It seems to be that De Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam has embraced an active role in educating its audience and broadening their spectrum. As I have written before, one can notice that they present a range of exhibitions in which the solo-exhibition of the West-European white male has become increasingly scarce. Scarce, but not extinct. The year of De Stijl is still going on and a corresponding exhibition reflecting in what ways the artists collective is represented in and resonated with other artists, available in the collection of the museum. There is also a Jean Dubuffet exhibition on view. These are of course examples of two of the canon’s* cherished favorites. So these two exhibitions the museum offers are not actually groundbreaking. The exhibition of the Polish Avant-Gardist Edward Krasiński is a little different and not the obvious choice. But what I actually want to reflect on is the choice of the Stedelijk to put on the following three exhibitions: Zanele Muholi, Carlos Motta: The Crossing, and I Am a Native Foreigner.
I have been procrastinating to write a review of The Stedelijk’s I Am a Native Foreigner. It just did not meet my expectations. A direct translation of the Dutch exhibition title would be “I am a born foreigner” bring up connotations of Dutch-born people have to put up with statements like: “go back to your own country” or “where are you from? I mean, where are you really from?” Urgently needed to put this into question. The introductory wall text revealed that the quote is derived from Mexican artist Ulises Carrión, who settled in Amsterdam in the 1970s. The text also shows that the artworks in the exhibition are part of The Stedelijk’s own collection. Although I did not think the works on view were not critical at all, they were just not critical enough. Some personal favorites were Wendeline van Oldenborgh’s La Javanaise (2012), Otobong Nkanga In Pursuit of Bling (2014), Aslan Gaisumov’s Volga (2015), Rossella Biscotti’s 10 x 10 (2014), and Marlene Dumas’s Young Men (2002)
The story Oldenborgh’s work reflected upon the Vlisco history. The story goes like this: when the Dutch were the colonial rulers of current Indonesia, they appropriated (stole) Java’s traditional batik technique. Their Vlisco factory produced stuff which appeared not the be commercially successful. So they focused on Africa as an export destination. Nowadays, it has become associated with a typically African aesthetic. In a movie format, three people of one, Sonja Wanda, which is a current Vlisco model, together with artist and writers Charl Landvreugd and David Dibosa. They talk about it in the Amsterdam-based Tropen Museum (formally known as the Colonial Institute).
Nkanga’s eye-pleasing installation contemplates on the capitalist exploitations of nature. She shows the chase of rare minerals and the allure of the “new”. Gaisumov presents the experience he had when he and his 20 family members had to flee Grozny during the First Chechen War in 1995. A car with retro vibes is set in a green landscape. Slowly but surely, from all corners, people walk to the car and get in. I believe there were about 20 (would make sense right?) individuals getting into a small sedan. Getting claustrophobic only looking at it.
Last but not least, Marlene Dumas. Neatly organized, in her characteristic drawing like/ watercolor style, 12 portraits are shown. Neutrally called “Young Men”. Probably not neutrally received, especially in 2002. A year after 9/11, she paints 12 portraits of young men with an Arabic and north African appearance. She artist confronts us with how deeply rooted we project the stereotypical xenophobic views onto anyone why looks like someone who looks Arabic.
I did not leave the last room thinking, yes this exhibition will people make less racist. I know that is an impossible objection for an exhibition in general. The corresponding wall texts used words like “colonial,” “globalization,” “refuges.” However, it did not hit any power lines of institutional racism and underrepresented histories that go hand in hand with migration issues. But hopefully, it gets the ball rolling.
*The canon is a group of artists within art history that is not set in stone but assumed to be the most important artists. You can find the same choice of artists in art history books, courses, museums, magazines, etc. Big names like Michelangelo, Leonardo, Van Gogh and Pollock, will always appear in Art History for Dummies, Gombrich or Janson’s History of Art etc.