The tearoom tango in Maassluis around Jeanne Oosting’s unknown art and the n-word

Words change, it can lead to rebellion. It happened in Maassluis in 1775, when residents from above not only had to sing their well-known hymns faster, but in other words also in a new rhyme. The ‘psalm riot’ broke out with fights, screams and barking in the church, threats and finally police intervention.

Whether to change the word or not caused quite a stir this summer in Maassluis. Not in the church – so no new hymn riots – but in the cultural area, in the Museum Maassluis. A modern word issue arose around the use of the ‘n-word’ in (and on) works of art.

Drawings by Jeanne Bieruma Oosting, which got things started, were rarely shown. It was due to the fact that these works were exhibited there Jane’s summer, a series of six exhibitions in as many museums as this summer devoted to the work of the almost forgotten artist Jeanne Bieruma Oosting (1898-1994). She has been put back on the map by biography Don’t lose time which Jolande Withuis published about Oosting in 2021.

It revealed unknown, rebellious sides of Oosting as an artist. She proved to be more than an interior and landscape painter. For example, in Paris in the 1930s, Oosting made haunting graphics about death and misery, drawing nude lesbian beauties – work that is hardly seen in the Netherlands. It was not considered appropriate and not feminine. In order to finally be able to show such a work to the public, Withuis took the initiative for the exhibition series. It gave a more complete picture of this artist who had to fight for recognition because, as a woman, she claimed a role in art that was socially undesirable.

also read ‘Sex and inequality on macabre etchings. With Jeanne Oosting, Holland has gained a rebellious artist’

Donation

Museum Maassluis plays a special role in Oosting’s cultural heritage. In 1983, when she was 85, she donated more than a hundred paintings and drawings to the museum in the city on the Nieuwe Waterweg. In a big museum, her work would just stay in the basement, she thought. Oosting wanted her work to be seen, and stipulated in the donation that the museum should exhibit her works for at least a fortnight each year – and the museum has done just that. Meanwhile, the focus of the modest, locally supported museum is mainly on the history of the city.

The museum is also Holland’s Oosting treasury – after her death, the museum received even more material, such as sketchbooks and her painting box, which can now be seen there. During the preparations for the exhibitions in the depot, Withuis found a painting that Oosting had done in Paris in the 1930s of a black man in a yellow shirt. She had often seen it in pictures, but never for real.

Withuis wanted the portrait, praised by critics in the 1930s, to be published in Jane’s summer could be seen. But it was damaged. The museum had no money for restoration. Withuis then paid for the restoration out of his own pocket. And the restored painting, which Oosting describes on the back of the canvas as ‘Portrait of a Negro’, was loaned to the Museum Henriette Polak in Zutphen, where it was exhibited under the title Man in yellow shirt.

Photo Pepijn Kouwenberg/ Collection Museum Maassluis / Art property in the municipality of Maassluis

In addition to the black man in the yellow shirt, there were also two rarely seen drawings – two vivid, colorful impressions of black women in San Francisco, which Oosting made during her US trip in 1963. She wrote ‘Negroes in tearoom’ under one drawing and ‘Three Negroes’ under the second.

Especially in museums with a lot of colonial heritage, a discussion has arisen in recent years about terminology with colonial roots. The Rijksmuseum therefore decided in 2015 to no longer use the ‘n-word’ and descriptions such as ‘Hottentot’. The debate paper for the cultural sector, which, among other things, the Tropenmuseet published in 2018, was entitled ‘Words mean something’. The ‘n-word’ is no longer possible in the modern context, only in historical texts, between quotation marks, was the advice. (In a letter from various interest groups to the government about the forthcoming public apology for slavery’s past, it was argued last week that the use of the ‘n-word’ should be made a criminal offence.)

Photo Pepijn Kouwenberg/ Collection Museum Maassluis / Art property in the municipality of Maassluis

‘Oriental formulation’

The Maassluis museum chose to give Jeanne Oosting historical justice as an artist and put the words she had written herself on her drawings as titles on the text plates. They put up a wall plaque with the text: “The titles of the artworks are noted as Jeanne Oosting herself wrote them down during her lifetime. Some we would write in other terms today.”

