In a previous Source article, Trinidadian-American writer Lesley-Ann Brown, who lives in Denmark, spoke about recent interactions with St. Croix artist La Vaughn Belle and how their conversations made her reflect on her experience of Danish society. What follows is Part 2 of that story, which picks up the conversation where the previous article left off.
La Vaughn Belle and I are at the Danish Architecture Centre, where there are ample rooms and resources for the resident artists.
Whenever I visit places such as this in Denmark, I’m always pleasantly surprised, at not only how aesthetically pleasing these state-sponsored arts spaces are, but how functional and privileged they are. There are many reasons to admire the priorities of the Danish state.
Unfortunately these priorities have been shifting in recent years.
I spoke with Belle about her experience visiting arts and cultural institutions in Denmark. She said that what she noticed most was a jarring perspective on colonialism that she encountered in many placed.
"I was shocked when I went into the Danish National Museum and they had this mini exhibit in the lobby talking about what is ‘historically correct,’" Belle said. "And there was this candy, that were African masks that people would consume – and I’m looking and I ask, ‘This is a joke?’ And a woman there replies ‘No’. I ask, ‘Is it old?’ and she says, ‘No, it was discontinued in 2014.’”
“I had such a profound level of sadness. I could not imagine what it would feel like to live in a society where people are eating African heads.”
When I visited the museum later, I didn’t see the infamous licorice candy that was only discontinued a couple of years ago but I am familiar with them. Although the candy is gone, I can recall the debate and the reluctance that many had to discontinue it.
What I did find, however, was a small room of artifacts where the only evidence of “Blackness” on display were the Sambo-like dolls that were given to Danish children to play with.
This brought to mind my most recent conversation with Belle over Skype, where I was told about the items she saw on her visit to the museum last August. She spoke of the candy, the dolls and a handkerchief (which I couldn’t find) with embroidery done by a child. I was told the image depicted on this handkerchief was of a black man holding the severed head of a white man.
Belle found it apt that the items on display told stories of fear, possession and power structures, but also that there seemed to be no humanity given to the thousands of enslaved Africans who were brutalized during this period of Danish colonization.
Standing there in this small room, with no representation of the enslaved Africans whose labor earned Denmark fortunes and placed the Kingdom of Denmark right behind the U.S. in terms of trade in enslaved Africans, I had to admit that she was spot on with her observations.
Belle confided in me that she was curious to see how much the conversation around race and colonization may have changed since her first visit to Denmark, eight years before.
“It was surprising to see that the profound ignorance didn’t change. The needle didn’t move – I have met so many more Danes now, because of the flights to St. Croix that are opening up. I didn’t realize that I had only met the ones who have an interest, which is a minority – a very, very small one. So we get a false impression. We think there are all these Danes who know about us because that’s who we are meeting in the islands. They are there, right? But you come over here it’s, like, what?!? Like the things that are said to you here that are very ignorant.”
I wanted to know what she had heard that was ignorant. So I asked her about that.
“The other day an artist actually said, ‘We should have never sold you, because then we would have had this permanent holiday land.’ And you kind of realize that they have no understanding of the history. Because if you did understand the history, there’s no way in hell that you’d say something like that. You would know how insulting that is. Not just the ‘holiday land’ part, but the complete disrespect for all the Africans who were murdered, tortured and brutalized.”
Although Belle found Denmark to be on the cutting edge with many things, there was, however, one aspect of Danish culture that she found to be severely lacking.
“In the Caribbean, conversations about race are just so much more highly developed. So we have developed languages and vocabulary and systems of thought around it. So when I see people at this level (in Denmark), it is such an irony to be in a society that is so sophisticated, and so progressive in so many other ways but so backwards when it comes to understanding and coming to terms with history, and the responsibility inherent in that. It’s such a paradox. If I had to sum up what I’m walking away with from this trip, it’s that.”
“I mean, look at the [residency] space that I’m in,” Belle said. “It’s so privileged, such a beautiful place. It’s an artist’s heaven here. And then this paradox of all this very regressive thought patterns about race and colonial history.”
“I had another person tell me about an April fool’s joke this year. It claimed that behind the $25 million check that the U.S. had given to Denmark for the U.S. Virgin Islands, someone had written, ‘But you can buy it back in 100 years at the same price.’ Now, it was a joke, it was irony, it was satire, but apparently it got into the collective consciousness in Denmark. I’ve had more than one person tell me about this. Like, ‘Oh, yeah, I heard we could buy you guys back.’”
“It’s hard when people say things like that. There was an artist here who said that to me. ‘Yeah, we could buy you guys back. Wouldn’t that be great?’ And the curators were a bit dumbfounded and suggested, ‘Why don’t you ask La Vaughn and see what she thinks about that?’”
“I did not address her comment directly. What I said was, I started talking about the history. And it gave her a space to reflect on what she said, to reflect on what I was saying and to come to her own understanding, and she came back and said, ‘I guess that was a strange thing to say.’”
“On her own. I didn’t have to embarrass her or lambast her or correct her. She said that the whole concept of buying places and people is a strange thing and that it is weird. It was a big lesson for me because I think that is so much about the work that we’re doing is about. It’s about creating a dialogue, a space, where people can reflect and come to their own conclusions, because I’m not supposed to do the work for you. You have to do the work yourself.”
“It was really nice that she did the work. But it happened because of the dialogue.”
As I walk through the museum on the second floor, I start to think about the way many of us of African descent perceive the world, and how this perspective is often erased, silenced and buried—much like in the exhibition at the Danish National Museum. I thought about whiteness and how so much of what is accepted as universal artwork was not made with me, Belle or other black people in mind.
I realized that so much of Belle’s experience, and to a larger extent, the U.S. Virgin Islands’ experience, is about how silenced the black experience is, how seldom Denmark, and by extent, whiteness, bothers to ask about experiences outside of what is considered to be the norm. That norm was, of course, birthed from colonialism.
Although by the time I arrived at the Danish National Museum I had had two months to reflect on Belle’s words, and a conversation with her the night before, nothing prepared me for the erasure, the concealment strategies, that were on display there.
Like Belle, I was crestfallen. My ancestors were not there. Not even the language, which referred to enslaved Africans simply as ‘slaves,’ spoke to their humanity.
There was a Danish woman and her teenaged son in the room with me. Out of frustration, the words, “Det er skamfuldt!” (this is shameful) came tumbling out of my mouth. The woman, clearly in agreement, engaged me. Her son said, “You’re right. I never would have thought about this erasure if you were not here to say it.”
As I leave the room, I end up, as faith would have it, in the Greenlandic section. As I pass the beadwork, seal coats and canoes, I feel as if the items on display are speaking to me.
“We are here too,” they seem to say, to remind me of the true extent of Danish colonialism. Not for the first time, I find myself wondering at Europe’s preoccupation with the material culture of other places, to the point where the human seems to be sacrificed.
In March 2017, La Vaughn Belle will be exhibiting her work Ledgers From a Lost Kingdom in a solo show at Meter gallery in Copenhagen. More can be read about the work at http://lavaughnbelle.blogspot.dk/2016/10/whats-begin-title-for-my-solo-show-in.html).