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.