...or not to smash?
This is a very rare small 17th-century Japanese Arita porcelain dish which we recently acquired.
To some, this monogram is a like swastika, but to some, it shows a glorious past. We have doubted starting this debate, but not doing so would be a white privilege. Therefore we try to use it to broaden the perspective on the discussion of colonial heritage in public spaces. We try.
All over the world colonial statues are being brought down by protestors and thrown into harbours or wrecked irreversibly. Fully understandable the limit has been reached.
The VOC (and WIC) has enslaved, killed and hurt many, but arguably brought good too. Privileges such as stock exchange, banking, multinationals and a world economy are some that are still enjoyed by every single person in the world today. The VOC made the Netherlands at that time the most powerful country in the world, unmatched even in the centuries after, but at what cost?
Some argue one cannot become king by only being good. And who will deny a Dutchman his pride over this history could one ask? But that history has been glorified, and half of the story is told in history books.
We might as well smash this plate, but the hundreds of shards won’t tell us anything anymore.
What will the sculptures teach us when they are at the bottom of a harbour, or smashed beyond recognition? They won’t tell a story of a glorious victory of white men, but they also won’t tell a story of pain and sorrow anymore.
This little dish will be privately owned probably, but we will make sure the owner will know its history both glorious and dark.
Sculptures in public spaces are owned by each and every one of us, so should we not make sure we all know their full history? A little bronze plaque doesn't do, but perhaps turning them upside down in the soil as a foundation for something new as stated by a Dutch artist? Perhaps painted black, or placed in a tinted-glass box to de-contextualise them? We don’t have a solution.
This dish is literally a world of discussion in one’s hand. To smash or not to smash?
Contribute to the debate on our social media.
Or post it yourself. Tag us @zebregsroell and use #zebregsroell.
What do you think? Share your opinion, post on social media, and educate those around you.
Made by Enslaved People.
This cabinet, or your Jeans?
This cabinet was made for a high-ranking wealthy Dutch VOC official in 17th century Indonesia or Sri Lanka, by extremely talented Indian or Sri Lankan craftsmen. Europeans nowadays can of course buy such a piece to use it, admire its beauty and splendour and tell its important history.
However, it feels good when a Sri Lankan also decides to buy a piece so burdened with history. This is exactly why we choose to address sometimes a painful or difficult story behind objects. We make them accessible for new collectors who realize they are part of a shared history.
Arts and antiques in private collections are just as important as those in museum collections. Collectors on either side of history can admire and own such a piece, and we as vendors of these colonial pieces need to tend and provide them with the right context, as most museums in these crucial times are failing to take a stand.
Can this cabinet elaborate on the story of the Dutch slave trade in Asia?
It can, and it starts by telling the story of Dutch merchants settling in a trading post, growing out the be a large city. Not the capital of (Dutch) Indonesia as we know it, but a cross-road of trade routes visited by many from all over the world. The Dutch merchants of the VOC did not persuade a world empire and indeed did not reign over vast lands.
Can a white Dutch person appreciate and own a cabinet like this without shame nowadays? And what about an Indonesian?
One could argue that the VOC merely transported people from one city to another, but we don’t say we do. People could become enslaved by a variety of circumstances, among which the most essential war and famine. First, a victor might sell off prisoners as enslaved, second, a people might try to save their families by selling themselves. With luck, they might eventually buy back their freedom. In Surinam opposingly, the enslaved were crucial for the economic prosperity of their owner and thus were treated inhumanely. In Jakarta however, enslaved ownership was really a luxury, and their treatment depended entirely on their owner’s sense of decency, however, there were regulations on this.
Not in any way is the (paid) ownership of one another correct, not ever. However, one could argue that we nowadays should look at ourselves through history, before condemning it. Is buying jeans at Primark, H&M or Chanel for that matter in any way different than buying an ebony cabinet from the VOC workshops?
Who do you think made your jeans, and where?
Join the debate, post on social media yourself, and educate those around you.
Zoology. White men's practice,
or an Enslaved person's labour?
The 19th century brought us the evolution theory and a wide array of scientific research on the natural world, mainly done by European scientists. And taxidermy played an important role in studying animals.
However, Zoology heavily relied on colonialism.
The size and popularity of cabinets of curiosities grew larger since the Renaissance and with the rise and spread of European empires.
After all, colonial powers were collecting powers, and colonies constituted rich collecting grounds.
The objects in the collections of Kew Gardens or the British Museum, or Naturalis in Leiden for instance, came from the same places and followed the same routes as the other goods circulating through the colonial empire. And collecting, just like the imperial enterprise, required domination over people, not just things.
Wealthy collectors often relied on naturalists in the colonies – as well as slaving companies and enslaved peoples – to collect and transport specimens. The massive job to collect all these different Hummingbird species from the deepest Jungles and the steepest hills wasn't done by Zoologists, Naturalists or associates only.
By the 18th century collectors and naturalists developed a cooperative relationship. Naturalists would provide – and even gift – ‘coveted cultural objects’ to collectors in the hopes of gaining status and having their future endeavours financed.
To further keep up with the demand of European collectors, many port cities around the world were transformed into giant markets for the sale of ‘exotic’ plants and animals. This steady supply of goods, built on exploitative labour - slavery -, boosted scientific research from which species benefit, but it also endangered ecosystems and resulted in the loss of biodiversity, which makes species require protection today.