John Samson reports from the Netherlands for NTR Caribisch Netwerk. Translation by Peter Jordens.
How is it possible that a painting by Rembrandt can make such an impression on your own life and identity? It is a question that has weighed on Layzmina Emerencia (23) from Aruba. “Afro-Caribbean culture is quite absent in Aruba.”
Layzmina used to walk past the Rembrandt House in Amsterdam almost every day as she went to classes for her college degree in Dance Education. “For six years it never caught my attention, whereas tourists come from afar to see those paintings. But one day I saw a black man on the large banner outside the Museum.”
What is so special about that? “When you think of paintings from the Dutch Golden Age, you think of white people who are depicted very beautifully and proudly. Black people, in contrast, would be sitting somewhere in a corner, if you looked closely, or they were shown in a submissive role.”
Through WeConnect, a foundation geared at Caribbean students in the Netherlands, she was able to get a tour of the exhibition. “Something happened to me when I was all completely alone in one of the rooms. Wherever I looked, I saw black people depicted, proud and in really nice clothes, portrayed as importantly as the well-to-do white people. What touched me were certain facial expressions, the proud way they looked at me. It was as if I was looking in the mirror, because I saw a little bit of myself, as my skin color is also dark.”
In contrast to [neighboring island] Curaçao, Aruba consists mainly of light-skinned people. “There is this idea and this pride that we are all descendants of the original, Indigenous inhabitants. But not all of us are; the slavery past is ignored.”
“Sometimes I don’t feel Aruban because of my skin color,” says Layzmina. “I am from San Nicolas. It is a neighborhood that is rich in culture and where many dark-skinned people live. But the neighborhood is generally viewed as retarded. And that has everything to do with it. The whole of San Nicolas is viewed as a kind of ghetto, the ‘chocolate city’ where only minorities live. A related notion is that all black people in Aruba are originally from other islands, such as St. Maarten. So where do we actually belong?”
“Almost all people in Aruba of some regard are light-skinned, such as our national hero Betico Croes. In school we learn about Tula and slavery in Curaçao, but not about what happened in Aruba. It is therefore not surprising that until recently my father did not realize that he is a descendant of enslaved people.”
Returning to Rembrandt’s artwork, Layzmina says: “A painting of a proud black woman touches me, because it makes me more aware of how I tend to behave. I don’t know exactly why, but something makes us Arubans unconsciously think that the Dutch always know better. In a group setting, they always take the lead, whereas I can’t express myself as easily, and tend to stay quiet.”
“After the tour, some girls said that in Curaçao they often used to go on excursions to museums with their school or when there was a cultural week. I thought to myself: we in Aruba experience culture quite differently. They are more advanced. I would like our school children to learn more about our history and culture, that there are also black people in our history and culture.”
“I would like to talk to the Minister in Aruba about this. We become more confident when we know who we are and when we feel that we too matter. If we stimulate art and culture more in Aruba, we will go forward more.”
“I am ready to help Aruba in this regard. That is why I ask the question: Why is Afro-Caribbean culture so absent in Aruba? What does that say about Aruba?”
For the original article (in Dutch), go to https://caribischnetwerk.ntr.nl/2020/07/24/ik-voel-me-soms-geen-arubaan-door-mijn-huidskleur.
Aruba-born Layzmina Emerencia is a recent Drama and Dance Education graduate from the Amsterdam University of the Arts and is now a dance teacher at Aslan Muziekcentrum in Amsterdam.
The exhibition in the Rembrandt House to which Layzmina refers in the article is HERE: Black in Rembrandt’s Time, which has been discussed in our previous posts Dutch Golden Age Art Wasn’t All about White People. Here’s the Proof and Decolonising Museums: The New Network Opening up the Diversity Debate in the Netherlands. More information is available at https://www.rembrandthuis.nl/exhibitions/now-on-view.
[Photo above by John Samson.]