In the spring of 2019, the exhibition MOED: What is Left Unseen was on show in the Centraal Museum in Utrecht. The exhibition, curated by MOED’s research team in co-operation with the Centraal Museum, was aimed at revealing how processes of inclusion and exclusion influence the practices of exhibiting and collecting of art in museum collections. By placing a selection of artworks of the Centraal Museum’s collection in dialogue with a number of loans, the exhibition created a new perspective on the traditional narrative of slavery and Christianity. This new presentation of the museum’s permanent collection showed how the museum’s collection can be open to a plurality of perspectives, backgrounds and voices. By doing so, MOED: What is Left Unseen created a different genealogy on how the Dutch colonial past works through in the perception of the present and future. The exhibition stimulated visitors to critically engage with implicit power structures and singular perspectives by asking questions as: do you feel implicated in the stories being told? What is told, by whom and why? And, what perspectives are, as a consequence, (un)intentionally rendered invisible?
Museums have, whether intentionally or unintentionally, contributed to the mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion. MOED: What is Left Unseen aimed to expose these mechanisms by problematizing the often taken for granted art historical canon by questioning the traditions of collecting and asking questions about how and why the collection has been built up the way it is. Divided over two rooms and a reading room, MOED: What is Left Unseen demonstrated how history is often presented from a singular perspective, namely the perspective of the white male saviour: the benevolent man who wants the best for the world and who represents the law. He is the person who determines what is important and best to whom. By continuously repeating this perspective, other experiences, desires and insights are automatically obfuscated, left out or erased.
For instance, enslaved people are all too often depicted as being chained, whipped, or severely beaten. They are often portrayed as victims of history who lack agency and who do not have the right to self-determination. Due to the frequent repetition of this one-sided image, it is difficult to imagine Black resistance. In order to clarify and break through that omission, the first room of MOED: What is Left Unseen focused on the role of individual Black resistance in the struggle of the abolition movement.
The Centraal Museum owns a number of artefacts referring to the history of Nicolaas Beets (1814-1903), a white Utrecht-based writer (known as Hildebrand), professor, theologist and abolitionist. In the exhibition MOED placed his story, that fits easily in the narrative of the white male saviour, in a transnational context of Black resistance. This formed the starting point of a visualization of a genealogy starting with the abolition movement and linking it to the struggle of anti-racism and Black knowledge development in the Netherlands. Thérèse Schwartze’s portrait of Beets, his bust and his desk were placed in dialogue with Iris Kensmil’s portrait (2019) of Sojourner Truth (c. 1797-1883). Truth was a former enslaved woman, an outspoken abolitionist and an advocate for women’s rights. Both Beets and Truth were connected to the National Freedman’s Relief Association. Truth is considered to be the foremother of intersectionality and has inspired Dutch Black feminist academics such as Gloria Wekker and Philomena Essed to continue her work around the entanglements of race and gender in the past and present. Like Beets, both Wekker and Essed are affiliated as professors to Utrecht University. Wekker and Essed are featured in Patricia Kaersenhout’s series Proud Rebels (2015), works that concluded this part of the exhibition. The presence of contemporary Black female academics in the exhibition highlights and archives the importance of the continuation of the work of Truth and Beets. So, instead of telling the story of Nicolaas Beets from the perspective of the white male saviour who, as an autonomous acting individual, saves the world, MOED emphasizes the entanglement of his work with three prominent Black women freedom fighters and situates them all in a shared history of female, male, white and Black intellectuals and activists.
In the second room, MOED elaborated on the narrative of the white male saviour by asking the question of what it means to imagine a Christianity that is not exclusively characterized by whiteness. Nola Hatterman’s Pieta (1949), part of the museum’s permanent collection, formed the starting point of the room. The painting depicts the body of a Black Jesus, surrounded by believers lamenting his death. The painting unsettled Eurocentric ways of seeing premised on a racial identification with Christianity as white. This problematization was continued by including Samuel Aranda’s winning World Press Photo from 2011, dubbed Muslim Pieta by the media. The works of the two contemporary Black British Artists, Rotimi Fani-Kayode (1955-1989) and Faisal Abdu’Allah (1969-), delinked Christianity even more from whiteness. Through the combination of these works, the room visualized the entanglements of race, religion, empathy and compassion, and the setup showed how tightly the visual repertoire of Christianity is linked to whiteness and what this means for mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion.
By making visible how museum collections and the associated visions of history are not politically neutral, MOED: What is Left Unseen opened the Centraal Museum to a perspective that includes a variety of voices, audiences, art practices and ways of dealing with art canons. As institutions that are rooted in colonial structures, museums have, be it intentionally or unintentionally, contributed to mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion through amongst others their curatorial practices and acquisitions. By questioning and challenging these structures, the exhibition opened the museum to a broader public, with historically excluded identities and communities feeling more welcome and represented. Simultaneously, the public was made aware of the power dynamics at play within museum structures. Collaborations with amongst others Mama Cash, for which MOED: What is Left Unseen formed the starting point of their annual Feminist Festival in 2019, and with Keti Koti Utrecht, only strengthened this endeavour and contributed to the ongoing struggle of unworking the colonial origins of the museum as in institution and its far going effects on issues of representation and inclusion in the present and the future.
“From our position as a medium-sized art institution, and as the oldest city museum in the Netherlands, we are permanently seeking ways in which we can function as a museum in the twenty-first century in an ever-changing local, as well as global, context. This is where our far-reaching collaboration with MOED comes in. in order to open up to a multiplicity of voices, art practices, and modes of engagement with art canons, we need to first confront our own methods and prejudices. The critical work MOED undertakes forces us to revisit the values of our museum culture. Working with existing collections, we seek, through this collaboration to transform the museum into a space of critical engagement with historical objects as well as with aesthetic practices.”
Bart Rutten, director of the Centraal Museum, What is Left Unseen, p. 7.