‘I have named white and black from an early age’

Sarah Vos: ‘As a child I really loved the Stedelijk. You also have children to take with you, but I went out myself. Malevich, Kiefer, walking around the stairs…’Picture Jennifer Gijrath

When it was announced in the summer of 2019 that Rein Wolfs would become the director of the Stedelijk Museum on 1 December 2019, filmmaker Sarah Vos immediately called the Bundeskunsthalle in Bonn, where he was still working at the time. “It was a kind of impulse. I was on holiday in the south of France, I had my first conversation with him among the grasshoppers.”

Her impulsive action has a long history. Vos comes from an ‘artistic-intellectual’ family from Maastricht, and her parents took her to the Stedelijk Museum several times a year since she was a child. “I thought it was absolutely crazy. You also have children that you have to bring with you, but I went out myself. Malevich, Kiefer walking around the stairs… I really connected with that. When I was on The Film Academy in the 1990s, I did several series at the Stedelijk: about how people look at art, but also about people falling from works of art. I still have pictures from that time somewhere of security guards that are still there today – I have to dig them up again.”

First conversation with Rein Wolfs

In the years before the Wolfs took office, her love for the museum had cooled somewhat because of all the controversy. “I was curious about what was going to happen under Rein. In our first conversation, he said that he saw it as his mission to make the museum more inclusive and diverse. I immediately thought that it would be interesting to follow that process.”

It is a theme that plays a role in several of her films. As in her award-winning documentary Welcome to the Netherlands (2003), on the failed attempt by the Dutch state to receive minor asylum seekers who have exhausted all legal remedies at a campus in Vught in preparation for their return to their own country, and in Curacao (2010, with Sander Snoep) which follows a white Albert Heijn manager who wanted blacks in white management.

Vos knows that the relationship between people – and in particular between whites and non-whites – is one of the major themes in her life and work. “My mother is Belgian, she comes from a family of decrepit farmers. Her grandfather still lived in a castle; in her youth all the Belgian ladies went about in fur coats, and those castles were full of Congo relics. And my mother liked that; he wanted to ask questions. Then she was invariably gagged, sometimes harshly, and at one point was sent to one of the notorious nunneries. There she also received medicine – it was of a kind They flew over the Cuckoo’s Nestdevice – but she didn’t swallow it.”

With the spoon

“Next to that institute was a cemetery where my mother often used to draw as an excuse,” continues Vos. “One of the nuns saw it; she saw that she had talent and made sure that she could leave the institution and go to the art academy in Breda. She began to paint, and one of the major themes in her work is colonialism and the supremacy of the white man. It was instilled in me at an early age and has defined my outlook forever. I always scan where I am. And I have named white and black from an early age. I would like to know how the proportions are. And examine how well the white Dutchman knows himself.”

She has a radar for when something happens somewhere that is not comfortable. And then she doesn’t go. “On the contrary, I try to be there. I respect that if it’s not allowed, but I go to the hole. And when I hear something I find interesting, even if I know it’s complicated, I mention it immediately. It has sometimes led to complicated moments.”

“Because Wolfs was yet to start directing, and then a camera crew followed in his wake. At the start of the process, I spoke with all employees. It was necessary because the Stedelijk had already been damaged by all the affairs, so the staff was on alert. And it is also about such a sensitive subject. I told them I wasn’t out to kick people, but of course I wasn’t there to make a corporate film either. It should be sharp. It should be able to be sharpened.”

White middle-aged men

She was sent the diaries and was allowed to be involved in everything – from the creation of the highly controversial exhibition Kirchner and Nolde: Expressionism. Colonialism (which, according to this newspaper, marked the beginning of the end of the art museum) to the meetings about the museum texts. In one of the best scenes, Charl Landvreugd, newly hired as head of research and curatorial practice, meets with two academic staff, both ‘white, middle-aged men’ and veterans of the museum.

“It was a meeting on Charl’s first day at work, about formulating more inclusively and the question of who decides inclusion – and we were surrounded by three people: sound, camera and me. But you don’t notice that. It turned out to be a very interesting conversation; you see the discomfort. But you also see that they are constructive and uniform. It goes in all directions and allows the viewer to draw their own conclusions – I think that’s very important, especially with a subject like this.”

White balls on walls

Friday 11 November at 18.30 arranges The password in Carré a special presentation of White balls on walls, with a discussion with Director Sarah Vos, Stedelijk Museum Director Rein Wolfs and Charl Landvreugd, Head of Research & Curatorial Practice at the Stedelijk, chaired by Hadassah de Boer. Ticket sales via idfa.nl.

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