Black History in the Rijks Museum – Diorama of a Slave Dance: Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder

              For anyone interested in learning about Dutch colonialism and the history of Black people in the Netherlands, I would highly recommend taking a Black Heritage Tour with Jennifer Tosch. Jennifer has a wealth of knowledge about museum studies, the history of Dutch colonialism, and the lasting impact of slavery in the Netherlands. She is also eager to engage and discuss all areas of these topics.

 On our tour with Jennifer through the Rijks museum we examined the role of black people in the curated art and how they are depicted or mentioned (if at all). One of the aspects of this tour that struck me – especially given our ongoing discussion about storytelling – involves the “Diorama of a Slave Dance” by Gerrit Schouten. Gerrit Schouten was a Surinamese artist, often commissioned by wealthy Dutch families to create dioramas depicting plantation and city life in Surinam. These dioramas were often sent back to the Netherlands and preserved in the homes of wealthy Dutch families as souvenirs. Today, these dioramas serve as an important source of historical information about life and society in Surinam during the late 1800s.    

 As Jennifer points out, the description of a diorama hanging in the Rijks museum (pictured below) labeled “Diorama of a Slave Dance” explains Gerrit Schouten’s art through the lens of a Dutch colonizer. The museum explains that the diorama depicts a dance typically performed on plantations for slaves by slaves, for their personal entertainment. Suggesting that these enslaved people were so happy with their lives that they had time to roleplay and put on joyful dances for each other. When I first read the description, I didn’t buy it as the real story either – but it’s in a museum and they’re preserving history, right? Jennifer explains the “ritual” or scene depicted in the diorama is actually a representation of how slaves communicated with each other under the oppressive oversight of a slave master (the man in red). Their movements, drumbeats, how they wore their clothing/head wraps, were meticulously coordinated for communication with one another in a way that would not allow the master to see or understand. For example, Jennifer explains that the if head cloth which women wore pointed in a certain direction, it would mean for someone to meet her in that area. Jennifer explained that while giving one of her tours to a group from Surinam, the Surinamese group members knew right away what the diorama did not depict a celebratory planation dance — but instead presented the covert communication styles of the enslaved. The description of the diorama in the Rijks museums reinforces the importance of understanding the context and point of view of the storyteller, just as much as the context of the artifact.  

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