Thousands of visitors visited the exhibition. Two visitors were critical of the text accompanying the San Francisco drawings, but agreed with the rationale when pointed out. A man who visited the exhibition with his wife was really against the text signs.

At the beginning of July, Museum Maassluis therefore received a letter from the poet and scientist Joop Alleblas with a request to replace the two named nameplates with n-words on the otherwise “beautiful exhibition” “in light of recent social developments”. The museum replied that they would like to continue using Oosting’s words and referred to the explanatory board.

Alleblas was not satisfied with that and wrote a new letter. This time he attached a letter from Aspha Bijnaar, director of the platform Museums confess colorwhom he had asked for advice. Bolstered by Nearly’s letter, Alleblas again requested that the museum “correct” the captions. Alleblas wrote: “You could suppress a lot of unrest and thereby at the same time contribute to a better and tolerant world.”

We did not want to end up at the center of this social discussion

The Maassluis Museum was concerned about the problem. “We didn’t want to end up at the center of this social discussion, with demonstrations imminent, so to speak,” says museum curator Pieter van Houten. “We were primarily interested in Jeanne Oosting’s art.” After consultation with the board, it was decided to exchange the two drawings with controversial captions in mid-July with other works by Oosting, illustrations for Poe’s work, for the rest of the exhibition, which closed in September.

Thus, the sting seemed out of the question. But that was without counting Dr. Alleblas. In the meantime, he had also been to the exhibition ‘Jeanne’s summer’ in Zutphen. And there was a painting of a black man in a yellow shirt by Oosting, from the Museum Maassluis collection, of all places – with the caption ‘Man in a yellow shirt’. So it could be different, he concluded. Alleblas then contacted the regional edition of Ordinary Newspaper, to publicly condemn the removal of the two drawings and the course of events. The national opinion page Joop from BNN-VARA took over the message.

‘Politically correct harassment’

Looking back, Jolande Withuis believes that the museum has succumbed to “politically correct intimidation. I wouldn’t use the word ‘nigger’ anymore either, that’s not the point. But I’m against brushing off the past, to clean up something after today’s standards – it’s like removing Trotsky from photographs. I’m bad at that. Jeanne Oosting was not a racist, she used the term neutrally. With that statement from the museum, they should have let the works hang.”

Tiana Wilhelm, the director of the museum in Zutphen, where Oosting’s painting of the black man with a yellow shirt from Museum Maassluis hung with a nameplate without the n-word, thinks differently: “As a museum, we do not want a description of creating a barrier between the artwork and the visitors. We care about the artwork. Certain descriptions are no longer common for understandable reasons. We discussed this with Jolande Withuis; she takes the position of a historian, I understand that, but we are a museum that adapts to changing times, without to violate the creator’s intentions.”

Withuis says: “By changing titles, you make it difficult for researchers to find contemporary answers to works. This painting was then exhibited as ‘Negro in Yellow Shirt’. But the Zutphen solution is of course better than removing the work.”

Photo Pepijn Kouwenberg/ Collection Museum Maassluis / Art property in the municipality of Maassluis

Director of Aspha Bijnaar van Museums confess color, considers it “a sign of weakness” that the Museum Maassluis has removed the relevant works by Oosting, “instead of engaging in discussion”. This is what the platform wants: “We want to promote reflection and self-reflection when it comes to diversity, inclusiveness and equality.”

The platform also does not want to print anything to anyone, she says. Forty museums are now affiliated Museums confess colorcreated at the initiative of a few museums, to work with Code Inclusion & Diversity for the cultural sector, supported by the government in 2019. It builds on ideas Words matter. For example, there is a new ‘handbook’ for language use in the cultural sector: ‘Values ​​for a new language’.

It contains a separate entry: “The new language has no n-word”. They have now read this guide in the Museum Maassluis, says curator Pieter van Houten: “Next time we will do it differently.”

Leave a Comment