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All art is political: A conversation with Patricia Kaersenhout

“Guess Who is Coming to Dinner Too,” by Patricia Kaersenhout. Image provided by the artist and used with permission. Photographer: Aat Jan Renders.

Conversations about race and racism can be particularly fraught in the Netherlands, where tolerance is a core value. Yet, blackface is still a feature of the Sinterklaas (Santa Claus) celebrations and the role of the Netherlands in the transatlantic slave trade is widely ignored. Over the past few decades, however, scholars, artists, activists, and writers have been exploring the limits of Dutch tolerance. One such person is the Dutch-Surinamese artist Patricia Kaersenhout.

The first time I came across the work of Patricia Kaersenhout was with Guess Who's Coming to Dinner Too, her response to Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party. The Dinner Party is regarded as the “first epic feminist artwork”, but it has been critiqued for its lack of inclusion of women of color. More than 40 years after Judy Chicago, Kaersenhout responded with a work that brings Black women to the table.

In this interview, Kaersenhout talks about the African Diaspora, her art, and cultural activism.

On racism in the Netherlands

Tori Egherman: My non-white Dutch friends tell me that Americans are better at dealing with racism than the Dutch, which has confused me since the impact of racism is obviously worse in the United States.

Patricia Kaersenhout: It’s out in the open in the United States. Americans “do” race. Even though I find it difficult when I go to the States and encounter this blunt open racism, and I think oh my, here we go again, at least it’s out in the open. What happens here [The Netherlands] is under the skin. It’s less visible. You feel it. You know it. But it’s always that you are questioning whether or not what you are experiencing is racism. You ask yourself, is this really what I am experiencing?

The Dutch don’t do race. But now there is a black voice, a voice of color, that speaks back. Black people and people of color are no longer in a state of confusion about race. We know we are experiencing racism.

Of course, the scholars Gloria Wekker and Philomena Essed have been very important when it comes to this discussion. Now there is a narrative about the Netherlands and race, and many Dutch don’t like that narrative. They see themselves as kind and liberal and open to everybody. But this liberal attitude is really a way of earning money. It brings in a lot of tourists and a lot of expats who want to be here — it’s a money thing. They earn money with this so-called liberal and open society. But the question is: how liberal and open are you when you only tolerate the other when they behave the way you want them to behave? That’s not tolerant. That’s why I hate the word tolerance.

TE: I loved the word until I moved here…

PK: Power structures for privilege are passed down from generation to generation, sometimes without even understanding how they work. Let me give you an example. A teacher asks the children in her class to crumple a piece of paper and throw it into the trash can. The first row of students has no problem. For each successive row, it is more difficult. The teacher asks the children if this was a difficult task. Of course, those in front say no. Then she asks, “Did you ever think to look behind to see how the others were doing?” That’s privilege.

Defacing history

From “The Dream of 1000 Shipwrecks” series, by Patricia Kaersenhout. Growing up in the Netherlands, Kaersenhout was not taught about the role of the country in the transatlantic slave trade. “We’ll talk about the American slave trade instead,” the teachers told her. One of her early art projects involved the defacing of history books. Image provided by the artist and used with permission.

TE: Can you tell me more about your defacing of history books?

PK: That’s my meditation. It helps me relieve my anger. It reminds me of when we got to the Dutch slave trade in school and the teacher said, let’s skip it. We’ll talk about the American slave trade instead. It made me angry, this erasing of my history. But when I talked to my mother, she also said let’s not talk about it. It’s too painful. At a certain point, I felt a need to do something about these books. Maybe it was a way to take revenge on them. If it’s not about me, that my history as a black woman is not included in this history, why not do with it what I want to?

This is also a project which evolved. I started to do this at the Decolonial Summer School where I teach. Most of the students are privileged. Books are sacred to them. Books with white history are sacred. I needed to de-sanctify this knowledge. I needed to create a feeling of discomfort and pain because this creates a different awareness. So I had them mutilate the books. I told them they had to do it meticulously and consciously, being aware of what they’re doing. It was so difficult for them. They felt so many emotions. They were crying. And while they were doing it, I walked around them in circles reading a poem I wrote, “The Daughter of Diaspora.” While they were cutting holes in history, I was filling the holes with my words. It was a way of reclaiming my place in history. Afterward, I asked what happened? Some of them were crying. Students of color were angry. They felt that they could finally do something with all this knowledge that had been forced upon them. I did this a couple of times with different groups of young people and every time it evokes so many emotions.

Tone it down

TE: Since coming to the Netherlands, I have often been told that I am too loud, too emotional, and my voice has too much range. I am never going to be able to speak in an even tone. My voice is confrontational for many Dutch people. I’ve noticed that many successful non-white women in the Netherlands whisper. You included. Are you aware of that?

PK: Yes I am. I’ve heard that before. I think it has to do with having children. When they were little I was really good at soothing them by making my voice lower and calmer, and it sort of stayed that way.

But this is a good question. I am thinking of the generation of my mother. I am thinking about how voice changes depending on who is in front of you. Because if you are with a group of Black women, it’s loud. It’s really loud.

It really depends. Amongst each other it gets loud.

