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Open letter to Witte de With

What does it mean for a white institution to do “critical work” under the moniker Witte de With, the name of a high-ranking colonial naval officer who worked for both the Dutch West India Company and the Dutch East India Company (VOC and WIC)? What does it mean to engage in “critical reflection on timely issues” (from Witte de With website) under that name—a name that conjures up a history of terror? What does it mean to validate, market, and circulate such a name?

We, a group of cultural professionals, artists and activists, draw attention to the disjunction between the stated criticality of Witte de With, a Center for Contemporary Art in Rotterdam, and its failure to acknowledge its entanglement with colonial violence. Witte de With has “failed” to come to terms with its own internal contradictions, and has yet to reckon with the historical figure it symbolically embodies. Even though our critique is directed at Witte de With, it extends well beyond this institution’s white walls. The issues we address are endemic within major “critical” cultural institutions in the Netherlands.

From 17 June till 20 August 2017, Witte de With will host Cinema Olanda: Platform, a project conceived by Dutch artist Wendelien van Oldenborgh with assistance of curator Lucy Cotter, director of Witte de With Defne Ayas, curator Natasha Hoare, and the Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis (ASCA). The platform is an extension of the exhibition in the Dutch pavilion at the 57th Venice Biennale. Cinema Olanda: Platform promises to engage “questions surrounding the Netherlands’ (inter)national image vis-à-vis current transformations in the Dutch cultural and political landscape.”

Although the project is avowedly committed to “shed light on underexposed aspects of the Netherlands’ recent post-colonial history,” it is striking that no one involved in its conception had considered the legacy that the name “Witte de With” bears. When questioned about its naming during a meeting convened to discuss Cinema Olanda: Platform, director of Witte de With Defne Ayas disclosed that the issue of the Centre’s name had not previously come up in its 25-plus-year existence.

The senior staff as a matter of course readily admitted that the institution’s naming is “unfortunate,” expressed their dismay, and a “willingness” to change the name. Yet, what should we make of this admission, “willingness” and outward display of dismay in the context of 25-plus-years of non-action and recent re-action? Why has not the Centre troubled its name? Let’s not be unclear about it: the fact that Witte de With has remained silent on the historical actions of its namesake has been a purposeful choice. What’s more, by brandishing the name “Witte de With” the Centre has been sanitising and tacitly promoting the violent dispossessions that marked Dutch colonialism.

When pushed to clarify why there hadn’t been a follow-up to the concerns raised in the meeting, Witte de With responded defensively and hammered on “mutual respect” and whether it was “performative” to ask these kind of questions. Rather than doing the work, Witte de With put the load on the invited Black and non-Black people of colour. It posed the question: “what would be some of your findings around this character that makes him more controversial than many of the WIC / VOC?” This question is not only irrelevant, it is deeply unethical. Whether Witte de With is a “minor character” in Dutch colonial history, or not, should not matter—and what does “more controversial” even mean in a context of enslavement, genocide, and dispossession? It is this line of questioning and the various consecutive responses of Witte de With that expose its failure to critically understand its own historicized whiteness.

We want to make clear that this is not, and should not be, only or simply about Witte de With adopting a new name. This contemporary art centre is located on Witte de With street in the Witte de With Quarter. The city of Rotterdam proudly describes the Witte de With Quarter on its website as , a “leisure cluster,” “the vibrant heart of the Rotterdam art scene” that is “known for its dynamic nightlife.” Witte de With street has been dubbed “Rotterdam’s ‘Axis of Art’.” The street houses several other esteemed art / cultural institutes such as TENT and Showroom Mama. Art, leisure, consumption, colonisation are right at the heart of the Rotterdam art scene. To trouble the name Witte de With is to trouble not only the white subject position, but the entire cultural and economic structure that supports and enables the white subject. The resolute rejection of the name should be the first of many steps toward abolishing the political and economic system that assigns value to “Witte de With.” Contemporary art institutions are no less entangled with the extractive colonial economy than any other institution built on the foundations of white supremacy.

The bodies and artistic productions of Black and non-Black people of colour are de rigueur on institutional menus, the sought after flavour in these times of lip-service “intersectionality.” White art institutions, whether they carry the name of a colonizer or not, are “excited” to engage with feminist, queer, Black, intersectional and decolonial perspectives as long as these critical interventions are framed as discourses and stripped of their radical potential and praxes. What does it, then, mean when a White institution “welcomes” and assimilates people of colour into its structures?

