“We are a not an African residency, but an Amsterdam residency. We have to be situated in the middle of the city. We’re not interested in offering Africans an African context, which often seems to be the case; organizers suddenly want to eat African food all the time, while the African artists came to learn about Dutch culture. Nevertheless, the free Dutch climate can sometimes shock them. (…)Here, homosexuality is common and not everyone is a Muslim.”
Pauline Burmann, chairperson of Thami Mnyele, interviewed by Yasmijn Jarram.
In 1992, the Thami Mnyele Foundation was founded by a group of artists inspired by the Anti- Apartheid Movement. To this day, the Amsterdam based foundation still plays an important part in the cultural exchange between Africa and the Netherlands. It offers residencies to African artists from all over the world. A conversation with chairman and art historian Pauline Burmann: “Africa is not more complicated than Europe. The whole world is complicated.”
The Thami Mnyele Foundation is situated in a former school building in Amsterdam’s Kinkerbuurt area, surrounded by Turkish corner shops and street markets. The building now houses local artists, its classrooms converted into studio apartments, two of which are rented by the foundation. After a thorough process of application and selection, this is where African artists from all around the world work and live for an intensive period of three months. Throughout the years, the Thami Mnyele studio has become a vibrant intercultural meeting place. Besides running the residency, the foundation organizes exhibitions on African art in the Netherlands and abroad, and has accumulated an impressive collection of works that were donated by residing artists.
Twenty years ago the foundation was established by a group of Amsterdam based artists, amongst whom Bert Holvast and Moira White. They were inspired by the Anti-Apartheid Movement and leading figure Thami Mnyele (1948-1985) in particular. This activist and artist was hardly known in his home country South-Africa because of the illegality in which his activities mostly took place, designing posters for the ANC. It was against this background that the residency program initially put a sole emphasis on South-African artists. Following the advice of the Dutch ministry of Culture, their focus soon widened to include participants from Africa as a whole. Apart from Pauline Burmann, the current board of the foundation consists of Martha Reijmers, Marlene Dumas, Moshekwa Langa and Maria Tuerlings. A varied group of artists and representatives from Dutch museums, art institutions, academies and universities circles around this core, to engage in conversations with the residents. They are also encouraged to accompany the artists on short trips, whether it’s to the Dappermarkt or Concertgebouw, to Vlieland or Antwerpen.
This embedding in the social and cultural infrastructure is of great importance to the Thami Mnyele Foundation. It’s sometimes suggested the foundation would be more in place in De Bijlmer area, where most Africans live. Out of the question, says Pauline Burmann. “We are a not an African residency, but an Amsterdam residency. We have to be situated in the middle of the city. We’re not interested in offering Africans an African context, which often seems to be the case; organizers suddenly want to eat African food all the time, while the African artists came to learn about Dutch culture. Nevertheless, the free Dutch climate can sometimes shock them. In these situations I kindly remind them that they applied for this program themselves, that this is simply the way we live. Here, homosexuality is common and not everyone is a Muslim. I bring my culture to the table, the artists bring theirs. As long as you’re well aware it’s more often a case of culture than of character, these cultural clashes are very interesting and valuable.”
The board members run the Thami Mnyele Foundation on a voluntary basis; the foundation is part of the Kunstenplan from the city of Amsterdam. The grant money is strictly reserved for travel- and accommodation expenses for the artists. Burmann, working as an independent curator herself, is keen to share this information with the artists. “A lot of the artists that come here, think there’s personal money involved in the foundation. Usually, on their first day I take them to the Ten Catemarkt nearby the studio and tell them: ‘From every orange sold by these vendors, two or three eurocents go straight to our government. This is how your visit is paid for.’ It changes their perspective on the Netherlands.” This personal approach is both trademark and strength of the foundation. Burmann and other board members are always closely involved with their guests. “When artists have just arrived here, they usually don’t know anybody. For African people who often live together with many people in one house, that’s an awful experience. We always invite them for dinner at our houses, we make some music, go for a walk through the red-light district. They become beloved friends.”
Guy Wouete, Bamako Encounters, 2009.
