Arena for Contemporary African, African-American and Caribbean Art

Museum Arnhem


‘The art itself is ever so important. You have to understand, we are not going to exhibit just any art because it is made by a female artist, or an African artist for that matter. It’s all about the art itself. I especially value art that is, in one way or the other, an expression of a particular critical stance, may it be against sexism or racism, or art that addresses the relationship between art and economy. ‘

Machteld Leij interviews Mirjam Westen about non-western art.


An interview with curator Mirjam Westen

Mirjam Westen is curator contemporary art at the Museum of Modern Art Arnhem, recently renamed Museum Arnhem, for over twenty years’ time now. In these decades she firmly concentrated on feminist and non-western art, not as a bold statement but in a continuous way.  While most art institutions in the Netherlands are only relatively recent focussing on globalization, in Arnhem Westen composes group exhibitions and solos with international artists from everywhere, male and female, quite steadily.

The exhibition ‘Threads’, which is on now, is a showcase for art that embraces textiles. The starting point of this group show is the video ‘Thread routes’ of Kimsooja. The work follows the disappearing tradition of the textile production. Artists from everywhere take part in it, thus showing an array of the critical stances one can take, using textile.

As Mirjam Westen and I meet, she is in the middle of checking the last details for the opening of the exhibition of Esiri ErherieneEssi, an English painter, living in Amsterdam. One of the technicians of the museum drops by in her office with a question. Books are piled up. They hardly leave any place to sit. ‘Sorry for the interruption’, she whispers as she goes on explaining where her interests as a curator lie.


Dineo Bopape, Silent Performance 2008, courtesy Stevenson Gallery SA.

Mirjam Westen: ‘To me it is of the utmost importance to incorporate the work of non-western artists.  In ‘Thread’ the focus is on textile and artists who work with thread. It is not about the emancipation of the medium itself, but about the way textile connects different worlds. The stereotypes associated with art and textile, are firmly undermined by Aisha Khalid, whose installation ‘Kashmiri Shawl’ (2011) seems like a luscious and gorgeous embroidered piece of cloth. In fact it is pierced with sharp nails, to symbolise the political tension in the region of Kashmir, since it has been claimed by both Pakistan and India.’

Machteld Leij: As a curator you are integrating non-western art in the exhibition policy of the museum. In the nineties, under the directorate of Lisbeth Brandt Crossties, the focus was on feminism.  Concepts such as identity and emancipation are inextricably linked to feminist art. Do those concepts stretch to other fields as well?

‘The art itself is ever so important. You have to understand, we are not going to exhibit just any art because it is made by a female artist, or an African artist for that matter. It’s all about the art itself. I especially value art that is, in one way or the other, an expression of a particular critical stance, may it be against sexism or racism, or art that addresses the relationship between art and economy.

This insight has been a process of growing consciousness. Important to this process was my attendance of a conference in the KIT (Tropical Museum) in Amsterdam, in 1993. The target was: how do we break open West European art institutions, to make place for non-European artists.

‘In those years, we were preparing an exhibition about contemporary art from the seventies until the nineties, called ‘Vrij Spel’. A book was published in cooperation with the University of Leiden. All of a sudden I became aware of the fact, to my own surprise I must say, that so little female artists were included in the book. Fortunately, by the time the exhibition took place in Arnhem, I was able to correct this omission and include the work of women artists.’

‘Later I realised the same should’ve been done with non-western artists living in the Netherlands, as it was an exhibition with Dutch art and artists. I decided then and there I needed to organise at least one solo-exhibition with an artist with roots elsewhere, either living here, or not.’

The Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam recently organised a symposium on global programming in museums of modern art. During one of the sessions one was talking about the West-European elements in the art works of non-European artists, which are exhibited the most in museums of modern art in the west. Does that mean that artists need to work in a similar way, similar to what we know in the west, to be appreciated?

‘Yes, that is the case, but this focus is shifting, really. True, after twenty years there is still the need for discussion, but in actual practice the changes are apparent, at least in our museum. We are now showing works of art with a point of view that differs from the point of view of European art. We are not the only one with this strong focal point:  Wouter Welling of the Afrikamuseum near the city of Nijmegen operates in a similar way. And of course, there are western influences. Artists visit the academies in, for instance, London or they become resident at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam. They are submitted to influences, just as well as artists that travel to Africa to work and study there.  It has been the same situation with Picasso and the artists of the Cobra movement. They were inspired by African masks. So interaction has always existed. Of course, there is the problem of unbalanced powers. The western art world is still dominant. Africa doesn’t have any dominant art magazine yet. The Middle East is playing a bigger role now. I am not familiar with the Chinese art world, but I know that its influence is growing. The west however seems to have a long tradition in contemporary art. So we have to be aware of the fact that we tend to take this west European point of view, and, in my particular case, this west European white person’s point of view.  Every time I think about new exhibitions, I have that in mind. I look for different perspectives, and for artists who reside in different parts of the world.


