Witte de With NRC
Witte de With NRC
Witte de With NRC
NRC Handelsblad

Witte de With NRC 16-09-2017


Opinion by Hans van Houwelingen on the name change of the Rotterdam Art institute Witte de With.
Published in the NRC weekend edition of September 16/17, 2017. 


The Witte de With Square in Amsterdam-West – which I was asked to design in 2013 – owes its name to the former Witte de With Street, whose single row of houses made way for a new building and a square. The architect presented a computer simulation of his new building, including a sun-drenched square with a large green tree and a terrace filled with white people dressed in summer clothes. I photoshop-ed every lie from this idyllic picture, after which an almost lifeless, leafless tree on a dismal Monday morning remained, and the square was populated only by a few young immigrant loiterers. I got away with it by emphasizing the fact we had to inaugurate this new little square with the truth, not with fabrications. History is suffering enough already, being constantly modelled in the forms that suit best.

Despite my keen interest in social relationships, I associated the name of the art institute in Rotterdam with that of its street, rather than with Witte de With the historical seafaring hero, and the stories of his crimes. Now the institute Witte de With wishes to change its name in order to be dissociated from the colonial violence for which the 17th-century Admiral Witte de With was in part responsible. While his battles are well documented, as is his role, alongside Piet Hein, in capturing the silver fleet, he is also known for his cruelty, involvement in the incineration of clove plantations and in the slave trade.

At its foundation in 1990, Witte de With was named after the street on which it was located, and went on to become a stronghold of contemporary art and social engagement. Neither its first director, Chris Dercon, nor his successors Catherine David or Nicolaus Schafhausen, seem to have been aware of or preoccupied by this blind spot, as it is currently referred to. The fact the institution now expands its historical consciousness and self-reflection is a solid step forward. The research on the base of which it now wishes to change its name deserves appreciation, of course. It also perfectly fits a Zeitgeist in which issues of emancipation and identity circulate between cultural agendas and research projects underpinned by post-colonial studies.