On the morning of April 9, 2017, I landed in a sunny Amsterdam. After a quick stop at the hotel to drop off my luggage, I set out for the Museumplein where three notable museums are located- the Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh Museum, and the Stedelijk Museum. Last February, a new exhibition examining the Netherlands' relationship with South Africa over the past 400 years opened at the Rijksmuseum. One of the main goals of my trip to Amsterdam was to visit this exhibit and interview one of its curators. Though my interview was only scheduled for the next morning, I was eager to see the show on my own for the first time.
The exhibition was produced under the direction of Martine Gosselink, Head Department of History at the Rijksmuseum. It was arranged chronologically and so I soon found myself traveling between 1652 and the present in some ten rooms displaying an array of portraits, paintings, video clips, photographs and artifacts. I was especially drawn to the section on the 20th century, which was divided into two parts; one surveying the history of Dutch solidarity with the Afrikaners during the Anglo-Boer War, and the second exploring Dutch anti-apartheid activities in more recent years. The division struck me as interesting, as it reflected the transition from Dutch support of the Afrikaners with respect to the apartheid regime and the solidarity with black South Africans. A generational shift is emphasized by this particular curatorial choice, possibly suggesting the younger generation’s struggle against apartheid might be understood as merely an act of rebellion towards their parents' generation.
The apartheid era is illustrated through dozens of posters from Netherlands’ Anti-Apartheid Movement collection as well as images taken by Dutch photographers who visited South Africa during the late 1950s. This historical collection was complemented with recent portraits of children by the renowned South African photographer Pieter Hugo, and while his work is indeed engaging, I couldn’t help wondering about this curatorial choice. The museum’s decision to showcase the work of an established white and Afrikaner male, rather than offering a platform to lesser known South African artists, struck me as purely commercial and made me contemplate the entangled politics of art and culture.
Many of the photos in this section were striking, but what caught my eye was a poem by the South African poet Ingrid Jonker, written in white chalk on the wall in Afrikaans and in English, entitled ‘The Child’. Jonker's poem is about a child who was shot dead by soldiers at Nyanga, a township of Cape Town.
On May 24th 1994, Nelson Mandela quoted this very poem in his address to the first democratically elected parliament. It then dawned on me that I was surrounded by images of and about children, a theme that became central in the global anti-apartheid campaign, especially in the wake of the Soweto riots of June 1976. The preoccupation with children was a recurrent one among the political prisoners, themselves teenagers, brothers and fathers, who were prevented from seeing children for decades while in prison. Later, when I shared my thoughts with the curator of this section, Daniel Horst, he was surprised to hear my interpretation of the room. For Horst, the collection sought to foreground images of the born-free generation rather than to offer a sustained contemplation of the past.
In the center of the next room stood a bench with the inscription of 'Whites Only' and on the wall were street signs from the apartheid era, exhibiting harsh evidence of the daily humiliation experienced by non-whites in an openly racist society. Since I am a researcher of South African history with a particular interest in Holocaust memory, the display set my mind racing. Here I was in the center of Amsterdam, a few kilometers from the Anne Frank House, visiting an exhibition on apartheid South Africa, gazing at a 'Whites Only' bench. It made me think about the similarities with a sign that was placed in occupied Amsterdam in January 1942, at the entrance of the Amsterdam Ghetto, Kloveniersburgwal, with the text 'Juden Viertel- Joodsche Wijk' (Jewish area)(1).
The last room focused on contemporary South Africa, providing the visitor with a glimpse of the recent year's anti-Zuma demonstrations. Photographs taken by the exhibition’s curators during their visits to South Africa over the past five years were displayed on the walls.
On the front wall was the exhibition poster, featuring Nelson Mandela’s speech during his first visit to Amsterdam in 1990, covered with graffiti in Dutch- 'GOEDE HOOP?' (Good Hope?). I reflected on the question mark in the inscription, thinking about what has been happening over the past few weeks in South Africa. The death of the South African anti-apartheid activist Ahmed Kathrada, on March 28, 2017, shook South African society. In recent years, Kathrada was very critical of President Jacob Zuma and the ANC government, due to various cases of government corruption. Subsequently, Kathrada's funeral became a political fiasco when Kathrada’s call on Zuma to resign was quoted repeatedly. My experience of this part of the exhibition at this particular moment for South Africa, was quite ambivalent: full of hope, but also full of doubt. Though the curators could not have predicted this tumultuous moment in South African society, I believe that that particular room is a striking reflection on South Africa well into the present moment.
*All Photographs by Roni Mikel Arieli
(1)The Jewish Telegraphic Agency Daily News Bulletin., New York, April 21, 1942, "Nazis Concentrate all Dutch Jews in Amsterdam Ghetto,".