Van Oldenborgh’s Cinema Olanda – and actually her entire oeuvre – could be read as an aphasia-countering therapeutic session of a nation partially in denial, and partially unaware – such as the art critics so tellingly demonstrated. An endeavour that contributes to the birth of a new generation wanting and willing to finally come to terms with (post-) colonial melancholia and related repressive structures. These are the people who will be the forefront of a collective future: the unquestionable stars of a new generation.
Vincent van Velsen on Cinema Olanda of Wendelien van Oldenborgh in the Dutch Pavilion in Venice.
On Van Oldenborgh’s Cinema Olanda in the Dutch Pavilion of the Venice Biennial
In January 2016, the hip-hop collective New Wave won the Popprijs, probably the most prestigious music price in the Netherlands, awarded during the annual Noorderslag festival in Groningen. Here, the entire Dutch and international music scene of scouts, programmers and press gather to see what will be the sound of the upcoming year. The New Wave members were called the “stars of a new generation” (1), but on the ceremonial stage they were received with silence and occasional booing. Their importance, relevance and success were publicly questioned; first in the Noorderslag venue itself, then in the daily newspapers. How did this happen? (2)
Cinema Olanda, 2017 (film still)
Objectively measurable, New Wave and the hip-hop genre proved itself as the most listened to on Spotify. The online streaming service undeniably accounted for the group’s limitless popularity – and thereby also indicated the acclaim of hip hop in the Dutch context. New Wave broke records on the streaming service; showing what remains usually unseen, as the genre still hardly gets any airplay on mainstream radio stations. (3) Music with a background in black culture still is referred to as urban, or explicitly distinguished as hip-hop, rap or R&B. The people who make it are structurally being called “rappers”, regardless of their actual mode of singing. There are numerous other examples of small daily gestures in which this specific demographic is distinguished, hierarchically positioned, and thus intentionally excluded. However today, most pop stars are black. If they are not, their collaborations are mainly with black musicians, or their music is black music based. In his book, Steve Stoute called this the outcome of the Tanning of America (2011): he explains how – from Run DMC on – the black pop stars took over the scene and related business; how their music came to lead the charts; and thereby to dominate popular culture and quotidian aesthetic. Related, with her MET Gala bathroom selfie Kylie Jenner introduced a new elite: the people who run the charts, instagram and style. The people who are the stars of a new generation.
The oeuvre of Wendelien van Oldenborgh is highly entangled with music. From her Basis for a Song (2005) and Sound Track Stage (2006-2008), through No False Echoes (2008), along Bete & Deise (2012) and From Left to Night (2015), to most recently Cinema Olanda (2017) – currently on show at the Dutch Pavilion during the Venice Biennial. The Dutch daily newspapers received this latest work in a similar fashion to New Wave: questioning relevance and intentions. While the reviews show an obvious lack of understanding and interest, there also seems to be a generational gap. The newspapers’ art critics seem to suffer from an oblivious knowledge position, unaware of the current changes in society and related shifts in representation, subject matter and aesthetics.
Cinema Olanda, 2017 (film still)
Cinema Olanda is a short film that subsequently depicts different histories in a single sequence shot. Here, Van Oldenborgh skirts along several groups and symbolic moments that are part of Dutch history, but also carry relevance within a societal present. We see Afro-Dutch artists, alongside activists, inhabitants, scholars, and musicians. The latter for example provide a musical glimpse of a genre known as Indorock, brought to the Netherlands through the influx of (post-) colonial refugees and migrants from Indonesia. This particular sound paved the way for subsequent Dutch pop-music. Cinema Olanda raises awareness about this background, as much as to people, movements and events which largely remain unknown or invisible; while the film simultaneously reflects on the current state of the Dutch nation.
The work itself was filmed in the Rotterdam neighborhood of Pendrecht. In the middle of the neighborhood a church is situated, where the different actors of Cinema Olanda gathered. The camera starts outside with a rooftop reading of an Otto Huiswoud-piece by Mitchell Esajas, to slowly move downwards and become a witness to a conversation about collectivity and solidarity. Then the camera (thus viewer) enters the church together with the gathered visitors; swiftly moving through the space, grasping glimpses of conversations, interactions, readings and musical intermezzi. One of the main subjects of the work is the Dutch self-image for which the artist together with curator Lucy Cotter took the architecture of the Dutch pavilion as a symbol. Inside the pavilion, they placed several rectangular panels which block a direct view on, and access to the presented works. The blockages create metaphorical blind spots, where one could find unknown, hidden and/or forgotten histories. The Pavilion itself was designed by Gerrit Rietveld (in 1953-1954). It is exemplary for an International Style that is deeply entangled with Dutch society and its post war rebuilding, as well as baring connections with the De Stijl movement. Van Oldenborgh and Cotter address these facts through the coloring of the panels (white, yellow, red) and through countering the idea of transparency and openness.
Cinema Olanda, 2017 (film still)
The Pavilion could be interpreted as a biennial version of the emblematic Dutch doorzon woning (literally: sun-through dwelling), in which the sun shines all the way through these rather small houses, from front to back illuminating the home and its inhabitants. The light is a symbol for Enlightenment and civilization, but also comes forth from Dutch practicality, the ideas of openness and transparency and post war housing necessities. (4) Not coincidental, at the location of the film set (Pendrecht, Rotterdam) similar housing is commonplace. Architecture in Van Oldenborghs oeuvre is a systematic actor. She chooses her locations carefully, to construct a relevant context which adds an extra layer to the works and creates an incentive for the people involved interacting with the direct scenery. These surroundings constantly refer to a relevant history that is connected to the theme of a work. This time for example, it concerns architect Lotte Stam- Beese (wife of well-known architect Max Stam) who as a municipal head-architect made the masterplan for the Pendrecht neighborhood. Before, she was part of the May Brigade (a group of architects headed by Ernst May) that was invited to visit the Soviet Union during the 30’s and design the masterplan of several pre-fab new towns. According to Van Oldenborgh, the story of this female architect deserves attention and a spot at architectural history’s main stage.
