heden van het slavernijverleden

The assignment was to create a campaign image for a new exhibition on The Netherlands' slavery past and its current days' legacy. A creative solution had to be devised to capture both the past and present in one contemporary image. Another important requirement was that the illustration was also a portrait in order for it to meet the signature style of the museum. The illustration also had to match the color palette of the exhibition.

The campaign had to appeal to a broad target audience of the museum. This target group consists of men and women between the ages of 25 and 65, mainly highly educated and with an interest in travel, film, history, spirituality and philosophies of life. That amounts to approximately 5 million Dutch people and 39.1% of our society. In addition, we had to take into account a secondary target group consisting of city dwellers aged between 18 and 35, partly with a bi-cultural background.

I created the pencil-drawn illustration in my recognisable style of raw, sketchy lines. It is precisely this unpolished image in combination with the solid typography, high-profile title and bright color variations (pink, green and yellow) that made the image a striking phenomenon in the Amsterdam street scenery.

The illustration includes a visual timeline that connects the history of slavery with current affairs such as racial police brutality and contemporary activism. The campaign refers particularly to the protest movement against Zwarte Piet (or Black Pete, a racist caricature that is part of the December holidays in the Netherlands and Belgium), resulting in heated public debate garnering both national and international media attention from 2011 till now. The campaign ran from October till December, at the peak of the public debate.

The campaign resulted in 38.000 museum visitors per month on average during the period October-December. The illustration was used in a large print and online campaign by the museum. In addition, the illustration was featured on the national evening news (NOS) on television and as a cover for the culture supplement of a large national newspaper (NRC).

The English title of the exhibition 'Heden van Het Slavernijverleden' is 'Afterlives of Slavery'. In Afterlives of Slavery visitors are confronted with today’s legacies of slavery and colonialism in the Netherlands. Slavery and the personal accounts of the enslaved form part of a common history shared by black and white – a past that continues to shape and influence Dutch society today.

The exhibition places the enslaved and their descendants centre stage. To initiate a sometimes difficult but productive dialogue, the Tropenmuseum has sought out personal stories from past and present that bring the history of slavery and its current-day legacies up close. The pieces on display from the Tropenmuseum’s collection – tangible relics of the history of slavery – serve to intensify the experience. Afterlives of Slavery presages the permanent display on the contemporary legacies of slavery and colonialism (2021).

For many Dutch people, the link between the country’s historic involvement in slavery and present-day society is unclear. But for large groups in our society the legacies of slavery can still be felt today. For Dutch black people, the links between slavery and inequality, racism and discrimination are painfully obvious. White Dutch people may not have the same daily experience, but this common history is just as much about them. What is our shared history of slavery? And how do we approach it today? How can we forge a joint future? These are the key issues which the Tropenmuseum seeks to explore with its visitors through this exhibition.

The exhibition documents the history of Dutch involvement in slavery and how the enslaved rose up against the system – not only through rebellion and opposition, but also through the creation of new forms of music, religion and language. Such deeds of cultural resistance were a way of reclaiming their humanity.

Transatlantic slavery was abolished in 1863, but it was only in 1873 that the enslaved were free to leave the plantations. It all seems a long time ago, but the unequal race relations built up over hundreds of years have not simply disappeared. The Netherlands has been shaped by its past involvement in slavery, which continues to leave its mark on Dutch society to this day. Historical power relations have created an inequality that many Dutch people are still confronted with daily. Racism, prejudice and economic inequality based on skin colour and country of origin is still prevalent.

Today there are various groups in Dutch civil society promoting public awareness and equality of opportunity. They speak out against the traditional blackamoor ‘Zwarte Piet’, oppose ethnic profiling by the police and agitate for inclusive education. But political activism has been around a lot longer: around the time of Suriname’s independence (1975), black liberation movements such as the National Organisation of Surinamese in the Netherlands were already speaking out against discrimination and racism.

This exhibition, designed by devrijervandongen, is a preliminary to a major presentation on the Netherlands’ colonial past and has been curated by staff at the Tropenmuseum with considerable help from external advisors. The museum is eager to take critical responses to the exhibition’s content on board for the follow-up.

The exhibition Afterlives of Slavery is co-funded by the BankGiro Loterij, Creative Europe program of the European Union and Mondriaan Fund.

Illustration by Brian Elstak.