I Contain Multitudes

door Abdelkader Benali

16 December 2020


The past and present wilt – I have fill’d them, emptied them.
And proceed to fill my next fold of the future.

Listener up there! what have you to confide to me?
Look in my face while I snuff the sidle of evening,
(Talk honestly, no one else hears you, and I stay only a minute longer.)

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)


(Fragment from: Walt Whitman, ‘Song of Myself’, Part 51, in: Leaves of Grass, 1855)

Johan van der Keuken’s documentary Amsterdam Global Village weaves together several life stories over the period from 1994 to 1996 – perhaps the zenith of the belief in globalization as a blessing for mankind. It was the period in which the artists in the Refresh Amsterdam exhibition were children, or in which their parents met.

For Van der Keuken, the inhabitants of the city are nomads who cross continents like seasonal birds. The film follows their migration; it dances, walks, sails, drives, and flies with them. A Bolivian, a Czech, a Thai, a Surinamese person, a Moroccan – to be an Amsterdammer is to be a world citizen. Van der Keuken does not idealize this, but presents it as a fact. Amsterdam’s cosmopolitan, small-town character feels hospitable and unintimidating.

This documentary film essay, whose editing and colossal length stay away from purely journalistic reporting, opens playfully with the annual arrival of Sinterklaas. The joy of the children standing three deep on the bridges is endearing. The Black Petes come across as hopelessly anachronistic. Arriving in Amsterdam is a pleasant undertaking for Sinterklaas, as it should be for everyone.

In terms of area, Amsterdam is not a metropolis, but in spirit it is, because so many people from different cultural backgrounds find a permanent home here. The city’s relatively modest size makes it feel more welcoming, and its cosmopolitan freedom of movement turns a tour of the city into a journey around the world. One moves through the world as one moves through Amsterdam.

I saw this film as a student – I remember being one of the few people in the cinema in Leiden, around 1997. I remember the central figure being a scooter courier, and I remember the boredom that struck me at one point. Halfway through the documentary I got up and went home. Maybe watching people on the road for hours was a little too much, or maybe I felt I’d seen it all before, or maybe I just got itchy feet. Still, when I watched it on DVD again, I was immediately immersed in it. The people in the film are always on their way to somewhere else: leaving, arriving, about to leave, or in motion.

From the arrival of the benevolent St Nicholas, we move to Khalid the courier negotiating hairpin bends on his scooter. He speaks and rides Amsterdam style, cutting corners wherever he can, making the already short route even shorter. Out of sheer curiosity, I looked up some information about this boy’s life. At the age of fifteen, Khalid exchanged Amsterdam for a stay in Morocco, where he became unhappy. It wasn’t Morocco that made him that way, it was being so far from the place where he was happy. I tried to contact him to find out what stage he’d reached on his life’s journey, but came to a dead end.

In the Refresh Amsterdam exhibition, Khalid has a new counterpart in the bicycle courier whom filmmaker Suat Ögüt follows around the city (The Future of ‘Me-nemen-Mory’, 2019-2020). For Khalid, moving is freedom; the courier is a symbol of order. The city is used as a finely meshed system to memorize a theatre script. Streets, bends, canals, shop windows – these are the places where text is ‘laid down’, and can later be ‘brought back’ into the theatre.

Here’s another thing about the city’s celebrated mobility. It has always puzzled me how many Moroccan taxi drivers there are in Amsterdam. When I ask, many say they prefer the Wild West existence, with its irregular hours and insecure pay, to competing on a labor market where their skin colour and first names exclude them from success. Many have gone on to drive those white vans that populate the city at the end of the afternoon, delivering millions of parcels. The courier was born out of necessity.

Graffiti is the language in which urban warriors write their prophecies. Anarchically aware of its own undesirability, present in places where nobody goes, it defies regulation and plays a game with the city by setting its own unwritten rules. The tag is a raised middle finger. I drove around Amsterdam’s ring road hundreds of times, and only when my daughter pointed it out to me did I notice all the graffiti on the noise barriers, concrete poles, and viaducts – a stream of boasting pop art in the most unlikely places. She and I had great fun spotting it, until we grew tired of its endlessness.

Urban culture is obsessed with icons. Whether it’s a T-shirt, trainers, a photo, or a song, people want to make something iconic, something that sticks, something that transcends the crazy maelstrom of urban life. Their arbitrariness and incoherence are also a source of inspiration – they are the city’s character, and one wouldn’t want to violate this.

