The ‘Tropical Kingdom’ lacks breathing space in Zwolle

Art from Curacao, Aruba, Bonaire, St. Maarten, Saba and St. Eustatius in Museum De Fundatie

An artwork may be good, but that does not make it any less important to present it in a good way. The physical context has an undeniable effect on the perception. It is entirely possible to ruin an artwork by showing it in an inappropriate or disrespectful space.   

Ryan Oduber, 'Last lap', installation, detail, 2013 | PHOTO Pedro Sluiter

I once again came to that conclusion at the exhibition Tropisch Koninkrijk [Tropical Kingdom], a “colorful and varied overview of contemporary visual art from Aruba, Curacao, St. Maarten, Bonaire, Saba and St. Eustatius” in Museum De Fundatie in Zwolle, the Netherlands. This museum was recently renovated and expanded. The Neoclassical building made all major headlines with its new, egg-shaped rooftop exhibition space. Spectacular, a beautiful view from a distance, but a downright disaster as exhibition space.  A bad architectural joke. The egg consists of two large, oval spaces of which the curved walls are impossible to use, and which are moreover, divided down the middle by a large, totally unnecessary look-through. The entrances to the new halls are narrow and cramped. The rest of the spaces are rather small, maze-like and not suited for large work. In such a museum it is impossible to show artworks from 20 artists, which – because they are mostly installations– require a lot of space and which were, in most cases, made in geographical environments where space is naturally present.

Tirzo Martha, 'Caribbean Cathedral', detail, 2013
Tirzo Martha, ‘Caribbean Cathedral’, detail, 2013

By themselves impressive installations from Tirzo Martha (in which he once again forces his fellow countrymen to self-reflection), Ryan Oduber (who satirizes the political situation on Aruba) and Oisara Muyale (who uses her womanhood in a personal way) infringe upon one another in the exhibition space, which diminishes their strength and results in confusion among quite a few of the less informed viewers.

David Bade, 'License to play, Fever, Mit imperialen zielen , Curacao Calimero', acryl on textile, 2012-2013  | PHOTO Pedro Sluiter
David Bade, ‘License to play, Fever, Mit imperialen zielen , Curacao Calimero’, acryl on textile, 2012-2013 | PHOTO Pedro Sluiter

An installation from David Bade – a painting, behind a panel which is placed  in the space and is full of expressionistically painted, humorous, social scenes which reference politics – stands in a small space across from an enormous, baroque photo triptych infused with symbols and references, from  Felix de Rooy. They have to be able to stand up to one another, because the small space literally and figuratively puts them up against each other.  A red glass sculpture from Elvis Lopez – ‘She-Devil’, a ‘frozen’ referral  to his homosexuality – has to make do with a small display case in a narrow corridor. Despite its dominant color, it is barely noticeable. The installation of Ruben La Cruz – in which the tension in the ‘Tropical Kingdom’ (how could they have thought up such a touristy cliché title by the way?)  is symbolized by a cock fight which takes place in an arena of which the tribunes are made up of the six islands  and the battle ground refers to the Netherlands – is squeezed into a small room, making it almost impossible for the viewer to get a comprehensive view of the whole, let alone giving you a chance to appreciate its true worth.

Elvis Lopez, She devil, 2005, glas

The context is a distorting factor in yet another way. The exhibition is included in the official program of the celebrations of the 200th anniversary of the kingdom. At the opening VIP’s and hot shots practically stumbled over one another. The catalog was  introduced by a former state secretary, in charge of the ‘overseas territories’. Add to that the fact that several islands have not always had generous or peaceful relations with one another, and it becomes clear why politics was allowed to, or perhaps required to, enter the field of the arts. In choosing the artists and the artworks, the curator probably had to take all sorts of political sensitivities into account. Art historian Adi Martis weaves that element into the closing statement of his catalog essay in a subtle manner: “Even though several Aruban artists who would have completed the presentation of the exhibition in Zwolle are lacking……” The striking choice for the traditional, surrealistic, narrative paintings of  Winfred Dania from Bonaire for example, are thus explained.  No minor artist, but not contemporary. And does that political influence not also explain why Glenda Heyliger (Saba), Ras Mosera (St. Maarten) and Magumbo Gibbs Muntu (St. Eustatius) had to settle for one photo(work) in the catalogue, while six royal prints of work by Yubi Kirindongo (Curacao) are included?  That hints at a hierarchy of nationality rather than of quality. Kirindongo is popular and indeed iconic, but his metal sculptures (often from auto parts) have a high degree of interchangeability.

It is important to show art from the ‘tropical’ islands in the Netherlands. As Martis rightly points out in the catalogue: the attention for it in the Dutch art world is “lou loene” [almost negligible]. It is thus particularly troubling when the circumstances in which that art is presented are far from optimal.  It is then also regrettable that they did not simply choose the best contemporary artists, without taking into account any, whether or not politically colored, sensitivities.

Finally I think that it would have been better if an expert from the region had made the selection for the exhibition. That expertise is available. The exhibition would have looked quite different.

The catalog is incidentally a useful supplement to the work shown.

The exhibition Tropisch Koninkrijk is on display at the Museum De Fundatie in Zwolle, the Netherlands, until March 16th, 2014.

TEXT Rob Perrée

TRANSLATION Cassandra Gummels-Relyveld

The original Dutch version of this article previously appeared in the local Surinamese newspaper de Ware Tijd of December 18, 2013.

Rob Perrée is art historian and works as freelance writer, art critic and curator, specialized in contemporary (Afro-) American art, African art, Surinamese art and art using new media. His work has appeared in countless catalogues, books, magazines and newspapers. He is editor of Sranan Art Xposed, editor in chief of and a member of the editing team of Pf Photo Magazine. His website:


– The speech by Felix de Rooy for the opening night can be found here.

An in-depth article about Oisara Muyale can be found in Calabash Journal Vol 4, Num 1 / Spring-Summer 2006.


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