Cultural Protest Shows Groningen’s Ties to Dutch Slave Trade

By Lily Plass and Barbara Niemczyk

February 17th 2022. Starting on Friday, February 18th, the cultural protest Bitterzoet Erfgoed (Bittersweet Heritage) will shine a light on Groningen’s connection to the Dutch slave trade and the role cultural institutions have had in shaping our view of history.  

“When you think of slavery in the Netherlands, you generally think of Amsterdam or maybe The Hague but most people do not connect Groningen with slavery heritage. That is something that is now changing,” cultural historian and founder of the Black Heritage Amsterdam Tours Jennifer Tosch said. 

Groningen was primarily connected to the slave trade through investments and by financially profiting from it. According to Mapping Slavery, there are 57 locations throughout the city that have connections to Dutch colonialism, such as a warehouse that stands in Noordhaven with the words De Compagnie written referring to the West Indische Company which transported around 300,000 enslaved people from Africa to the Dutch colonies in Brazil, Suriname and the Antilles from 1621 to 1792. The building, still part of the landscape of Groningen, shows that the ties to the Dutch slave trade can be spotted throughout the city.

In the exhibition, visitors will have a chance to see numerous art pieces that tell the story of how Groningen’s ties to the slave trade in the past still shape the present.

Faisel Saro is one of the artists that will contribute to the exhibition. For the first six years of his life, Saro grew up with his grandfather in Suriname, a descendant of people who were enslaved during Dutch colonial rule that began in 1667

Saro said he gets upset when he hears someone say that Biblical texts brought slavery to an end, “My grandfather always told me that there was a spirit within slaves that caused the revolution. Not biblical texts.” The artist said that he wishes to honor his bloodline through his artwork.

Saro partially draws inspiration for his artwork from the fast-growing callouses on his own body. He sees the callouses as a metaphor for the scars his enslaved ancestors suffered, with many Black people still feeling the weight of slavery today. “I would like to show people Yeye, the spiritual connection you have with your bloodline. I believe that as a child of my ancestors, a part of them is always with me.” 

Saro believes that stories with a personal background will work well in Groningen as the demographic is more homogenous than in more diverse cities such as Amsterdam and Rotterdam. “The culture in the north of the Netherlands is more about telling it like it is. I am telling my personal story and I think that is the best way for people in Groningen to understand my message.”

An art piece by Faisel Saro using his own body as a canvas.

Artist Hedy Tjin will also contribute an art piece to the exhibition. The textile-based artwork will be made available to Groningers’ volunteers that will have a unique chance to contribute to the design with different textile techniques.

“It’s important that people realize that it is not only about Black people’s history but it is about the history of all Dutch people,” Tjin said. 

Collaborative textile-based artwork. Creds: Tedy Hjin

Events connected to the cultural protests will be held across different places in Groningen.

At the Forum in Groningen, preparations are in full gear as coordinator of the talk show Daphne de Bruijn knows all too well. “History hasn’t always been beautiful,” De Bruijn said, reflecting on the importance of the exhibition. “We shouldn’t be afraid of each other and we shouldn’t be afraid to talk about history.”  

“Change is a journey”, Tosch said. Same as de Bruijn and artists contributing to the cultural protest she stresses the importance of not only raising awareness of the past but also opening the dialogue in the present. “It is about making society more open to these different perspectives and asking ourselves: What is the future for the past?”

The artworks that will be displayed for the protest will be shown in twelve locations around Groningen, including the Forum, Akerk and Groninger Museum from February 18 to September 12. 

Credits: Bitterzoet Erfgoed

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