The Rijksmuseum’s long-awaited exhibition “Slavery: Ten True Stories” is a project about people, not least among them the visitors who traverse the eleven galleries where the show unfolds. To experience the exhibition is to meet constantly with one’s own image: in every room, mirrored walls and display cases incorporate the person who sees, reads, and hears the stories of men, women, and children long gone and too readily sunk into oblivion. The mirrors may prove distracting to some, but their presence provides a steadfast plea: Whoever you may be, you have inherited and, in some capacity, participated in the history presented here.
This confrontation between past and present is grounded in the exhibition’s brilliant and refreshingly novel presentation of the multi-layered and crushing truth of the atrocity of slavery through specific anecdotes rather than a compilation of facts. A suite of introductory galleries first set the scene in a more didactic mode. Listening to the audio guide, for instance, you take in the mind-boggling reality that more than 600,000 Africans were involuntarily transported to the Americas, while around the Indian Ocean, Dutch merchants trafficked between 660,000 and 1.1 million people. Even these first galleries, however, press towards storytelling on a human level.
The installation that opens the exhibition displays bells from plantations in major Dutch colonies, in Indonesia, South Africa, Suriname, Curaçao, and Guyana. The sound of bells on the audio guide asks you to put yourself in the place of the generations of enslaved people for whom the tolling meant the continued deprivation of their freedom. In the next gallery, the audio guide plays verses sung by the enslaved, and the lyrics on the wall—“Don’t burn me so! Again Mister Jansen murdered someone’s child”—leave no room for ambiguity about what has been perpetrated and what is being mourned in song.
This haunting experience is slightly interrupted by a gallery about the harrowing journey across the Atlantic, centered around a fantastic installation by contemporary artist Romuald Hazoumè, in which 304 petrol cans stand in for bodies forced together aboard a slave ship. The installation’s impact is somewhat undermined by a profusion of information, from the audio guide to the short film on view to the dense flyer available as a guide to the installation’s symbolism. The perturbing evocation of the Middle Passage is well intentioned but ultimately out of sync with the highly individualized approach that the exhibition takes in the galleries that immediately follow.
The curators of the exhibition were keenly aware of one major and persistent problem in the writing of the history of slavery: the relative absence of the voices and testimonies of enslaved people in the archive, which was itself the result of the hegemony of enslavers and colonizers. The historical books and manuscripts on display are accompanied by a QR code linked to transcriptions and translations of the texts, which makes it possible for visitors to read for themselves reports written by Dutch free agents. In tandem with this archival material, the exhibition uses oral histories and songs to chip away at the devastating anonymity that the institution of slavery relied upon and perpetuated. This inspired intervention extends to the audio guide’s narrators. The curators invited a constellation of contemporary individuals whose own biographies intersect with the stories of the ten individuals that anchor the exhibition to serve as narrators. The first—about a man named João, sent against his will from the Dutch outpost in Elmina (now Ghana) to the colony in Brazil—is told by Joy Delima, an actor who herself has traced an ancestor who was sold in Elmina. The forefathers of Remy Bonjasky, the kickboxing champion, worked on the same plantation as Wally, an enslaved man in Suriname whose story Bonjasky narrates. Even those whose families reach back generations within the Netherlands find themselves intimately enmeshed with the Dutch trade in human beings: Annemieke van der Vegt is a descendant of a boy kept as a servant in the seventeenth-century Dutch Republic, which gives her description of Paulus, a man who worked in an aristocratic household in The Hague in the 1670s, a tinge of personal history. Their contributions to the exhibition’s case studies expand upon and stand in for the scarcity of testimonials from enslaved individuals. The centuries-old archival documents we do have tend to acknowledge their existence in disturbing fashion. The logbook of the slave ship d’Coninck Salomon registers in administrative terms the death of enslaved people on board. Fragments of the life of João and Wally exist today largely because both men were interrogated by Dutch authorities who held them captive. The facsimile of the certificate of freedom that Francina van Bengalen received in 1716 in the Dutch colony of Batavia (modern-day Jakarta) strikes one as a moment of triumph after galleries that bear witness to so much suffering—but it is also outrageous, a shameful reminder that a society built on ideologies of white supremacy operates with such hubris that Francina’s freedom had to be granted to her on paper.
