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Nieuwe Uitleg, photo: the author

“Unless one learns about the colonial history of these buildings, they won’t tell you anything.” For our new series on artist-walks, Nele Brökelmann listens to the voice of artist Michelle Piergolam and archaeologist Nick Shepherd as she walks through The Hague. The podcast Colonialism in the City shows her the city she already knows by heart in a new light.

Departing from The Hague’s Central Station, I am walking by the Royal Academy of Arts where artist Michelle Piergoelam has studied photography. It kick-starts her conversation with archaeologist Nick Shepherd – together, they discuss traces of colonialism in the city of The Hague. They continue to tackle first the traditionally European centred teaching of art history. Shepherd takes Cubism as an example, which Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque and others developed in the early 20th century. It was deeply influenced by Picasso’s and his fellow artists’ studying of African masks and other non-western traditions. Following Shepherd, students at the Royal Academy of Arts are more and more pressing for the telling of (art) history that moves away from the idea of a genius’ innovation toward relating it in complex ways to the multiple traditions it originated from. Shepherd does not mention examples, but I am guessing that he is referring to groups such as the KABK Student Union.

Colonialism in the City is part of a series of Walking Seminars organized by Stroom Den Haag. Four differently themed podcasts guide the listener on walks through The Hague. In each of them radiomaker Marten Minkema accompanies two different guests along their walk and through their conversation. The one I’m listening to features Piergoelam, whose whole family immigrated from Surinam to the Netherlands before she was born in Rotterdam, where she still lives. Being a photographer, she creates visual stories, drawing from cultural traditions and myths, memories of her family and stories that the enslaved have created. Nick Shepherd, originally from South Africa, is currently based in Aarhus (Denmark), where he is an Associate Professor of Archaeology and Heritage Studies at the university. In 2014, together with Christian Ernsten, Shepherd instigated walking as a research method to engage with landscapes and histories, and to rethink the notions of time, materiality and memory called The Walking Seminar.

[blockquote]Shepherd instigated walking as a research method to engage with landscapes and histories, and to rethink the notions of time, materiality and memory

The Hague Central Station, photo: the author

Piergoelam and Shepherd guide me to the Malieveld. On arrival, I am suggested to walk around this empty grass field for a while. I have been here for assemblies and demonstrations, besides more ordinary recreational activities as picnicking and playing football. To Piergoelam, the day-to-day emptiness and silence of the 139m2 grass field is powerful, because of the potentiality of people coming together. “During the anti-apartheid marches in South Africa from the mid 1980’s to the mid 1990’s”, Shepherd elaborates, “forming a body together in space was giving the people power. Having a dedicated space for performing one’s citizenship is of great importance and that is probably why The Hands Off Prestwich Street Committee proposed a green open space as an enslavement memorial in Cape Town.” Piergoelam agrees that it is most important for people to have a dedicated place where people can come together, connect and most importantly start conversations, which can happen around a dedicated monument or in an open space such as the Malieveld. I find it an intriguing thought, because I had never thought of the Malieveld as a place giving power to the people, having grown up with demonstrations moving through the city instead of staying in one dedicated and framed ‘safe’ space.

To Piergoelam, the day-to-day emptiness and silence of the 139m2 grass field is powerful, because of the potentiality of people coming together

Malieveld, photo: the author

From here, the walk guides me to the Nieuwe Uitleg, a street with monumental buildings along a picturesque canal. “Unless one learns about the colonial history of these buildings”, Piergoelam states, “they won’t tell you anything.” Following Shepherd, colonial buildings in Northern Europe are usually read as representatives of a Golden Age of Dutch power. “As aesthetisized objects,” he explains, “they do not tell anything about the history that produced them.” It is in this context, Shepherd concludes, that the oppressors have the privilege to forget, while black poverty is a remnant of the apartheid and condemns the oppressed to remember. Piergoelam adds: “The enslaved were forced to leave everything behind, the only thing that could not be taken from them was their imagination.” Thus, the enslaved invented coded storylines that tell us so much more about their conditions and their context than these lifeless colonial buildings ever could. I have been living in The Hague for five years now, and, since I encounter these kinds of buildings on a daily basis, I have stopped paying attention to them and did not question their heavily loaded history.

On the avenue of the Lange Voorhout, a pompous wide street with old colonial buildings on both sides, Shepherd is struck by the amount of art and cultural institutions situated here. This area is part of the museum-quarter of The Hague and is housing long-established institutions as the Mauritshuis, Pulchri and the Royal Theatre. The avenue is surrounded by buildings that hold all kinds of stories, also of resistance, Piergoelam gives two examples: “In one of these buildings, meetings have been held to abolish slavery and in another one close by the Surinamese writer Anton de Kom has done research for his book We Slaves of Suriname” (Wij slaven van Suriname, 1934).

