Pieter Paul Pothoven, facade suspended, work in progress (melting brass mouldings of VOC-chests), 2018

Balancing, balancing - a conversation between Yvette Mutumba and Pieter Paul Pothoven

Issue no4
aug / sep 2022
roleplay & eindexamens 2022

In his most recent research project facade suspended, Pieter Paul Pothoven dives into the history of RARA, an Amsterdam-based resistance collective from the 1980s and 1990s. Yvette Mutumba meets up with Pothoven and they talk about his latest work, the upcoming Berlin Biennial and how to discuss the lasting effects of colonialism.

—Yvette Mutumba To make a critical work both about and in collaboration with RARA (Revolutionary Anti-Racist Action) must be a balancing act.

—Pieter Paul Pothoven Yes, it is on many levels. RARA is a resistance collective that in the 1980s and 1990s fought against racism, oppression and exploitation; the ongoing legacy of Dutch imperialist history. Amongst other targets, they attacked corporations that were financially benefitting from apartheid in South Africa, like Shell and Makro. As its name implies – “ra ra” means “guess” in Dutch, and carries a connotation of teasing with it – RARA always operated anonymously. In 1988, one man was put on trial and sentenced. Unwillingly, he became the face of RARA. As a result, RARA is often seen as a white male collective, but it was actually composed of a diverse mix of people: male and female, straight and gay, both working and middleclass and from many different cultural backgrounds. A series of works I am now working on respects the anonymous, diverse and collective nature of this collective. I made contact with RARA and after a long correspondence we met several times to discuss my plans. They do not only give feedback, but also come up with very interesting ideas of their own. There is room for discussion and critique from both sides.

—Yvette Mutumba Do you see RARA as co-author?

—Pieter Paul Pothoven No, not in the works that I am showing during facade suspended. The starting point of this exhibition is a house in Amsterdam, which played a pivotal role in the exposure of RARA. The exhibition leans more on architectural elements of the house and various historical documents. But, of course, I did discuss my plans with them beforehand. After this exhibition, I will continue to work on another piece about RARA, which involves much more personal information. In this work, which I hope to finish by the end of 2018, certain persons, who used to be involved with RARA, will definitely be co-authors.

—Yvette Mutumba I had never heard of RARA before. As a German, my first association was with RAF (Rote Armee Fraktion). It was less of a mystery than RARA, because there was this cult around people such as Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof. RARA seems to be the opposite, because individual figures were not much glorified nor in the forefront. I have always been wondering: If I had been born in that generation, would I have crossed a certain line? How do you position yourself towards RARA?

—Pieter Paul Pothoven RARA and the RAF share, to a large extent, the same anti-imperialist ideology, but their methods are very different. Unlike the RAF, RARA has always been very outspoken against the use of violence against persons. I do not think I could engage with RARA in the way I am doing now if they operated on that level of violence. To answer the question of how I position myself towards this collective: I am curious to hear their stories, their motives and political perspectives. From the beginning of the project, I realized that if I would approach them with a preconceived form or opinion, like a lot of journalists and historians have done in the past, this would influence their response to me, if they would respond at all. Most of them have never spoken publicly about their involvement in RARA. From an early age on I have always studied resistance in the Second World War to get a better understanding of what it requires to resist. This must have had to do with what my grandfather, who was active in the armed Dutch resistance, went through, which was a source of suffering within my family. Of course, I asked myself those questions, but I never got close to an honest answer. The levels of anxiety, tensions and pain that those people had to deal with are impossible to imagine, no matter how much you read or see about it. RARA is set in a radically different context, yet through personal contact with them, I get a better understanding of what it requires to cross that line. Nevertheless, those questions will probably remain unanswerable.

Pothoven “I have always studied resistance to get a better understanding of what it requires to resist”

Overtoom 274 seen from the back (1993), courtesy of the building archive of the municipality of Amsterdam

Pieter Paul Pothoven, facade suspended, centerfold of exhibition publication. (Image courtesy of building archive Amsterdam), 2018

—Yvette Mutumba You are working with their materials. Do you try to get a better understanding of what they were doing?

