Walking the Via Dolorosa through Amsterdam (Part 2)

This is part two of my commentary on Art Stations of the Cross: Troubled Waters, a multisite exhibition in Amsterdam running from March 6 to April 22. (Read part one.) Unless otherwise noted, all photos are by Eric James Jones/ArtandTheology.org.

STATION 4. Ocean Eden by Lynn Aldrich is a whimsical coral reef assemblage made out of everyday household cleaning supplies—sponges, scrubbers, scouring pads, mop heads, brushes, plastic gloves, and plungers, a rich biodiversity. Sea urchins, sea anemones, starfish, and snails are among the animals evoked.

Ocean Eden by Lynn Aldrich
Lynn Aldrich (American, 1944–), Ocean Eden, 2008. Sponges, scrubbers, scouring pads, mop heads, brushes, rubber gloves, plungers, and wood, 234 × 168 × 61 cm.

Playful though it is, this bricolage of commercial products, arranged to represent an underwater ecosystem, creates a crass juxtaposition of natural and unnatural that makes the piece tragicomic. The subtext is ecological concern—in particular, for the endangerment of coral reefs. Let’s clean up our oceans, the work seems to say. The assignment of Ocean Eden to station 4, “Jesus meets his mother,” reinforces the traditional conception of nature as mother. Here we meet Mother Nature, who grieves our mistreatment of her.

Ocean Eden by Lynn Aldrich (detail)

Ocean Eden by Lynn Aldrich (detail)

Station 4 is sited at the Keizersgrachtkerk, a church built under the leadership of Abraham Kuyper just two years after the 1886 schism of the Dutch Reformed Church. (Kuyper led the conservative offshoot, the Doleantie.) Aldrich’s assemblage is visible from the street through the main glass entrance doors and so can be viewed even when the church is locked. Luckily, a staff member was there to let us in after hours through a side entrance, so we could see the work closer up. It’s located in a small lobby that dips between stairwells on either side.

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STATION 5. Next on the route is the Amsterdam Museum, whose building complex served from 1580 to 1960 as Burgerweeshuis, the city orphanage. Before that it was a monastery. To mark this change of function, a large entrance gate was built in 1581 off the Kalverstraat, which, as Marleen pointed out to me, features a relief sculpture of a group of orphans gathered around the Holy Spirit, entreating passersby for help:

Wy groeien vast in tal en last. Ons tweede vaders klagen
Ay ga niet voort door dese poort, of help een luttel dragen.

We grow steadily in number and burden. Our second fathers ask with heavy hearts:
“Do not go forth through this gate without helping us a little in our care.”

Orphanage relief sculpture
Relief sculpture by Joost Jansz Bilhamer (Dutch, 1541–1590), above the entrance to the courtyard of the former City Orphanage of Amsterdam. Address: Sint Luciensteeg 27. The inscription is by the Dutch poet Joost van den Vondel. The paint colors, which are not original, seem to me a bit gaudy; to view the sculpture in its pre-restoration state, click here.

Their “second fathers” are, of course, their new caretakers, who run the orphanage. These children are asking for someone to help them carry their burden (poverty, hunger, sickness, lack of education, lack of prospects for the future, feelings of abandonment, longing for love, etc.), which the fathers are helping to shoulder but who can do only so much with their limited power. This sixteenth-century sculpture and inscription resonate with the fifth station of the cross, “Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus carry his cross.”

But this is only supplementary to the main artwork we’ve come to see: Out of History by Iris Kensmil, located in the Schuttersgalerij (Civic Guards Gallery). Part of the Amsterdam Museum, this gallery is a covered passageway that visitors can enter for free, featuring portraits of Dutch citizens through the centuries. (Admission to the rest of the museum is €15.)

Out of History by Iris Kensmil
Iris Kensmil (Dutch, 1970–), Out of History, 2013. Triptych, oil on canvas, 105 × 465 cm.

An artist of Surinamese descent committed to highlighting black contributions to Dutch history, Iris Kensmil was commissioned by the Amsterdam Museum in 2013 to create a new work to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in the Netherlands. (The Netherlands was a major player in the transatlantic slave trade from the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries.) She chose to depict three strong black figures from eighteenth-century Surinam (a former Dutch colony in the Guianas) who rose above colonial oppression to secure a position and a future for themselves.

The left panel of this triptych shows Elisabeth Samson (1715–1777), who, through her business acumen, became one of the richest women in Surinam. After this socioeconomic rise, she then successfully petitioned the Dutch government to be allowed to marry a white man, and became the first black woman in Surinam to do so; this consolidated her power. But despite overcoming huge obstacles, Elisabeth’s legacy is somewhat controversial because she amassed and maintained her wealth the same way the rest of the Dutch of Surinam did at that time—through slavery. (She owned a coffee plantation and some forty slaves.) Hear Cynthia McLeod’s super-entertaining TedX talk about Elisabeth Samson, which is just fifteen minutes long. (I could listen to this woman teach me history all day long!)

Out of History by Iris Kensmil
Elisabeth Samson

The central panel of Out of History shows Wilhelmina Kelderman (1734–1836), about whom less is known. What we do know is that she was an enslaved woman from Surinam who purchased her own freedom and that of her son. I think that’s a moneybag she’s holding.  Continue reading “Walking the Via Dolorosa through Amsterdam (Part 2)”