Lange Voorhout, photo: the author

The history of some of the buildings is stated on plaquettes next to their entrance doors. I say ‘history’, though Shepherd describes the plaquettes as ‘the opposite of history’, arguing that their ‘objective’ appearance lacks insights into the lived realities of the colonized and enslaved. Though I do recognize some efforts at historical contextualisation that come along with the listing of names and years of the changing owners or inhabitants, I do understand that the narratives shared here are far removed from the Anansi stories Piergolam introduces. These ‘spider tales’ are traditional oral stories from West African, African American and Caribbean folklore about the trickster Anansi. In one of them, Anansi bet with the Tiger that he could ride him and get captured in the stables. The Spider waits for the Tiger the morning after betting, all dressed up in a governor’s uniform. Just before Tiger arrives Anansi throws himself on the ground pretending to have a stomach ache. Stating that he has bluffed Tiger with his plans and now was purely asking for his compassion, Tiger lets Spider mount him. Once on top, he gives Tiger the spurs like a horse and upon arrival in the village Spider gets the servant of the village-chief to lock Tiger up in the stable. The telling of these kinds of stories, Shepherd describes, inspired strategies of resistance and survival among the enslaved, and kept them in touch with their self-worth.

Before arriving at the last stop the Mauritshuis, a representative building of wealth accumulated from Dutch colonial history, the walk guides me through a shopping street of The Hague. Just like the Lange Voorhout, it is bordered by old buildings. I cannot detect from which year they might originate, but looking at them and the products they exhibit I feel that I perceive them differently with a greater awareness of the history they might hold. My experience of the Binnenhof, that I am passing through afterwards, is similar, but less apparent since here history is already emphasized.

The history of some of the buildings is stated on plaquettes next to their entrance doors. I say ‘history’, though Shepherd describes the plaquettes as ‘the opposite of history’

Plaquette Lange Voorhout, photo: the author

Johan Maurits (1604-1679), who commissioned and inhabited the Mauritshuis as a city palace, was the Governor-General of Dutch-Brazil, a colony in the northeastern coastal area of Brazil that the Dutch West India Company captured from the Portuguese in 1630.[1] The building is also called ‘sugar palace’, because of the colony’s sugar cane plantations and mills set up by the Portuguese and their usage of enslaved people. Since about 200 years the Mauritshuis exhibits mainly Dutch and Flemish paintings of the time of Rembrandt and Vermeer. Piergoelam emphasizes that recently the Mauritshuis is making an effort to include its entangled history with slavery into the collection. After visiting the Mauritshuis to explore how exactly they do this, I saw that there were indeed a few paintings on show that picture a scenery of life in the Brazilian colonies painted by white Western artist Frans Post who Maurits took with him to the colonies. These paintings, the museum itself however also acknowledges, are still idealised, Western depictions of plantation life. The only painting of African people outside of this dedicated room and not depicted as slaves is by Rembrandt called Two African Men from 1661. Apart from this, the Mauritshuis’ website states that there is a research team investigating Dutch Brazil and Maurits, I hope that this will lead to actually exhibiting the different and non-white lived realities throughout the whole collection. Acknowledging the past in all its facets is a first step. To transfer back a part of the wealth that has been extracted by the colonizers from the colonized in the form of reparations is another way, which, following Shepherd, “should be done because historically it is the correct thing to do”.

“This is the moment to structurally rethink curriculums, job descriptions, meanings, etc., because the young generation understands that we cannot return to business as usual, which is dramatically emphasized by the climate crisis and the public health crisis caused by Covid-19.”, Shepherd states. He identifies a fundamental shift in our understanding of what matters in the last ten years, as the backing of movements as Black Lives Matter show and the growing condemnation of police brutality and structural racism. Piergoelam adds that she thinks that her generation wants to make something of this world, but understands that first they need to figure out what they want individually and collectively.

This walking seminar is a start to investigate other ways of engaging with and learning from history

This walking seminar is a start to investigate other ways of engaging with and learning from history. The walk gives manifolds of leads for further research, but we need to make an effort to remain open and allow others’ stories to exist and affect us. The conversation could have created a deeper sense of how entangled we all really are by giving more specific examples related to the sites and proposing strategies to bring the complex history more to the foreground. Shepherd brought up the suggestion to look toward art for strategies, but art, just as this walk, can only create a spark of awareness. The real work has to be done by each one of us, our societies and governments, by including the different lived realities and survival strategies into our history books and museum collections. Only then, these can start to shape the stories we  tell one another. To really understand our own history, we have to attentively acquaint ourselves with our historical and contemporary role in and entanglement with all the other histories, and the scope of influence that colonialism and slavery has on our current thinking and social structures. Efforts to acknowledge this are often met with anger stemming from fear of losing one’s traditions, as we have seen in the sometimes violent counter-reactions to Kick Out Zwarte Piet demonstrations in The Hague and elsewhere in the Netherlands. Shepherd, on his end, has high hopes for the young generation stating that we are experiencing a revolution right now that will keep us from returning to business as usual – I do hope he is right.


Walking Seminar is a project at Stroom Den Haag. The podcastst are free on their website HERE

Nele Brökelmann

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