—Pieter Paul Pothoven I think a lot can be taken from their political perspective and way of organizing as anonymous collective. That does not mean that I automatically sympathize with all their actions or that I am glorifying their use of violence, but I want to get beyond the widespread condemnation of their actions, and listen to what they have to say about it. Little is known about their side of the story. I think it is important to document that perspective, now the people of RARA are still alive. But of course, some of their actions make more sense to me and were more successful than others.

—Yvette Mutumba How were they succesful?

—Pieter Paul Pothoven The most well-known example is that RARA forced the SHV (Steenkolen Handels Vereniging) to retreat from South Africa. Between 1985 and 1987, RARA burned down four warehouses of the Makro, a supermarket chain that was part of SHV and owned by the Dutch merchant family Fentener-Van Vlissingen, which had economic interests in South Africa during the apartheid regime. After the 4th Makro went up in flames, the insurance company no longer wanted to cover the company, and after the Dutch government refused to financially compensate the damages, SHV had to leave South Africa. So yes, their actions had an impact. The people involved in RARA, though, say they hardly changed anything.

—Yvette Mutumba One of RARA’s houses plays an important role in the exhibition. Could you tell me more about it?

—Pieter Paul Pothoven The starting point of facade suspended is Overtoom 274, an inconspicuous house in Amsterdam. Allegedly, multiple RARA actions were prepared in this squat, and a police raid on the premises played a decisive role in the court case against the only RARA suspect on trial. The house became public through the police raid on April 11, 1988. Even though only one out of seven persons was convicted to 11 months in prison – the arrests and house raids were widely perceived as a failure – the police called it a success, for the questionable reason that “RARA was taken out of anonymity”. The work ARCH04547 shows, amongst other documents, excerpts from notebooks kept by Katrien de Klein, a journalist present during the court case, to shed light on the house search and its aftermath in court. After I finish this project, I will donate all the documents to the International Institute of Social History, as part of a RARA-archive I am working on. The second work, facade suspended, is a life size reproduction of the building facade. It is made from a typical Dutch colonial resource: teak wood. I recycled five large 17th and 18th-century ship chests of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) to rebuild the facade. These colonial suitcases once held the private property and illicit trade goods of high-ranking VOC-officials. The chests no longer have the shape of fetishized artefacts from a glorified past, but their provenance will always be an essential part of this work.

—Yvette Mutumba When you talk about putting RARA into the context of a colonial past, does this include the present as well, considering where the Netherlands is standing today?

—Pieter Paul Pothoven Absolutely. Currently, there are debates about the way the colonial past is historicized. The recent removal of the bust of the colonial ruler and slave trader Johan Maurits in the Mauritshuis in The Hague is just one example. It is in this context that I am working with these colonial artefacts. Colonial history is not a closed chapter. It is still very present and I think it is important to analyze how colonialism is part of our everyday fabric.

—Yvette Mutumba I know that from my own experience. As part of the curatorial team of the Berlin Biennial, we, the Black curatorial team, are now expected to decolonize the biennial. Yet this is not solely our job. The past affects everybody, and not only specific minority groups. I think RARA is a good example in this case because the collective is composed of people with different perspectives, different backgrounds.

Mutumba: "Our blackness is not our expertise"

Pieter Paul Pothoven, excerpt from ARCH04547, framed process verbal (January 3, 1989) with passe par tout, 2018

Pieter Paul Pothoven, facade suspended, installation detail, teak wood and brass (5 processed VOC-chests), 2018

—Pieter Paul Pothoven It reminds me of a panel discussion that took place during Tell Freedom, an exhibition with South African artists in Kunsthal KAdE in Amersfoort. The artist duo Madeyoulook (Nare Mokgotho and Molemo Moiloa) opened their talk with: “We are happy you invited us, but we don't feel the responsibility to solve Dutch issues.” They said: “Our work is, for example, also about love. It is not about just being a Black person.” How does the curatorial team of the Berlin Biennial relate to these conversations around postcolonialism?

