Onias Landveld with the staff. Still from Jongsma en O'Neill's documentary, courtesy of the interviewees.
This article originally appeared on VICE Netherlands.In January 2022, the Mauritiushuis museum in The Hague had a unique wooden staff on show. Topped by a carved figure of a woman with a small smiling mouth, the staff was likely taken by a German missionary from a member of the Ndyuka tribe in Suriname more than 120 years ago. Somehow, it landed in the hands of a collector who then passed it on to a German museum.
In the exhibition, the staff is accompanied by a short documentary featuring Dutch-Surinamese poet Onias Landveld delicately holding the artefact in his hands and examining it. A curator in a lab coat stands besides him, as he is overcome with emotions. "What have they done to you?" he asks, like a TV character identifying the remains of a loved one.Looting is a broad concept. It evokes images of Nazis filling their pockets with the possessions of Jewish families; Napoleon shipping all the art he came across on his conquests to the Louvre; colonial powers stealing jewellery, statues, and other valuable and storing them in their national museums, far from where they were originally made. The theft of these meaningful items spans ages and motivations, but has enduring effects on the people they were taken from.For their experimental exhibition Loot – 10 Stories, creators Kel O’Neill and Eline Jongsma attempted to shed light on this subject from different perspectives. In a brightly lit space painted digital lavender, O’Neill and Jongsma brought together ten different stolen objects and their stories – from the original head of a horse once part of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, to a Balinese asymmetrical dagger called a kris, to a self-portrait by Rembrandt.O’Neill and Jongsma are not art curators, but documentary filmmakers who like to experiment with technology. The items on exhibition come from various museums and were gathered “on a hunch,” Jongsma says. “For us, the story was more important than whether the object was beautiful or not.”
The wooden staff made by the Ndyuka people is “the heart” of the exhibition, O’Neill and Jongsma say, because it’s where the emotional impact of loot becomes clear. Onias Landveld, who is a Ndyuka descendent and has written several plays about his heritage, was invited to the Humboldt Forum museum in Berlin where the staff is housed to view the artefact and other looted objects.It was a strange experience, Landveld says. “How can you miss something if you didn't even know it existed?” he continues. “But the moment you come into contact with it, you feel a void. That is very strange. It’s a loss I can hardly describe."The Ndyukas were Maroons, enslaved people who escaped from plantations and developed their own community, culture, and rituals in the challenging rainforest environment of Suriname. European missionaries tried to convert them while spiriting away the religious and ritual artworks they considered demonic idolatry. Many tangible memories of Maroon culture have disappeared completely.“The strange thing is it wasn’t the staff that made me feel most emotional,” Landveld says. “That happened when I stood in front of the display cases and saw all the other items they had collected. As if my ancestors were a scientific project, as if it was a trophy cabinet, like: ‘Look at what all those Black people did’.”
During his visit to the museum, Landveld was surprised to see swords as part of the exhibit. "I had to ask the curator why they were there because, as far as I knew, my ancestors didn't have swords,” he explains. “‘Yes,’ said the curator, ‘they did.’ I had no idea. That made me feel a mix of anger, wonder, and sadness, but also joy and pride. Because this is evidence of a culture of people who were artistic, intelligent, and skilled, who knew how to survive in that jungle. It takes a lot of ingenuity.”One of O'Neill’s motivations for the exhibit is his strong belief that museums should facilitate more encounters between pieces from their collections and representatives of specific communities. "You see the emotional resonance of that particular piece of colonial loot,” he says. “It's possible that there are hundreds or thousands of objects in that collection alone that have a similar emotional meaning for people from other communities.”O’Neill and Jongsma also want their work to contribute to the cultural conversation spurring museums to rethink their approach to their collections and to their own function in a broad sense. “In terms of the story, it's remarkable,” Jongsma adds. "This staff has been showcased for more than a hundred years, shrouded in silence that whole time. And now, suddenly, the story continues.”To Landveld, the importance of tangible historical objects cannot be underestimated. “Without them, you don't exist,” he says. “The victor writes history, and if that tangibility isn't there, you can be essentially erased. Anyone can think and say whatever they want about you.”Many African and Caribbean cultures don’t have a history of writing things down, since they developed oral traditions instead. “Because it's not recorded, people think it never existed. But that's a misconception,” Landveld explains. “Politicians can then take advantage of this, pretending that the West is the cradle of civilisation, that Black and Brown people have been lagging behind. That's why it's so important to make history tangible: It's useful, it puts people on an equal footing.”For Landveld, it’s crucial that museums and other cultural institutions make efforts to ensure that communities regain ownership of the items that were once stolen from them. “Don't hide behind laws,” he says. “Sometimes, political circumstances make it complicated to return the objects, but start by establishing their ownership. You can't rectify the past, but you can do something for the future.”