Currently on view at the Amsterdam Rijksmuseum is the exhibition Goede Hoop - South Africa and the Netherlands since 1600. Our author Thato Magano saw it and this is their commentary on the experience.
They. They. They. They.
“The Enslaved you Mean!”
“Yes, the Enslaved.”
But over there.
“Do you see the Now?”
The Now? What do you mean? What now? When now?
Hold up! You serious with this shit?
But you don’t know\We don’t know\They don’t know
Them/They/Those/There/Not here/Not me/Not us
They don’t know
They they they they they they they
“Are you hearing yourself?”
“Can you hear yourself?”
But They did
So many tears
They keep coming
I can’t believe it
I refuse to believe it
I’m asking why
Why Why Why Why
I can’t believe it
Always For You
They were lazy
They had cattle
They drnk all the time
They had minerals
The spices\The spices\The spices
By the mediocre
It is said
you you you
It’s Eartha Kitt’s wicked laughter that mocks as the realization of just how we’ve played ourselves sinks in. “Stupid” Eartha mouths between spurts of laughter at the thought of compromising in a relationship. The over two-minute clip from the 1982 documentary, All by Myself: The Eartha Kitt Story, of Kitt laughing at this seemingly most ridiculous idea of compromising in a relationship is perhaps how Empire thinks about its relationship to its colonial past.
“To compromise. What is compromising? Compromising for what? Compromising for what reason? …” Kitt declares as a dog howls in the background. Empire, here denoting History, Time, Race, Power, Whiteness, Supremacy, and the myriad constructs we use to describe the modern world’s relationship to Black people and Blackness as legitimately secondary and inconsequential to the history of time and evolution, is perhaps the ultimate embodiment of Kitt’s words in Empire’s conception of itself.
It has no desire to compromise. No desire to make complex and complicated this history. This relationality. “This relationship,” according to it. And whenever Black bodies encounter this ahistorical History of Empire, through those who fetishize its sovereignty in musea across the world, they are met with the wickedness of Kitt’s laughter in the condescending and unrelenting desire to silence, justify, educate, and commodify. Catalogues and walkabouts taken up as magical wands. As sorcerers to telepathically complete the story that the walls of Empire purposefully leave barren.
Like wrecking balls, we went. We went. Wanting to make you see. To tell the truth. To realize that the story was murkier than the one history books narrate. That history is lived in the present. Ever present. Wanting You to Want to change and tell a nuanced story. To tell the truth. Like wrecking balls we went. But you could only show us exhibits. Exhibition. Like exhibits. “Witnesses of the past,” you say. The Rijks a court of law.
Presenting BUT 60 witnesses from three hundred to make the case for the innocence of Empire. The jury of peers made up of the “unknowing, uneducated,” you say. The enterprising nature of fraught negotiations. The unequal agency of bartered trade. The empathetic relationship of exploitation. Severing the plundering umbilical endured for centuries. Your legitimacy bought by decrying the apartheid you blueprint(ed). Good Hopes blind in their continued imperialism. Uncompromising. Refusing.
We, those demanding nuance, compromise, we are caught in an impasse of desire(s). Desiring full representation. Full participation. But knowing that our participation is the antithesis to the civilized, normative version of History Empire desires not to complicate. Because “all is well that ends well”. The fervor of Good Hope assailing as it demeans because there were “a few bloody years in between”. Clapping and chanting gullible Hope while History reconstructs narratives and makes our past Equal relationship. We, us, the “Stupid” as Eartha laughs.
Kitt’s laughter reverberating. Assaulting as I write. The masochism of the decolonial. The desire to undo rijks across the Mediterranean. Across the Atlantic. The wicked laughter of colonial assurance. Of supremacy. The fever of the archive. The fetish of the Determining. The commodity of cultural imperialism.
But the game is up I realize. Instead, I laugh. Like Kitt, with relish. At the insolence of Empire. I wickedly salivate the terror of imperialism and its disgusting recalibration of history. I pity its insistence that I fall in love with its Brutality masked in Exhibitions. In fetishized self-serving shock and commodities of existence in the impending dawn of hyper-capitalism. At its infantile tactics to perpetuate its glorious past. To think of doing the right thing as “a way to shake off the feelings of colonial guilt.” The narcissism of the Rijks Museum to only “now start dealing with Holland’s colonial relationship with South Africa”. The love story the Dutch have to tell themselves about Jan van Riebeeck’s discovery (exploit) of South Africa. The refusal to compromise because the truth can only make shame an unliveable lived reality. The arrogant laughter caught in tense emotions of distortion.
I laugh. Wickedly, like Eartha, at the anxiety of Empire. I laugh in uncompromise. In refusal. In making anxious. In unsettling Empire and its history. In seeing it running scared. Ashamed at its nakedness.
I laugh in the refusal to love this narration of Empire. I relish the fervor of disruption. The gullible refusal of those whose histories haunt Empire’s world(s). They make my belly swell with ignominy at these anxieties. They sing, howl and scream every day with pointed fingers at this good hope. They make restless these faces that know to make smiles when they walk past you. Seeing your ancestors in You. Their teeth riddled with stains of lives lived and lost to their colonial service. Their Imperial present. The Rijks of the Nation.
And so Empire
The Rijks continues
It wasn’t US
Continuing to make itself, They.
Thato Magano is a Master of Arts in African Literature Candidate at the University of the Witwatersrand, co-founding partner of the online platform, Vanguard Magazine (.co.za) and recently accepted into the PhD program in Comparative Literature (with full scholarship) at Rutgers University, New Brunswick in the US.