—Yvette Mutumba We see the Biennial as a platform for new thinking processes we are currently going through. We are not interested in conversations about the postcolonial, de-colonial, and so on. It is good that this debate is going on right now, but we are the ones that have to make the next step, because it is already boring me. For example, in the texts that we have put out so far, we do not mention any terms like de-colonial, post-colonial, diversity, multicultural, or whatsoever. Of course, we are still talking about relevant issues like hierarchies and power structures, but we are avoiding certain notions that have become empty shells. Every second day, I get invitations to join a panel about de-colonizing an institution or a collection. But what does that even mean? As curatorial team of the Biennial, we want to think beyond that conversation. I will never call myself a postcolonial curator or something like that. I am one of the very rare, German, Black curators out there. By being Black in this particular context I am already political. Every day I enter a highly politicized space when stepping out of the front door. Most white people completely underestimate or do not understand this. My generation of Afro-Germans is shaped by the perception of always being the foreigner in your own country. That is why I am probably also just bored by this question of being a Black or postcolonial curator, because it is not a choice but a reality. Our blackness is not our expertise. I am more interested in what we can do to bring us further. It is quite telling to see that the absence of these trigger words in our press releases makes some people nervous, even irritated.

—Pieter Paul Pothoven It sounds like you refuse to be instrumentalized.

—Yvette Mutumba It is something that happens easily and often. I just want to use my energy to create something new myself, instead of responding to others all the time. That is why I often refuse requests for talks and panels. Of course, it was a process to get there, it takes confidence. The other day I got a request from an editor of Arte, a big TV station: “We are doing this short documentary about African artists living in Europe. Can you give me some names? It does not matter where and who they are, it only matters that they are from Africa.” I responded by asking him if he could be more precise - Africa is not a country, you know. He wrote back to me: “I do not need your expertise. I really just need some names of artists from somewhere in Africa living in Europe.” Obviously I did not reply. Maybe a couple of years ago, I would have wondered: “are there artists that would be grateful to be featured on TV? Am I not being a kind of barrier for someone to be featured on a show?” But now it has become very clear to me that if it is coming from that kind of mindset, it will never be the right platform. It would not even have been about them. They would have been interchangeable blackfaces to tick that box in their so-called diversity statistics.

—Pieter Paul Pothoven You must be a patient person!

—Yvette Mutumba Patience can be a strategy in communication. To come back to the Biennial, as a visitor you are welcome to come and take out whatever you feel like, but we refuse to teach or explain. We are not your fixers. This refusal to serve certain expectations is not necessarily meant in a negative way. We do not want to fight against something, but spend our time on building a new narrative. For example, we have a public program titled I'm not who you think I'm not. We are trying to be elusive, because people think they know who we are. It is a negation, but at the same time, we see it as a positive claim for a new language with a fresh grammar. At this moment we want to push beyond the fight. I understand if other people feel more aggressive about it, but for me it is very crucial to build something new. At the end of the day, it comes down to love and dealing with the situation in a positive way rather than just fighting it.

—Pieter Paul Pothoven I hope that your refusal will also push the imagination of other curators, artists, people working in museums, art critics, and so on and so forth. It reminds me of the process of breathing. You do not have to constantly talk about the fact that you are breathing. It is simply something you do.

—Yvette Mutumba Yes, maybe that is what I meant before when I said that it is just who we are. It is not a coincidence that we are breathing in the place we are in right now. Maybe someone with a different perspective will say this all sounds very postcolonial. That is absolutely fine too, but you will no longer hear that coming from me.

A shorter version of this text has been published in the context of the exhibition facade suspended at Dürst Britt & Mayhew and was co-edited by Imara Limon and Guus van Engelshoven. This version has been edited by Metropolis M.

Pieter Paul Pothoven - facade suspended, Dürst Britt & Mayhew, until 23.06.2018

The research project façade suspended by Pieter Paul Pothoven is financially supported by the Mondrian Fund and the Amsterdam Fund for the Arts


Yvette Mutumba
is medeoprichter en hoofdredacteur van Contemporary And (C&) magazine en een van de curatoren van de aankomende Berlin Biennial.

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