In this Communist-Soviet realm, earlier mentioned Otto Huiswoud could be placed too. This fairly unknown Surinam-born black activist is the second person Van Oldenborgh aims to put in the well-deserved spotlight. Huiswoud was a founding member of the Communist Party of America in the United States (1919) and for example attended the World Congress of the Comintern in Moscow (1922). Throughout his lifetime, and together with his wife Hermina, he was highly entangled with both workers and black solidarity movements. In that sense they bare certain similarities to the more known Anton de Kom. Both had Communist connections, hailed from Surinam and were detained by the Dutch rule as they were considered a danger to colonial rule. However, Huiswoud almost disappeared in history, while De Kom is a fairly well known writer who dealt with the similarities between workers under capitalism and enslaved under colonial reign. Solidarity is key in both the Surinam-born authors. Van Oldenborgh learned about Huiswoud through The Black Archives. An Amsterdam based initiative that deals with Afro-Dutch heritage which includes a library of books and archival material relating to this context. It is The Black Archives co-founder Mitchell Esajas who reads a passage about Huiswoud in the opening shot of Cinema Olanda. (5) Later on in the film artist Patricia Kaersenhout reads Democracy by Langston Hughes. This poem on the one hand reflects the current situation of Afro-Dutch citizens in The Netherlands, and on the other relates to the Huiswouds, as Hughes was a close friend of the couple. (6)
Footnotes to Cinema Olanda, 2017 (photawork)
In Archival Art, Fast and Slow, Sven Spieker speaks about the ways archives accumulate knowledge, but also how they engage in the production of knowledge. He raises questions on who is in charge and establishes the conditions of access and presence; and thereby determines the outcomes of what eventually ends up in an archive. “The archive is first and foremost a testimony to the power of those who own it.” Here, the archive becomes no longer a collection of inert traces of past activities, but rather an active space for production. The archival objects are employed in the construction of memory (history) and in the creation of contemporary narratives. (7) Van Oldenborgh seems to be aware of this thought; and aims to include certain narratives in our collective archive via putting them on the Venetian center stage. But the question remains: who is responsible for the absence of Afro-Dutch related knowledge; and continuity of passing along? Should the people involved have written history themselves; their own history from their own perspective: taking up agency, producing knowledge, and creating archives? In this sense The Black Archives are a necessary step to also serve a sense of Opactiy. (8) Curator Lucy Cotter mentions this concept by Edouard Glissant in her catalogue essay. Furthermore, it is also clear that the neo-liberal divide-and-conquer politics, together with the spreidingsbeleid of the government and other general repressive colonial-based structures have done their job. (9) A lethal cocktail of capitalist tendencies mixed with the absence of role models and a collective ideology served individuality and the alienation of the civilians who needed to be unified the most. However, more and more, step by step, the absence of coherent lines throughout history is being compensated (ingelopen). As is stated in Cinema Olanda: “It is ultimately about anti-capitalist struggle. If you don’t have the common anti-capitalist basis, you cannot have sustainable solidarity between Dutch people and [new-comers].” (10)
The book Roofstaat (Looting State) by Ewald Vanvugt (2015) remarkably enough was published by hiphop label Top Notch – probably the most important record label in the country, established 1995 and a pioneer in the genre. The book speaks about the non-addressed history of the country and carries the subtitle: “Wat iedere Nederlander moet weten” (what every Dutch citizen should know). From the ways of working of naval companies VOC and WIC to the Amsterdam canals; how they were build, where the money came from, how the Dutch wealth was generated over the centuries; and how it still maintains itself up to date. The fact that a record label is more concerned with publishing such a book (and others are not) is noteworthy the least; more so, this is the same label that composed and supported the prior mentioned, award winning New Wave collective. The labels concern, interest and affinities lay at a different demography and generation, but apparently also at a different type of knowledge production regarding the historical realm and general public consciousness.
Footnotes to Cinema Olanda, 2017 (phowork)
Relating to the politics of representation, Giyatri Spivak stretched the double translatory-meaning of the term ‘representation’ in German. In this language both Vertretung (political representation) and Darsstellung (depiction) are being used. (11) In an Afro-Dutch context both are actually lacking; and Van Oldenborgh, together with several artists, musicians and activists (who take part in her films) aspire to change this situation and increase both the representation of narratives (Vertretung) and presence of people (Darsstellung). Doing so, she counters the common aphasia within the collective memory and public representation. Aphasia is described as “an inability to comprehend and formulate language because of damage to specific brain regions.” Historical-aphasia is continuously (re)imposed by repressive structures. At the same time, Dutch society is increasingly becoming aware of the fact these structures are in place; and that actual knowledge is still present somewhere deep down – in people’s memories and in their basements and attics. Van Oldenborgh’s Cinema Olanda – and actually her entire oeuvre – could be read as an aphasia-countering therapeutic session of a nation partially in denial, and partially unaware – such as the art critics so tellingly demonstrated. An endeavour that contributes to the birth of a new generation wanting and willing to finally come to terms with (post-) colonial melancholia and related repressive structures. These are the people who will be the forefront of a collective future: the unquestionable stars of a new generation.