Whereas many artist residencies connect specific goals to the working period, like an exhibition or piece of art, the Thami Mnyele Foundation puts an emphasis on cultural exchange and knowledge. “The production of such a period can’t be measured”, says Burmann. “Usually between five or ten years later, we receive an emotional and grateful letter from the artist. The free flowing nature of the residency makes it much like a sabbatical or study. Sometimes artists really need this change of scenery.” They can decide for themselves what they want get out of this experience. “Some of them stay in the Rijksmuseum for three months, studying the prints of Leonardo Da Vinci. Others ride their bike all across Amsterdam to take photographs. A few years later, we are confronted with artworks that are totally based on this period.” Still the artists are being enrolled in extensive networking programs. Burmann: “We want them to meet people and make friends, especially in the artist world. Just enter the debate, observe and try to take in as much as they can.”
Dineo Seshee Bopape (1981, South-Africa) is one of the artists that resided at the Thami Mnyele Foundation, after finishing her two-year post-academic education at De Ateliers in Amsterdam. “The amount of contemporary art galleries was really exciting to me. The Amsterdam art scene is very lively and international, I met many people from different parts of the world”, she e-mails from Johannesburg. In the Netherlands, she saw many artworks: famous masterpieces that she only knew from books, but also contemporary art from Asia, the Caribbean and Eastern-Europe. Especially the Dutch conceptual tradition gradually slipped into her work later, she writes. Former resident Guy Wouete (Cameroon, 1980), who studied at the Rijksakademie for two years besides staying at the Thami Mnyele studio, agrees with her. “My time in the Netherlands was very valuable. I got to meet many artists and cultural managers, and took the chance to travel within the Netherlands to discover different landscapes and some great public art works. I enjoyed historic artworks and wonderful contemporary shows of artists like Bill Viola, Meschac Gaba, Shirin Neshat and Rineke Dijkstra.”
Dineo Bopape, Growing Every Day, 2005.
The city of Amsterdam itself also influences many residents, says Pauline Burmann. She remembers Nigerian photographer Akintunde Akinleye (1971), who ended up spending many days at Monumentenzorg. “In Nigeria, everything has to be new. The old is being destroyed immediately. Then suddenly, Akinleye finds himself in this old city that’s on the World Heritage list, where people treat seventeenth century buildings with respect.” South-African photographer Zanele Muholi (1972) also took inspiration from the city during her stay at the Thami Mnyele Foundation. On the Zeedijk, she rent a room in a brothel and took pictures from herself sitting behind the window. This led to a series of photographs that is being shown all around the world. In 2013 she even won the Dutch Prince Claus Award to the value of 25.000 euro. Her fellow countrywoman Ina van Zyl (1971), who also studied at De Ateliers after her residency, stayed in the Netherlands. She was recently one of six runner-up artists commissioned to paint the official portrait of the new Dutch king. Apart from the city and its art scene, the studio itself also seems to have an effect on the residing artists. They are relieved of their own ballast and have a large space at their disposal. For example, this led Ruan Hoffman (South-Africa, 1971) to experiment with painting huge canvases. Being a ceramist, this is far from his common practice.
Through the years, the foundation acclaimed an international reputation. Because of Africa’s diaspora, it receives applications from countries all over the world, including the Netherlands: for Dutch-African artists, the Thami Mnyele Foundation is a place where they can find their soul mates. Once a year a committee of experts, who have preferably never been to Africa, looks at the many requests. “I usually show them all the material”, Pauline Burmann explains. “They learn that from countries like Rwanda or Congo we sometimes only receive a little piece of paper with ‘help, I’m a confused artist’ written on it – no CD-ROM, video presentation or Google. Those applications are taken into serious account as well.” Apart from official criteria, intuition plays a role too. “The level of excellence… no, that’s not the right word. The Begeisterung we come across is amazing. Because what is excellence really? Your own perception is continuously changing anyway. When you are deeply involved in something, you start to look at it differently. You recognize it, you know how to contextualize it, you are aware of its history.”
The majority of the western art world is not familiar with this attitude towards African art, especially in the early years of the Thami Mnyele Foundation. “When we started, there was no internet”, says Burmann. “It was a totally different world. Some things have changed in the meantime, but Dutch art institutes are often like: ‘we’ve done Africa once already, we’re good for now.’ Or they are interested in doing something with Africa, but fail to conduct any historical research. They think it’s just something you can do on the side.” Also, African art is quickly politicized in the west, or interpreted more gravely than intended by the artist. As an example, Burmann recalls Egyptian artist Tarek Zaki (1975), who constructed a dusty bathroom out of plaster. “People commented: ‘Ah, you are obviously referring to the pyramids.’ ‘No’, he said. ‘There’s so much being built in Cairo these days, the dust from the construction sites is driving us crazy.’ So it wasn’t about the Egyptian history at all. Sometimes the work is much more ordinary and modern than people tend to think.”
