Jermiah Quarshie, This is who I am? 2012
Time, Trade and Travel, a joint exhibition by the Stedelijk Museum Bureau of Amsterdam and the Nubuke Foundation in Accra, Ghana, explores the histories of globalization and capitalism that link the Netherlands and African countries. The standout painting by Jermiah Quarshie, This is who I am? beautifully illustrates the complexity of immigration, nationality and culture for Surinamese-Dutch. The work depicts the face of Clarence Seedorf, a Surinamese-born Dutch football player, half covered by nine solid squares of color on the left half of the canvas. Quarshie further complicates the painting by overlaying English and Dutch text onto the portrait. The color blocks, text and portrait raise questions about the history and identity of Surinamese-born people living in the Netherlands without preaching or oversimplifying.
The color blocks strengthen the painting’s instant visual impact. The mixed flesh tones of the right half of the canvas contrast with the solid bright Crayola-like tones of the squares. The perfectly square single-hued blocks make the fine detail in the portrait even more striking. The color choices of the blocks also bring up questions of national loyalty for Surinamese-born residents of the Netherlands. The top four blocks are orange, black, grey and white: the colors of the Dutch football jersey. As the portrait depicts one of the most famous football players for the Dutch team, these colors make a clear reference. The bottom four blocks are black, green, yellow and red: green, yellow and red make up Surinam’s flag while black, green, yellow and red make up Ghana’s flag. The connection to Surinam is clear, but the connection to Ghana requires the understanding that the African slaves brought to Surinam by the Dutch were largely from West Africa. Once again the complexity of the piece deepens. These seemingly simple colors actually represent the Netherlands, the Dutch-colonized Surinam and the original home of many slaves brought to Surinam by the Dutch. Although these understandings weren’t all initially obvious to this American reviewer, many Dutch and Surinamese-Dutch would understand the significance of Quarshie’s color-choices in the first viewing. The color-blocks further the idea that national identification for Surinamese people in the Netherlands comes with significant colonial baggage.
Jermiah Quarshie, section of This is who I am? 2012
The right half of the canvas tells a similarly complex story. The portrait of Clarence Seedorf is complicated by text tracing the ancestry of Ank de Vogel-Muntslag. Quarshie uses contrasting flesh tones for the background and the lettering of the text. The text is easily read, but the legibility doesn’t compromise the clarity of the portrait. This alone requires enormous technical skill and color sensitivity. The text and image complement each other beautifully and strengthen the theme of national/ethnic/cultural identification. The give and take between word and image gives the painting a subtlety and nuance that would be impossible if the portrait and text were separated. The text itself traces the paternal ancestry of Ank de Vogel-Muntslag, telling how her ancestors lost and eventually gained freedom from slavery. The text directly brings in the historical legacy of Dutch slavery in Surinam, but does so in a personal family narrative. The story also appears twice in the painting: first in English and then again in Dutch. This replication of text makes the story more accessible to foreign viewers like me and makes the absence of an indigenous Surinamese or West-African language all the more notable. This strategy complements the reality that Ank de Vogel-Muntslag grew up in the Netherlands. Her ancestors were slaves, but she speaks English and Dutch. Surinamese-born and Netherlands-raised, Ank de Vogel’s story is also a Dutch story.
A combination of portrait, text and color blocks, This is who I am? manages to illustrate and question the multiple identities of Surinamese-born people living in the Netherlands. The text highlights the historical legacy of Dutch slavery and colonialism in Surinam while the color choices hint at numerous national and cultural identities. The painting is skillfully done and visually striking, but more important, it critically examines historical and current relationships between Surinam, the Netherlands and West Africa while exploring what this means for Surinamese-born Dutch.