Tirzo Martha, installation Museum Arnhem, courtesy the artist.

How and where do you find those artists?  

‘I read a lot of magazines; I visit a lot of exhibitions. In those days when the internet wasn’t as big as it is today, I learnt a lot from going to art fairs. I recently was invited by the Dak’Art Biennial to give a lecture. I plan to speak about artist interventions in public spaces, artists that aim to change or influence certain social situations. I think I will draw the outlines of my policy as well. The Mondrian Fund (Dutch cultural fund) organizes visiting tours to the Dutch art institutions for guests from Africa. Mostly when I give them a tour, they are impressed with what I do. Although actually it doesn’t matter if an artist is originating from Africa, On that occasion I do let them know that it should not make a difference if an artist originates from African or not. Good quality is good quality. So these visits and the invitation to give a lecture make me think my policy does have its effect.’

How do you reach out to the public, to provide them with background information on the artist and his or her ideas or philosophies?

‘I write short exhibition texts, to go with the works.’

So the idea of universalism, the idea that one could understand work of art without any context, wouldn’t hold?

‘No, it wouldn’t. However not every artist accepts exhibition texts. As a museum though you are a platform, as a museum and as a curator you owe it to your public to provide information. Contemporary art especially asks for it, as it is sometimes so fresh it can’t be valued right away. Although our program does have room for local artists who embrace other topics, like religion for instance, I prefer critical art. I appreciate it if layers of the political and the personal manifest itself in works of art.  Above all, a work of art should be able to seduce you, at the moment you lay your eyes on it.’

MirjamWestenreceivingThe Package from JabuArnell

Mirjam Westen, receiving The Package from artist Abu Arnell.

Does that leave room for any activism? Art criticising society, art being an object or a container of/for ideas and beliefs.

‘Museums have no activist agenda, of course. To be honest I have not many illusions of how art may change the world. It’s about how art makes you think. A good example is the work of Zanele Muholy. She was one of the participants of ‘Rebelle’ (2009), the exhibition of feminist artists from 1969 to 2009. She just had her first solo-exhibition a few years earlier. She filmed rape victims in Africa, but only their hands, holding messy pieces of paper that were evidence of the statements they made at the police station of the crime committed against them. In South Africa gay women and men are raped and attacked, murdered even. These so called cure-rapes are seen as a way of curing their sexual preference. She also made portraits of strong black lesbians, to celebrate them. Homosexuality is seen as a depravity originating from the west. Muholy goes against that notion by showing their beauty and pride, in thousands and thousands of portraits. To me it was important to show the different aspects of her work. Perhaps these portraits aren’t in themselves critical works of art, but if you show quite a few of them, they instantly become critical!’


Zanele Muholi, Apinda and Ayanda, courtesy Stevenson Gallery SA.

 In the Netherlands there is an increase of anti-gay sentiments, not to mention the criminalisation of what they call Gay propaganda in Russia at this moment. How important is it that art has a wide or wider perspective.

‘Well, that’s what I am looking for, art that doesn’t just provide a comment on current affairs. It has to have meaning in ten years’ time. Also aesthetics are of great importance to me. A work of art, although criticality is important, should not be a pamphlet. It needs to be able to transcend its raison d’être.  Sometimes it doesn’t succeed entirely, but that’s not a problem as museums aren’t to last for all eternity. It does look like it, but it isn’t actually the case.’

In what way does immigration and changing demographics play a role in what you show at the museum? Do you look for non-western artists in the vicinity of the museum itself?

‘Yes, I do. In 1998 we organised the exhibition ‘Power Up’ with Stichting Interart. This organisation organizes courses for young people with a Turkish and Moroccan background to prepare them for the art academy.  It was collaboration with Soheila Najand, an artist who fled from Iran. This exhibition was very important as it presented non-western artists in the Netherlands.’

That brings us back to identity. How long do you have to live in a place, to be a well-respected member? Who is deciding that you are? Does the artist have a pioneer role in the way the public perceives origin and purpose in general?

‘I think that is an important awareness, that artists, art critics and exhibition makers should hold dear. This awareness is slowly increasing.’

Too slow? Did you see changes in the twenty years you are active as a curator?

‘It is a slow process in the Netherlands, yes.  Still, though, since the nineties, the subject of globalisation is widely brought to the attention. In the nineties it was KIT and Ria Lavrijsen who on different occasions organised symposia on globalisation and cultural diversity, now The Stedelijk Museum Bureau Amsterdam and others organised the Collecting Global symposium, last April. It stays important. Frappe toujours.’



Bio: Machteld Leij is an art historian from Leiden. She works as an independent writer and critic. She publishes in several magazines in and outside of The Netherlands.