For Brian Elstak, urban culture is worth being preserved in museums because it is the expression of the many marginal voices that make up the metropolis. It is the city’s unofficial, repressed, forgotten, neglected, trampled and despised memory, arising in response to silent repression and growing into a response to the future. In my youth I stood at many a slot machine, spectating rather than playing, as I lacked the money. Each machine had its own expert player who, after hours of playing, had developed the necessary skills to claim a place among the highest-ranking players. Elstak associates the excitement of the game with that of discovering the city, with its trams, tunnels, arcades, shoe shops, myths, and consciousness. He hides a treasure chest of music texts evoking Black awareness in the slot machine whose normally invisible back bears the pictures of an older couple and the words ‘Vereniging Ons Suriname, sinds 1919′ [‘Our Suriname Association, since 1919’]. Depicted are two Black icons from the last century, Otto Huiswoud and his wife Hermine. Thanks to The Black Archives, which collects literature and other source material about Black rights activists, their lives have been mapped out. Brian Elstak pays homage to these two freedom fighters, and to the archives themselves, which collect the literary legacy of first-generation migrants and make the struggle for recognition visible. If the couple were alive today, they would have been deeply impressed by the discipline and dedication with which The Black Archives give shape to that Black consciousness.

That the city offers equal opportunities for all has turned out to be an illusion. Market liberalisation has made the mobile phone affordable even to the poorest, but has also left housing beyond the reach of many. In a city with 100 percent digital connectivity, bricks are the material of fortresses. Artist Daniel Jacoby looks at phone shops, with their inexhaustible stock of phone covers, scattered throughout Amsterdam as an aid to the digital revolution. He shows that they are designed according to fixed principles, independent of their location, like seeds scattered over different continents by migrating birds, which grow in the same unsightly shape regardless of where they land. The shops look just the same in Amsterdam as they do in Jacoby’s native Lima.

If things don’t appeal to our eyes, we simply stop noticing them. Phone shops have become victims of this visual censorship, and Jacoby’s installation is a tribute to the city’s small business owners, a temple where we worship what we carry in our pockets – phone cases that are always on sale.

‘We are driven by a burning desire to meet one another, yet we do everything we can to avoid that contact.’ Johan van der Keuken quotes the Austrian writer Robert Musil’s thoughts on why the city is what it is. Like the phone shop, it enables us to reach anyone we want, but we prefer not to be in touch with them for too long. Perhaps luck, indispensable to artists and lottery winners alike, can help. The city and its innumerable encounters offer endless opportunities; just like Khalid the courier, you only need to step on the gas pedal to imagine yourself as the protagonist of a road movie. We all turn our experiences into stories, and the work by Judith Quax is a personal story just like those of others – in fact she and the other artists in the exhibition are like a family. Refresh Amsterdam could have easily been called I Contain Multitudes.

An old Mercedes 240D is the vehicle that provides Quax with access to that world of multitudes as she drives her son from Amsterdam to Senegal, where his father was born. Identity is a compass, not a given, and while we tend to think of international migration as a northwards movement, Quax turns the compass around, moving in the opposite direction to the father – the father who went north. Noah, an Amsterdam boy, gets a chance to broaden his horizon. The journey is a rite of passage, an exciting boys’ book that also raises questions about the illusory nature of borders. The journey from Amsterdam to Senegal is a trifle compared to the effort a Senegalese man has to make to reach Amsterdam.

When you arrive in a place for the first time, you may rest your weary feet by sitting on a bench. Benches transform the city, no matter how big, into a living room. Paris’ very first public bench stood in its first planned city square, the Place Royale (now Place des Vosges), where people came together to stroll, flirt, and see and be seen. The bench offered a vista, and made the flâneur a spectator. Trees and water created a sense of rurality in the city, and the square became a park. From the very beginning, city parks were sexually charged, one of those fertile zones of the city where hierarchy and status disappear into the background and the body takes control. It is this hidden power that Simon(e) van Saarloos poetically addresses within the walls of the museum. Where Amsterdam’s parks were once intended to offer the upper classes an oasis where they could show themselves, for queers they are places where people disappear, a twilight zone in a city where no one can be invisible anymore. In a transparent city, places where one can feel invisible are rare. These unlit spaces, as Van Saarloos shows, demonstrate the health of the urban ecosystem. As long as they exist, the totalitarian state is far away. Van Saarloos investigates the former cruise zone in Istanbul’s Gezi Park as a place where queers could meet, a haven of freedom and a thorn in the side of city developers and regimes who dream of total control. When freedom has been curtailed forever, surreptitious nocturnal strolls are reminders of the sanctuary that the park once was. Here, it was not social cohesion that people sought, but the fleeting contact that makes humans take root in the city.

