When my partner and I were planning to visit her hometown in Denmark in June 2017, she tipped me about a large exhibition focussing on the former Danish colonies in the Caribbean. Coming from Aruba myself, I was not aware of the colonisation by the Danes in the Caribbean region. Even I, who is very much interested in the topic of decolonising the mind, have much to learn. When I read the title of the exhibition, I got more and more excited: ‘Blinde vinkler. Billeder af kolonien Dansk Vestindien’ which translates to ‘Blind Spots – Images of the Danish West Indies Colony.’ If you happen to be in Copenhagen before February 3, 2018, you still have time to experience this exhibition at The Black Diamond. I do have to apologise in advance for the lack of exhibition images in this blog post. I was deeply focussed during the exhibition, that I forgot to take several pictures.
The exhibition opened in 2017. This same year the Danes commemorarte selling the former Danish colonies in the Caribbean region in 1917 to the United States. As part of this commemoration, the Danish National Archives made their archive records on Danish colonial slave trade accessible to the public. In the Blind Spots exhibition visitors get an impression how the Caribbean islands St. Thomas, St. John, and St. Croix were represented by the Danes during the colonial period. By using visual materials, such as photographs, maps, paintings, etc. the colonial representations are questioned and discussed in Blind Spots.
To commemorate the selling of colonial properties, […] is plainly a commemoration of the colonial mindset.
A brief history
Before going to Denmark, I researched a bit about the colonial history of the three islands in the Caribbean. Nowadays they are known as the ‘U.S. Virgin Islands.’ The Danish National Archives website provides a timeline of the historical event during the colonial period. Here are some quick dates:
1671 – Denmarks colonised St. Thomas
1718 – Colonising of St. John by Denmark
1733 – Danish West India-Guinea Company bought St. Croix from France
1733 – Enslaved West-African people revolted for half a year
1792 – Signing of an ordinance to abolish slavery on 1st January, 1803 (eleven years later)
1917 – Denmark sold St. Thomas, St. John, and St. Croix to the United States of America
This commemoration leaves a bitter-sweet taste on my tongue. On the one hand, it appears as if the Danes are aware that they had colonies in the Caribbean. On the other hand, I think that they forget three main reasons why this commemoration is upsetting. To commemorate the selling of colonial properties is commemorating 1) not having to worry anymore about the wellbeing of the former enslaved people and their children on the islands at that time, 2) that financially, the Danish Empire did suffer while the former enslaved community remained penniless and traumatised, and 3) the selling of territories as if the residents were commodities; even though both slave trade and slavery were banned and abolished. This commemoration is plainly a commemoration of a colonial mindset. Why would one show respect or pay tribute to this traumatising mindset? I am thankful that the Blind Spots exhibition inderectly calls out this colonial way of thinking and challenges most the Danes to reflect on their county’s historical narrative during the colonial period.
“[…] a picture […] always has a particular angle, reflecting a particular way of depicting the world.”
Who are the curators?
Having in mind the theme of new perspectives on Danish colonial history, it was important for me to know who the curators of Blind Spots are. Most importantly, I hoped for a non-Eurocentric collaboration between white Danes and Black People or People of Colour, with expertise on this topic and the three Caribbean islands. And of course, representation behind the exhibition scene also matters. The team of curators consists of among others, the Senior Researcher Mette Kia Krabbe Meyer. They used visual materials from the Danish archives illustrating the idealised, paradisiacal and romantic view the Danes had – and still have – of the present-day U.S. Virgin Islands. In collaboration with Art Historian Dr. Temi Odumesu, new perspectives are introduced addressing the one-sided view on the former Danish colonies in the Caribbean. In a booklet handed out as a guide during the exhibition, the curators make it clear that “[…] a picture is not a neutral window opening up on the past. It always has a particular angle, reflecting a particular way of depicting the world.” This awarenes of perspectives is what the curators probably hope to achieve among the visitors of Blind Spots.
In the exhibition you are guided through different themes. You are immediately confronted with the well-known colonial event in history: The arrival of Columbus in present-day Haiti in 1492. A woodcut illustrates Columbus being welcomed by the Taíno people offering gold as a gift. Like a paradise. This motif is characteristic in depicting travels at that time. By depicting the woodcut as such, problematic events are brought into oblivion: the introduction of new diseases, displacement, genocide, and slavery. This made me think of my own Art History experience as a student in Dutch academia. These topics would not surface on the table when discussing artworks related to the colonial period.
Erasure and visibility
The historical erasure of the resistance by the enslaved is a big blind spot within the Danish education. Students in Denmark are mostly taught about the Danes banning transportation of enslaved people from West Africa during the colonial period. Meanwhile, the abolition of slavery in 1848 is neglected, according to the curators. By including contemporary artworks in Blind Spots, artists seek to raise the visibility of resistance and identity of the enslaved people. Through performances Jeannette Ehlers (Denmark/ Trinidad) uses her body to call upon African Ancestors, while La Vaughn Belle (St. Croix) uses patterns in her artworks to visually retell the stories of power. The video below gives an impression of Ehlers’ work in the Blind Spots exhibition. A whip is transformed by the artist into a painting tool. The end result of the performance left me in a state of cognitive dissonance. Being confronted with the whipping sounds and seeing Ehlers’ intense performance, makes you reflect on the violence and brutality the enslaved people were forced to endure. By watching the performance it felt indeed as if African Ancestors were being called upon by Ehlers.
[EDIT: Ehlers informed me that this piece is part of a live performance in which she invites the audience to participate in whipping the canvas. This interaction with the audience is of course lacking in the video shown at the Blind Spots exhibition. Even though this piece is an allegory of the suffering of the enslaved and the resistance against the colonial project, Ehlers hopes that this performance raises awareness of the issues of the colonial project, its aftermath and impact on today’s power structures.]
Photographs and postcards
In a series of black and white pictures as part of the exhibition, we could see how Danes and Afro-Caribbean people lived together as masters and servants after the abolition of slavery in 1848. An example is the famous photograph used as the exhibition poster: A black nanny with a white child sitting on her lap. The photograph gives an impression of a close relationship between the two. With this picture, the curators want people to realise that such imageries have a blind spot. They say nothing of how the black nannies might long for their own families. With the development of new visual technologies, we see the theme of paradise coming back: Postcards showing a carefree holiday destination. In other words, the erasure of Black History during colonial period and in the present-day U.S. Virgin Islands.
Blind spot of Blind Spots
Several parts of the exhibition were an eye-opening for my own blind spots. Such as, history curriculums focussing solely on the banning of slave transportation, while neglecting the abolition of slavery. Or, the fact that I was unaware of the Danish colonial presence in the Caribbean. I appreciate the English descriptions in the exhibition and the guided booklet. This makes it more inclusive for visitors who do not master the Danish language. However, at the end of the exhibition, the curators are unaware of their own blind spot. In a series of three short interviews, several experts and historians discuss how the islands are doing in the present day. The majority of the discussions are in Danish without English subtitles. On the one hand, this makes the discussion more approachable for the Danes. On the other hand, by excluding an English translation, the people of the islands St. Thomas, St. Croix, and St. John or other non-Danish speaking visitors cannot follow this discussion, which is relevant beyond the borders of Denmark. [Edit: during the Summer of 2017, subtitles were added to the short interviews].
All in all, I would recommend this exhibition to anyone visiting Copenhagen — be it if you are woke or not — because we must confront our colonial history blind spots. Copenhagen is a dynamic and international city, but my advice to the curators is to take the opportunity to tour with the exhibition in the whole of Denmark, challenging more blind spots.