The coexistence of archival documents and contemporary voices drives home the inadequacy of traditional methodologies when it comes to understanding the lives of the oppressed.The inconceivable volume of people moved against their will all around the world is at odds with the paucity of written information that survives about almost every one of them. The disparity emphasizes how social systems of power have been successfully built on the premise that pieces of paper stand in for a person’s worth and even their existence. The exhibition’s curators made a concerted effort to resist the assumption that anyone purposefully omitted from the historical record cannot be reclaimed. What is so revelatory about their approach is that it begins with a conventional reliance on a paper trail but does not stay bound to it. That is, much of the exhibition revolves around individuals whose names we can literally read in adjoining documents (or facsimiles, in the case of materials housed in archives in former Dutch colonies, itself an admission of the limitations of telling this story using only sources preserved in the Netherlands). But in every gallery, the visitor is compelled to imagine the countless others whose paths crossed with the featured protagonist and whose existence was not acknowledged in any known surviving documents. The audio guide narrators fundamentally facilitate this, especially the descendants of individuals who remain anonymous. This combination of narratives reveals that, though we may lament the lack of details about the lives of so many enslaved people, their absence from established sources does not mean it’s impossible to evoke and historicize their experience.
The exhibition also reckons with the impotence of documents, an ironic counterpoint to their consequential place in the normative writing of history. A drawing from around 1788 depicts a man named Augustus van Bengalen holding a smoking pipe for Hendrick Cloete, the man in Cape Town who kept him as an enslaved servant. The accompanying label notes that, though Cloete’s will calls Augustus his “valet,” nothing is known about him after Cloete’s death; Augustus’s name and his portrait in graphite have come down to us but ultimately offer very little about his life. More tellingly, at the end of the exhibition, two official acts decreed by the King of the Netherlands in 1859 and 1862 signal the eventual abolition of slavery in Suriname and the Dutch East Indies. They are, on the one hand, precious evidence of a long-awaited moment for dozens of generations of enslaved people. On the other hand, they are mostly mere words on paper that could barely alter the racial and economic hierarchies essential to slavery’s ruthlessness. In Suriname, for one, some people were legally required to continue to work for their former enslavers, while the latter were compensated for the “property” they “lost” through abolition. Nearby, a wall-size reproduction of an 1883 photograph demonstrates that, even decades later, Surinamese women were displayed and photographed at the Colonial Exposition in Amsterdam, forced to pose as human curiosities for white Europeans. Freedom on paper offers no real protection for basic human rights, and individuals whose names were written into administrative records cannot be the only ones with experiences worth recounting.
The tension between who enjoys the privilege of becoming a historical figure—and why—lies at the heart of the exhibition. To this end, among the show’s strengths is the curators’ decision to feature white Dutch elites alongside nearly-forgotten enslaved individuals from Africa, Asia, and the Americas. It is telling that these portions of the exhibition can rely on works of art regularly given pride of place at institutions like the Rijksmuseum. “Slavery” is rooted in the ingenious work of the museum’s History department, but art objects are central to the effective investigations of slavery’s pernicious pervasiveness.
Two portraits, painted by Rembrandt during his first successful years in Amsterdam, are scrutinized anew in this exhibition, as the lives of Oopjen Coppit and her husband Maarten Soolmans directly intersected with the exploitation of slavery. Soolmans’ family made a fortune as one of the largest sugar producers in Amsterdam, benefiting directly from the dangerous work of harvesting sugar cane entirely handled by enslaved Africans and indigenous people in Dutch Brazil. Oopjen’s expensive black dress, luxurious feather fan, pearls, lace, and the portrait itself were made possible by wealth founded on the brutal toiling of individuals hundreds of miles away. Even after Soolmans’ death, Oopjen was connected to slavery: she went on to marry Maerten Daey, who had been a soldier for the Dutch West India Company in Brazil, where he beat and raped an enslaved woman named Francisca. She gave birth to and raised their daughter Elunam in Olinda while Daey and Oopjen decorated their Amsterdam home with idealized Brazilian landscapes and even a model of a sugar mill. These basic details about Oopjen’s life as a rich Dutch woman make painfully clear how much the portrait depended on the preservation of slavery—and how easily it can all be overlooked when we prioritize seeing the painting as a soaring example of the young Rembrandt’s mastery.
The mirrored columns that make up the perforated wall of the gallery where Oopjen’s portrait hangs juxtapose her image, at certain angles, with a marble bust of a young Black man wearing a collar around his neck. Nearby is its real-life counterpart, a brass collar that, for a long time, was assumed to have been made for a dog, despite the overwhelming visual evidence, in paintings and other media, that this type of accessory was worn by Black servants—including boys as young as six years old—in the seventeenth-century Netherlands, where slavery was technically illegal.
Works of art come together to remind the visitor that Black people were actively dehumanized even when they were not officially enslaved. Without needing explicit condemnation, we can recognize that our aesthetic admiration of these objects has allowed us to avoid grappling with the full scope of slavery’s abuses.