Kyla Wazana Tompkins tells us that “in ‘eating the other,’ the white self affirms liberal interiority through the metaphor of assimilation and digestion; blackness is the precondition . . . on which whiteness is made material, both as body and as political actor.” The consumption and incorporation of Blackness, then, only serves to satiate the belly of “critical” white liberals. White institutions fortify themselves through the consumption of Blackness. Black people pass through them, seemingly without transforming them—they extract what they need from us to sustain their “criticality.” Appropriation without credit. Tokenism and visibility without agency. Instrumentalization. Critique, pedagogy, advice, and emotional labour, as a rule, without pay. We enter and end up in their databases.

White institutions simply rehearse the all too familiar consumption of the emotional or intellectual labour or presence of Black and non-Black people of colour, now in the name of “diversity.” Therefore, we will not repeat the by-now-rote exhortations to implement diversity in recruitment and hiring practices. Along the way we have been reminded and assured time and again that Witte de With is dedicated to its equal opportunities policy with regards to employment. However, do we want to be part of a supposed critical institutional framework that is from its beginning founded on the accumulation and violation of Blackness? White institutions that seek to offer an “intellectually rigorous platform for bold experimentation” (from Witte de With’s website) to Black people—without working towards dismantling the foundations of antiblackness—can only “incorporate” Black people as accumulated and fungible objects. This very inclusion through accumulation and fungibility is at the core of antiblackness.

We sincerely doubt whether White institutions in their current organizational configurations are even appropriately equipped (if not capable) to unfold the structural and systemic changes we deem fundamental. Whether they actively seek to be authorized by a Black revolutionary agenda will be the proof of their meaningfulness and relevancy to the liberation of Black and other oppressed people. It is far from enough to “welcome” institutional critique. Apologies and perfunctory commitments to “diversity” can only go so far. Both are meaningless when not backed up with decisive radical action. So, what will Witte de With do to institutionalise the process of decolonization after Cinema Olanda: Platform is over, and the bodies of colour have left the building through the proverbial revolving door? How will it take responsibility for its (non-)actions?

Witte de With should not wrestle with these questions behind closed doors. It should be transparent and accountable towards audiences and participants for how it will be working toward undoing its institutional structures. It should go without saying that this project of undoing should not be spearheaded by the same people responsible for the sanitization of colonial violence. It is not for Witte de With to establish when nor under which terms its praxis and existence are questioned.

This is not the first time an overwhelmingly White cultural institution mitigates critique by Black and non-Black people of colour while simultaneously co-opting said critique in an effort to immunize itself against it. Nor will it be the last. We therefore take this statement as the beginning of a conversation among other Black and non-Black people of
colour about how to navigate the (neo)colonial cultural landscape in a moment when cultural institutions are becoming increasingly adept at using the critical language and concepts developed by Black and non-Black people of colour to fortify and maintain their own position of power.

To Witte de With we ask: How will this institution start to undo itself?

Egbert Alejandro Martina, Ramona Sno, Hodan Warsame, Patricia Schor, Amal Alhaag, Maria Guggenbichler

Co-signing in solidarity:
Gloria Wekker, Alok Vaid-Menon, Flavia Dzodan, Barby Asante, Pascale Obolo, Bibi Fadlalla, Fannie Sosa, Raju Rage, SORRYYOUFEELUNCOMFORTABLE collective (Imani Robinson, Jacob Vincent Joyce, Ewuraba Hama-Lansquiot, Ciaran Finlayson), Gia Abrassart, Jermain Ostiana, Pêdra Costa, Dr Ayesha Ghanchi-Goemans, Simone Zeefuik, Mezhgan Saleh, Jovita Dos Santos Pinto, Nadia Bekkers, Joy Mariama Smith, Rudy Loewe, Tracian Meikle, Sands Murray-Wassink, Ingrid Lee, Onyeka Igwe, Teresa Cisneros, Cecilia Lisa Eliceche, Mikki Stelder, Rae Parnell, Teresa Maria Díaz Nerio, Margaret Tali, Suza Husse, Wilfred Vlad Tomescu, Céline Barry, Imara Limon, Romy Rüegger, Marina Vishmidt, Anna Frei, Emma van Meyeren, Franziska Koch, Mirjam Linschooten, Emma Haugh, Karisa Senavitis, Kevin O’Neill, Tirsa With, Savannah Theis, Dr. Noa Ha, Sinthujan Varatharajah, Guinevere Ras, Sara Mattens, Toon Fibbe, Sander Philipse, Katherine McBride, Naomi Pieter, Alaa Abu Asad, Setareh Fatehi, Zineb Seghrouchni, René Boer, Alfie Martis, Nina Bower Crooke, Délice Mugabo, Jenny Wills, Robin McGinty, Zaira Simone, Jennifer Tosch, Miguel Peres dos Santos, Sara Pape, Patricia Kaersenhout, Sruti Bala, Tirza Balk, Noémi Vanessa Michel, Negarra Kudumu, Phil Tortoli, Kym Ward, Bruno Cornellier, Wigbertson Julian Isenia

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