Julian Sinzogan, “Gates of Return II” (2009) (image courtesy the Tropenmuseum)

In the aftermath of last year’s malignant theatrics of public apologies from the Dutch government, municipalities, financial institutions, and recently the monarchy itself for the genocidal enslavement of Africans in the Caribbean, the quest for true healing remains in its initial stage. 

Dutch officials basically say: We are sorry for slavery, so here’s a little, insignificant awareness fund. Now everybody shut up because we are never, ever going to concede to your demands of holistic reparatory justice.

In a typical reckless manner, Dutch politicians made these racially inflammatory claims in all comfort, knowing that the royal family was about to travel to the Caribbean islands. That the potential backlash wasn’t registered as a geopolitical security and brand risk for the monarchy and the Dutch state proves to the world that they absolutely don’t know what they’re doing. 

After visiting Bonaire in January, King Willem-Alexander, Queen Máxima, and Princess Catharina-Amalia were shaken into discomfort by a brave protester during a lecture at the University of Aruba. Accompanied by a decolonization and reparations manifesto, the Master’s Law student showed the Caribbean how to rebelliously disrupt worshiping royalty by raising a flag and singing “Oh Freedom,” an ancestral Black freedom song.

The next stop for the royals was Curaçao, where they were invited by Museo Tula to attend a reenactment of a 1795 slave revolt led by Tula, who liberated himself and died fighting for the freedom of his people. 

It was saddening to see how a museum that stands for decolonizing the mind had fallen into the trap of thinking it was a good idea to perform artistic scenes in sacred spaces of Black liberation for King Willem-Alexander. Colonialism is a mighty opiate because the Lowlands’ monarch as a head of state aligned with his government in dehumanizing us by denying the Caribbean islands reparatory healing. 

Undisputedly, the Dutch political and royal position of continuing their harmful policies of anti-Black colonial racism is considered a declaration of war. 

This was a missed golden opportunity for the Tula Museum, an institution of Black emancipatory struggle, to be guided by its principles and show creative acts of insurgency against the nobility figurehead of Dutch White hyper-plunder in the Caribbean.

A strange trend has emerged in the Netherlands in the last couple of years by which Dutch institutions are believing their own hype that they are decolonizing their privileged spaces. Museums are not excluded from this false perception. It’s fashionable to say your museum is being “decolonized,” as seen in recent exhibitions on slavery, colonial relics (the Royal Golden Coach), and inheritance of colonial catastrophe at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam Museum, and Tropenmuseum

Nevertheless, the violence of enslaver logic still lives on within the walls of these institutions, and has not even begun to disappear. The evidence is right there when these museums feign being catalysts for public debates on the legacies of slavery and colonialism. But their exhibitions do exactly the opposite and silence the super obvious and visible ties to slavery and colonial apartheid that breathe life into present-day Dutch colonialism ruining our islands. 

Only the antagonistic would debate that capital in the islands is not monopolized by Black, Brown, and Indigenous people. Social decay, financial pillage, educational inequities, and lack of economic and political sovereignty are collective experiences in the Caribbean. The truth of the matter is that White people unfortunately still run this plantation.  

In 2021, the Netherlands declared it was not willing to give in to the demands of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination to fully finalize decolonization in accordance with international law and offer reparations to the people of Saba, Statia, Bonaire, Curaçao, Aruba, and Saint Martin for the enduring colonial legacies they’re still crushed underneath.  

Last month, in the halls of that same institution in New York City, an adapted version of the Rijksmuseum’s slavery exhibition went on view in connection with the United Nations Outreach Programme on the Transatlantic Slave Trade and Slavery. 

The tronco, meaning “tree trunk” serves as the centerpiece for Slavery: Ten True Stories of Dutch Colonial Slavery at the United Nations in New York. (photo AX Mina/Hyperallergic)

It was a perfect photo-op moment for the Dutch diplomats to use their national museum to manipulate their image as the patron saint of human rights and international law while violating the recommendations of their host. 