Perhaps most emblematic of this chronic aversion is the ceremonial glass commissioned in the first half of the eighteenth century by the owners of the Siparipabo plantation. The lead glass is engraved with images of the plantation’s landscape and buildings, with no indication of the harsh work that took place there. The only enslaved persons pictured on the glass are carefree generic types—a woman and a child—copied from an engraving in a book by a Dutchman that described the Surinamese colony. The plantation owners, far away in the Netherlands, were content to toast to their holdings in Brazil while an appointed director in Siparipabo meted out their orders. Across from the ceremonial glass are images of Jonas Witsen, who inherited three plantations in Suriname, and who maximized their profitability by strictly curtailing the little free time previously granted to the people he enslaved. One engraved portrait of Witsen identifies him as burgemeester, or mayor, of Amsterdam. The same man who oversaw the plantation where Wally was burned alive (after an attempted escape) was elevated to the highest civic office in Amsterdam, where he had the privilege to understand selectively the consequences of his decisions. The unvarnished presentation of these historical figures to the exhibition’s public readily begs for comparison with the resistance that lingers today towards recognizing that slavery is an inextricable part of the Netherlands’ history, regardless of the fact that it was legally prohibited.
The exhibition also makes clear that the Dutch East India Company trafficked in human beings throughout all the territories they colonized, including around the Indian Ocean. Just as the thousands forced into slavery on the coast of West Africa were robbed of their names, the people “purchased” around northeast India were given the name “Van Bengalen” (“from Bengal”) and sent all over, from Batavia to South Africa. Their stories are critical entries into the history that the exhibition illuminates, as they inform the visitor of the extent to which the assets and income of both the Dutch East and West India Companies relied on forced labor across Asia and the Americas.
One of the last galleries highlights the courage and leadership of several fighters who, in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, rose up against their enslavers and became heroic models for subsequent bids for liberation. In these cases, the weight of oral histories and local record-keeping is particularly mighty: from the drums that enslaved people in Curaçao used to play protest music to the Javanese babads that preserve the tale of the insurgent Surapati on dried palm leaves, the exhibition’s dedicated curators have compiled physical and aural mementos of a generations-long struggle for freedom. The gallery is packed with information and objects, which can be overwhelming, as visitors must move swiftly between rich accounts of revolt and commemoration, without as much space for contemplation as in the earlier galleries.
The penultimate gallery, by contrast, is devoted to a single legendary woman, Lohkay, who successfully fled from a plantation on Sint Maarten in the nineteenth century. But this is done to excellent effect, as the gallery turns the narrative towards release from slavery, both in the form of mass escapes and legal abolition. In the center of the gallery hangs a chandelier-like cascade of blue beads that recall the unofficial currency given to enslaved people in the Caribbean as a facile form of payment. In the aftermath of abolition, the blue beads were triumphantly tossed into the ocean. In the gallery, they glitter above the visitor in enduring testimony to the end of colonial dominion.
The blue beads, like the jubilant liberation song that brings the audio tour to a close, perform one of the most stirring aspects of the exhibition: its capacity to be a memorial. To memorialize the lives lost and the liberty taken from so many requires, on the one hand, bearing witness, which the exhibition asks the visitor to do at every turn. It also requires paying tribute to the full personhood of each individual so horrifically abused. In this exhibition, that means featuring the instruments that enslaved people played during their rare moments away from forced labor. It means listening to the songs that their descendants continue to sing today. It means a multi-vocal address, an encounter with voices rarely heard in museums. “Slavery”—like the recent, profoundly moving exhibition at the Speed Art Museum centered on Breonna Taylor, which gave the wall text in its final gallery over to Taylor’s mother’s description of her daughter’s life—proves that museums have the power and responsibility to see what we have previously rendered invisible and to create opportunities to learn, grieve, and honor collectively. The distance between individuals with significant privilege today and the beneficiaries of slavery in the past is not nearly as wide as we want it to be; globalization is not entirely a modern phenomenon, and contending with the injustices of the past might compel us to ask about the inequities of the present that we take for granted. “Slavery” is a novel and long-awaited model for finding and sharing a more complete history of our humanity, its loathsome turns, and its bravest vanguards.
Isabella Lores-Chavez is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Art History and Archaeology at Columbia. She is writing a dissertation on the circulation, use, and depiction of plaster casts in the seventeenth-century Dutch Republic, supervised by David Freedberg. Isabella is the 2020-2022 Samuel H. Kress Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts. In 2018-2019, she was the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Theodore Rousseau Fellow in European Paintings. Isabella received her B.A. from Yale in 2012. In 2013, she curated a small exhibition of drawings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, entitled Dutch and French Genre Drawings from the Robert Lehman Collection. She has also worked at the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Yale University Art Gallery, the Museum of Biblical Art, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Born in Colombia, Isabella grew up in Los Angeles, and is currently living in Amsterdam. You can follow her on LinkedIn.