“Handle with Care”

“The Mantle of Love,” from the project “Handle With Care” by Patricia Kaersenhout and Jimini Hignett. The project responds to the trafficking of vulnerable women in the Netherlands, sub-Saharan Africa and the Balkans, whose stories the artists collected and responded with theater and art. Image provided by the artist from a 2013 exhibit in the Tropen Museum in Amsterdam. It is used with permission. Photographer: Gert Jan van Rooij.

PK: I just returned from Albania where I was preparing a project started with my dear friend Jimini Hignett in 2013. The project is on forced prostitution and female trafficking. It’s really under my skin what’s happening there.

Jimini is doing interviews with survivors of human trafficking. It’s too painful for me. I get too emotional. With local women, I am making a carpet with red female clothing. It’s called the Mantle of Love. The carpet is about covering up the things which are painful in society.

Even though I am thinking of handing the project to Jimini, I want to keep on supporting her. The project will travel from Albania to Macedonia to Kosovo and in the region. There will be media attention and we hope to provoke public discussion on the issue. We hope that politicians will make a decision to address human trafficking.

The “Soul of Salt”

TE: I was at a museum and I saw a Duane Hanson sculpture of a cop beating a black man. And it moved me, but I purposely didn’t share the work because I thought of what you said about not always showing violence against black bodies. I thought it is enough for me to have seen this sculpture and experienced it, but I don't need to share it. Perhaps this was true particularly because I am white. And then I thought of your project “The Soul of Salt.”I thought about how the work is about healing generational pain.

PK:  Walter Mignolo talks about “the de-colonial aesthetic” — aesthesis — from the Greek word feelings, to evoke feelings. Decolonial aesthetics/aesthesis is not just about creating a beautiful piece of art, decolonial work evokes feelings of grief, sadness, and sorrow. It evokes history and the erasing of history and the things that have been done to so many marginalized groups by the dominant culture… So because I had the theory and the ingredients, the pieces of the project fell together.

I first made an installation with fabrics to represent displacement and accompanied by a mountain of salt. I had already heard the legend that Africans brought over as slaves refrained from eating salt with the idea that they would become light enough to fly back to where they came from in Africa. So I had 147 kilos of salt, referring to 147 years of abolition, and I thought it would become a mountain, but it was a really tiny mountain. This has no impact, I thought. I need to do this differently.

So I thought about making something even bigger, with only salt. For the celebration of 150 years of abolition, I was invited to make the mountain of salt. I thought the mountain of salt needs to have more impact. I started working with these undocumented refugee women who had cut themselves off from the men. And I thought, how can I support them, also financially? So I brought them into the project. And then I learned this 19th-century slave song and thought, what if they also learn the song? I found all this through serendipity.

And then I thought, it’s not enough to do a performance. The salt needs to be blessed. So I approached this spiritual woman, Marjan Markelo, and asked her, why not do a ceremony? She agreed to do this because salt is a very important element in the Afro-Caribbean tradition. And then I thought, we also need to do something with the audience. Otherwise, they are just observers. And no one gets to touch the art. So I thought, let’s have them touch the artwork, bring some salt home with them. And now I am talking to another spiritual leader because I am not totally satisfied. I really want to do more with the ritual of bringing the salt home. It should be a ritual. There should be words. There should be song.

I brought some salt home from Palermo's Manifesta 12 where “The Soul of Salt” is on display. The salt is also migrating. Moving from one place to another. Salt from Amsterdam is in Senegal and now I have salt from the Mediterranean in Amsterdam.

Bonaire gave me 8,000 kilos of salt. In Bonaire, there are huge salt planes. But I have to arrange transport and that is too difficult. So a friend said, why don’t you go there? Do the project there? So I am talking to a woman about doing the ceremony in Bonaire and then Aruba and then Curacao.

These things happen when you are working. You cannot plan or invent. It happens because you are working.

TE: It was interesting to see the former Dutch queen taking salt from your installation, knowing that the salt represents the sins of the past, specifically her past.

PK: Yes, the royal family is the result of colonialization. We are all suffering from the wounds of colonialization. Not just the oppressed, but the oppressor as well. It’s easier to identify yourself as a victim than perpetrator. There is a wound.

TE: This makes me think of your project about the Dahomey [now Benin] women. From one point of view, they are kidnappers and the sellers of people. From another point of view, they are brave warriors and resistors.

PK: We all have ways in which we are a victim and a perpetrator. When we talk about the transatlantic slave trade, there is a difference. Yes, small-scale slavery existed in Africa. Even so, enslaved people were seen as human beings, not as a commodity. They could become part of the family. Being brought to the New World as animals were something done by colonizers. That is an important difference. It’s a different kind of slavery. Europeans were also sold as slaves, people say. Yes. Slavery is very old. But we are still feeling the consequences of the transatlantic slave trade.

“All art is political”

Image from the performance by Patricia Kaersenhout, “A History of Grief.” Die Volksbuhne Berlin 2016. Photo provided by the artist and used with permission. Photographer: Miguel Gomez.

PK: Some of my Dutch students come in and say, my work is about nothing. I say study something else. Do advertising. Art is not about nothing. Art students are supposed to be the new avant-garde. Art is not nothing.

This feeling that art can be about nothing is embedded in the national innocence.

At art school, they said that my work was too narrative. So I said this is a good starting point. I’ll make it more narrative. I tell the critics, my culture is narrative. We share our history through stories because you won’t write about our history.

All art is political.

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