During this period of so-called “decolonization” of Dutch museums, none of the artists, academics, or curators who gatekept the narrative have once raised the question: Why are these Caribbean islands still stuck in a colonial limbo? Nor did the race-illiterate Dutch media, the school books that were printed, and the countless panel discussions and symposiums across the country. 

Leading art institutions claim to champion decolonization, but that’s a red herring. They display a glaring absence of curatorial work that aims to lift the veil of hypocrisy, instead continuing to conceal the colonial violence committed by the Dutch state and private sector. One of many examples is the Tropenmuseum’s current exhibition Someone is getting rich, which aims to expose the entanglement of colonialism with globalized financial systems and “reveal how the aftermath of colonialism is still embedded in the financial sector today.” But the show, which includes works by contemporary artists, fails to fulfill its promise.

To truly tackle these issues, the show would have to tell the story of the Dutch central bank, which recently apologized for its role in slavery, but still refuses to commit to internal and external reparatory justice for the Caribbean. Subsequently, the silence of Maduro & Curiel’s Bank, a private Dutch Caribbean bank headquartered in Curaçao, must be included in this reparations conversation. Without profiteering from the enslavement industry, this bank would have never become a major financial institution with far-reaching tentacles in politics, local economies, and Black people’s lives on the islands.

Decolonization would also require telling the truth about how the Dutch government is imposing financial supervision on our islands, accompanied by neoliberal reform, with the intent of keeping us impoverished in zones of underdevelopment and dependency to fit their imperial agenda.

The bare minimum is to shift away from the traditional foreign policy and abandon making present-day Dutch plantation governance in the Caribbean look good. But no, that is too much of a sacrifice for the people in power. 

The art consumers are majority Dutch White, and so is the electorate. Therefore, art institutions can’t alienate White visitors and voters because that’s where they make their money. Those are the people who keep their mouths fed and careers going upward, not the people from the Caribbean. We’ve become museal chattel slaves. Liberation for us would mean the collapse of the ill-gotten financial well-being of the White Netherlands. Cultural institutions are not going to desert White Holland and commit to the desirable politics of ending Dutch parasitic power structures. 

Nonetheless, it should not be impossible to walk out of these exhibitions and conclude that the afterlife of slavery on the islands is an inescapable reality since the policies of Dutch colonial rule are still in full effect in the 21st century.

If custodians of these cultural institutions claim to be decolonizing, then they should stop sabotaging our pathways towards Caribbean freedom and quit feeding the Dutch and international public monstrous lies by silencing the real, true stories that are rarely told.

Jermain Ostiana is a Black working class nemesis of colonial power structures in Curaçao and the Caribbean; a cultural worker and devotee of ancestral freeness.

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1 Comment

  1. Awesome. It appears war is inevitable. The only mistake I see you making Jermain is irrevocably linking colonial abuse to colour. Very true in your specific instance, yet fundamentally colour is just an easy way to distinguish, identify and devalue “other” in order to justify depradation and predation. So when you rail against “white” you employ the same weapons. You lump all “white” together, irrespective of any individual position. That is no more justifiable than lumping all “black” together. The result is you declare a desire and intent for genocide. Instead, go after the jugular of institutional privileged, corporate, contemporary and historical racist exploitation. These are not new phenomenon. They are not historically the sole province of “white”. They are a pervasive persistent pernicious human condition. By all means act primarily for your people. Recognize also that in doing so you act for all enslaved, colonized, predated peoples. Recognize there are non-blacks, non- Caribbeans, who agree and support you. Sometimes shallow, some in depth. Better to bring them with you than to alienate. Better to deepen the shallows than eliminate them. If you doubt me look to the current, and pre-colonial power struggles and predation in Africa, the religious and caste conflicts, in India, just to name two. In no way do these situations subtract, dilute or excuse Dutch or any Western European historical or contemporary colonial crimes. Use them to recognize you are addressing a fundamental and horrible condition of being human: the propensity to secure one’s own position at the expense of the other which played out shamefully and continues to do so in the Caribbean. Please, strengthen yourself with the support of all well-wishers, not just black.

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