The full title of this article from Africanah.org is “Dineke Blom–Dutch/Surinamese–and her affection for Dutch paintings from the 17th century.” Blom tries to answer the question how an artist with a Surinamese background can have an affectionate relationship with Dutch art from the 17th century.
What took me by surprise back then, and what I tried to articulate in my answer, is that I was surprised that someone would be surprised that someone “with my background”, angry with and personally hurt by colonialism and slavery, could have an affectionate relationship with Dutch paintings from the 17th century. And yet, I feel at home with Pieter de Hooch’s The Country Cottage. I also feel at home at Paramaribo’s Waterkant. Both places pull me in with equal intensity, as if by teleportation. Both emotions: affection and anger towards two opposite phenomenons from one and the same historical period do not rule each other out, they coexist. Inside me there is no opposition. There is no true opposition.
Country Cottage on the Waterkant
I travelled to Detroit, USA, in 2013 to give a lecture about my work. In the lecture, I discussed the various ways in which 17th century Dutch painting works as source material for my own drawings. During the proceeding Q&A, someone in the audience stood up and asked: how does someone like me, “with my background” (I was born in Suriname, my father is Surinamese) relate to works which are considered the epitome of Dutch culture, and “Dutchness”? The question took me aback.
The topic had never been relevant for me as an artist. It so happens that from a previous long term residency in the US I had learned that in the US I am identified as black. However, this is not necessarily how I identify myself. In Holland I am considered Dutch, without a hyphenated identity, although it is true that during some first-time encounters people ask me the perennial question: “but where are you really from?” On the other hand, and equally unpredictably, someone I have known for ages may never have realized that I am part Surinamese. Remarkably though, when it comes to my work, in Holland I have never been asked a question like the one I was asked in Detroit. Not even now, when postcolonialism is a hot topic in the realm of visual art and elsewhere. I am very much interested in discussions about the topic but my work is not capital P political. I remember giving my interlocutor in Detroit a somewhat vacuous answer, something like: “my Surinamese background does not play a crucial role”. After all, I “simply” feel at home with those paintings from the Dutch 17th century.
But why was I taken aback by the question? I have experienced moments in my life (I shall mention a few in a moment) when I was acutely and simultaneously aware of my Surinamese and Dutch backgrounds. On one occasion, I realized – to my own surprise – the ambivalence of my own feelings towards the Dutch 17th century. I was travelling to South Africa in 2015 to visit my son, who was studying there. In preparation for this trip, my first to South Africa, I had been reading about its history. This confronted me once more with Holland’s role as a colonizing power during the same period that has been branded as the “Golden Age”, epitomized by those 17th century paintings. All of a sudden, I could identify with the Detroit question. I imagined myself presenting my work to South African spectators and the thought hit me that in such a setting I could very well be asked: “you’re partly from Suriname, right? And that’s a former Dutch colony, right? You’re immersed in 17th century Dutch culture, don’t you get angry? After all, that same period includes colonialism and slavery, right?” I could imagine a similar setting, in Suriname, for example, with similar questions being raised by a Surinamese audience. And indeed, due to my personal background, I do get angry over Dutch colonialism and slavery. It hurts to be confronted with these issues, with the injustices and violence. However, in my studio, I do not have an issue with paintings from 17th century Holland. As an artist my emotions are straightforward: I love and admire the paintings of that particular period and the world of ideas, including the science and philosophy that it includes. This leaves me with a problem, an internal opposition. How do I integrate two conflicting emotions, one very negative and the other very positive, toward one and the same period, if at all? And can I?
For me this question links up – both within and beyond the realm of visual art – with the concept of “home”, of “feeling at home”. What do I mean when I claim that I “simply” “feel” at home with Dutch paintings from the 17th century? I shall try to answer this question through talking about my own work, and via examples from various different artistic disciplines. [. . .]