In selecting their residents, the extent to which Africa plays a role in their work is not considered relevant by the Thami Mnyele Foundation. It’s more about the artists’ own feeling of identity. Unfortunately, this way of thinking doesn’t apply to many other Dutch institutions or subsidizers. Pauline Burmann: “In the Netherlands, they always ask for this engagement. People really want to see this. Africa is piteous, there’s nothing but misery, so African artists can’t focus on anything else in their work. When someone is interested in the environment of the South pole or something European from the nineteenth century, it provokes strange reactions. Dutch artists are not expected to always thematize the Netherlands in their work. It’s time to get rid of this Darwinistic classification system with white people at the top.” Ex-resident Dineo Seshee Bopape also experienced a double moral during her stay in Amsterdam: “The Netherlands are seemingly progressive, yet hold on to the racist tradition of Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet. The politics of Dutchness were heated when I was there.” Guy Wouete even felt uncomfortable on a personal level: “As a foreigner it was difficult to permanently deal with the suspicious way in which some Dutch people looked at me on the streets or in public institutions.”
However, Burmann points out that these misconceptions about Africa and African art are somewhat understandable when you see them in context. “We don’t have colonies in Africa, only trading posts. The Dutch really miss an affinity with Africa. In current France and Great-Britain it’s totally different, because these countries grew up with their colonies. You can immediately tell if artists are from French, German or Italian colonies. It’s part of their culture; the bricks are French or the tea set is British. When I’m working in Africa, I usually run into people from Tate, but never from the Netherlands. The new section of Tate Modern is being paid by rich Nigerians, that’s ground breaking. Imagine the Surinamese financing a new section of the Stedelijk Museum and showing Surinamese art there. In the Netherlands, ‘international’ is mostly interpreted as ‘New York’. Even subsidizers do so. After talking to us for an hour, they ask: ‘Do you also work internationally?’”
Despite the internet and globalization, African art – in its broadest definition – still hasn’t left the Wunderkammer. Both cause and effect is the way western art institutions tend to show African art exclusively in group exhibitions. All artists are individualists, African artists as well, Pauline Burmann emphasizes. “If you show works by only one or two artists, it would generate much more knowledge and understanding. Only then you realize how big the continent is, how Nigeria is a totally different country than Cameroon. It’s like Norway and Portugal, also in geographical distance. The group exhibitions are hodgepodges, preferably with lots of color. Although African art isn’t necessarily colorful of course.” She compares this phenomena to the era of women emancipation in the seventies. Female artists felt stigmatized by their work being forced into ‘female exhibitions’. “But it will always be like this”, Burmann relativizes. “Identity is such a difficult thing. Right now I’m having a conversation with you, at home I am a mother, in London I‘m a curator.”
Nevertheless, there have been positive developments in the Netherlands concerning African art throughout the years. Although the focus tends to be on group exhibitions, much more attention is being paid to African art today. Pauline Burmann also praises academics like Kitty Zijlmans and Mineke Schipper. “They were true pioneers in this area and meant a lot for the introduction and spreading of African art and culture in the Netherlands.” Partially in collaboration with the Thami Mnyele Foundation, the Gerrit Rietveld Academie, Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten and De Ateliers in Amsterdam show more interest in non-western artists. “There’s a lot of mutual contact, also with other art academies in the country”, says Burmann. “They often ask us to come up with African artists, we visit each other, their students nose about in our library.” After their stay in the Netherlands, most artists return to Africa. However, this doesn’t mean the process of intercultural exchange ends there; in fact, it’s only just beginning. Dutch artists and curators visit their new contacts in Africa, while former residents pay return visits to the Netherlands to participate in Dutch exhibitions. Individual residencies at the Thami Mnyele Foundation may be short-term visits, together they have a lasting impact on the future position of African art.
Brief bio: Yasmijn Jarram is art historian. She writes for several magazines and e-zines.
(the photowork of Zanele Muholi, ‘Miss Divine I’ uit 2007, courtesy Michael Stevenson Gallery, Joburg)