SLAVERY at the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

Anonymous, Enslaved Men Digging Trenches, c. 1850 Rijksmuseum, purchased with the support of the Johan Huizinga Fonds/Rijksmuseum Fonds, 2013

Writing a review on an exhibition which is already sold out, doesn’t seem to make sense. However, the Slavery exhibition at the Rijksmuseum is too important not to be discussed.

Right from the start the tolling bells confronted me with my own perspective. Hearing these bells I find myself in a church.  In the colonies however, these bells signaled the start and end of the day for the enslaved people working on the plantations. 

The atrocities of the slave trade become immediately clear in the opening rooms with a songs about a plantation owner having killed yet another enslaved child and with a contemporary art work ‘La Bouche du Roi’ (Romuald Hazoumé) which visualises the packed slave ships.

Throughout the exhibition personal stories of enslaved people create the context for the objects on display. All their names are western names and a very simple display confronts you with how the enslaved were stripped of their identity by letting their original names fade away from a list to be added with their new western name to another.

From the millions of enslaved people, only a few stories have survived, mostly because they played a role in history. Take João for instance. Being enslaved by the Portuguese, he escaped to Dutch Brasil. Since he could provide the Dutch with intel about the Portuguese in the overtaking of Brazil lead by Johan Maurits (yes, the one who commissioned the Mauritshuis), Joao’s story survived. 

For me these personal stories carried the exhibition right until the end with the story of Lohkay whose breast was cut off because she tried to flee. A machete, similar to one was used for this grueling act is shown like a trophy in the middle of a display surrounded by a curtain of glass blocks that served as pay for the enslaved on St. Maarten. Even the threat of loosing her other breast too didn’t stop Lokhay to successfully try again, encouraging others to fight for their freedom too. 

Thanks to all the stories, the objects and art works (including the famous couple Marten and Oopjen, painted in full length by Rembrandt), the exhibition emphasizes that the Golden Age was not ‘golden’ for everyone: it is made abundantly clear that the wealthy white minority profited from the work done by majority of black enslaved people who they treated abysmally. 

If you want to visit this gripping exhibition, keep an eye out for last minute cancellations, opening time slots again. If you don’t succeed in obtaining a ticket, take a look at the website of the Rijksmuseum for a complete overview of the stories and objects of the exhibition.    Wendy Fossen  12th July 2021

Slavery continues at the Rijksmuseum until 29th August