Photographer Dustin Thierry uses analog technology. His contemporary heroes are ballroom dancers, whose stylized movements, made-up faces and distinctive aesthetics evoke memories of the pre-digital era, as if by coming together in a dance hall they have escaped the political chaos of reality. The effect is challenging and loving, and evokes a longing for a better time. Thierry came over from Curaçao at a young age, and started looking for people with an Antillean background who could give him a foothold on Dutch soil. The men and women he photographs have become an alternative family, far from home, with the same dreams and fears as his. There is a thin line between being accepted and being represented, because who accepts you, and who represents you? Your island? Your family? The spirits? Beauty? Lust? Boredom? The future? The past? Mommy? Daddy? You? Me? Us? Thierry’s astute photographs have a cruel poetry. As a viewer, you want people who are nice to look at. This is possible, but it does deny you the hidden riches that the works offer.

Amsterdam is an island, Curaçao is an island, too. Islands are soothing because they offer clarity: you can go so far and no further. If you leave, you are committing a kind of treason in the eyes of those left behind; you are dispelling the illusion that the island is self-sufficient. For Kevin Osepa, the island is a place of unfinished business. There are still stories waiting to be told, or given a suggestion of an end. Ghosts whisper stories, the photographer documents paranormal activity – and with paranormal I mean that which goes beyond all frames of reference, the ancestral narrative, the invocations that generations used to empower themselves. The invention of photography went hand in hand with three immediate phenomena: the portrait, the exotic, and the extraordinary. Humans were captured by the camera, the Other was framed by the camera, and what wasn’t perceived by the senses was brought to light by the camera. Osepa makes the island infinitely larger – it seems to be part of a bigger whole that can be entered only by the initiated.

Tja Ling Hu’s parents run a small Chinese restaurant near Eindhoven. She began her ten-meter-long pencil drawing, also executed as a concertina book, in the Chinese tradition of panoramic landscape painting. The landscape here is the story of her family who, through a long and complex process of chain migration, finally arrived in the Netherlands – her Chinese family’s century. The artist leaves the family’s relationships to our imagination; the century of her family is not over yet and there are still many stories to be told. The drawings start in the restaurant and end the restaurant, in a place where food has both a commercial and a historical meaning. Dishes are prepared to bring alive the memory of the motherland. But who eats also digests. Once all food is eaten, one has to start cooking again to bring the story back to life.

Creative jack-of-all-trades Bas Kosters’ eye was caught by a red-and-white-striped traffic cone, the ad-hoc demarcation of public space in the city.

In recent years, Amsterdam’s major construction projects have become readymades, artworks made from found objects, with cones popping up everywhere work is being carried out. Wherever there is a traffic cone, a man or woman in a yellow jacket is never far away. When taken out of its context, the traffic cone acquires a poetic power, unequivocally reminding us of the tiring, lengthy, and disruptive work carried out to make and keep the city liveable. It also reminds us that we are focused on symbols, attached to the cone like a compass that gives direction to the chaos.

In another town that I shall not name here, I walked past a shop window showing a newspaper. One of the messages caught my attention immediately. The Loch Ness monster had been spotted, complete with a blurry photograph. It was supposed to be hiding somewhere in a big lake known as Loch Ness. I was filled with fear – suppose it emerged from the loch, what would wait us?

Later, I learned that the monster did not exist after all, and felt disappointed. I had lost my fear, the thought that there was another world beneath the surface that gave away its secrets from time to time. Fear of the unknown puts the imagination into overdrive. It was this imagination that had taken hold of me that I started to cherish.

Artists move around the city like Loch Ness monsters to frighten us out of our urban condition. The city has turned us into creatures of routine, living on autopilot; conservatively, like Church-fathers, we are clinging to dogmas about the right way of getting from A to B. The monster carries infinite other worlds within it, and we fear that they may be better than ours. The artists of Refresh Amsterdam depict the city in so many ways that afterwards you can only hope that monsters really exist.