beeldhouwwerken de kunstenaar en de kijker hun huidskleurbril af te zetten. Dit zie je ook in tekeningen; van Dürer bijvoorbeeld.

Dit is Katherina, die in de zestiende eeuw in Antwerpen leefde. (Deze afbeelding en nog veel meer in de prachtige online Bibliotheca Surinamica.)

Verschillen in huidskleur verdwijnen dus. Maar er is iets nog veel belangrijkers dat Cordier en Dürer doen. Als kunstenaars richten zij zich op de persoon die voor hen poseert: op hun individuele uiterlijke en misschien ook wel innerlijke kenmerken. Hun werken zijn daadwerkelijke portretten. (Ik moet echter toevoegen dat Cordier de mensen die hij portretteerde ook als representanten zag voor de hele cultuur waar ze uit kwamen, en meewerkte aan de bredere ‘catalogus van volken’-beweging die in achttiende- en negentiende-eeuws Europa heerste).

De vraag is of Zwarte Piet niet te inwisselbaar is om ooit een portret van hem (of haar?) gemaakt te krijgen.

Nog een laatste noot, die juist te maken heeft met deze vraag of Zwarte Piet een man is, of een vrouw kan zijn, of geen van beide.

De voormalige ‘slaaf’ Saïd Abdallah heeft een naam. De persoon die ooit voor Cordier heeft geposeerd is nu nog bekend bij de musea die zijn buste tentoonstellen, bij historici, en bij de bezoekers die hem zien in zijn vereeuwigde vorm.

De buste naast hem wordt genoemd: ‘de Afrikaanse Venus’. Zowel in het museum dat ik bezocht als op de eerdere tentoonstelling in het Orsay geven de bordjes en de rondleidingen geen verdere informatie dan dat.

Maar zij is helemaal geen Venus: zij is een vrouw. En zij was niet zomaar ‘Afrikaans’ maar identificeerde zich waarschijnlijk net zo goed als Saïd Abdallah met een specifieke plaats in de wereld en in haar samenleving. De Europese neiging om Afrikanen niet als individuele personen te zien heeft zich hier uitvergroot, en dit houdt stand tot op de dag van vandaag: de – vrouwelijke – muze van de kunstenaar heeft geen naam; en de Afrikaanse muze al helemaal niet.

P.S. Later vond ik het Black Art Depot Today, dat vertelt dat het tweede portret Seïd Enkess voorstelt. Deze naam is helaas onbekend bij beide beroemde musea.