Beneath the Surface: Waterways, Circulation and Glimmers of Place

Description (in English): 

Excerpt:

Canal Echoes. Courtesy of the Author

I

Canal boats slide by… I hear the voices echoing, chatter, the sound of bikes, familiar. I grew up on these bodies of water – the brown water is still – the boats leave a slight ripple behind. After a few hot summer days – there is a pungent smell. Hints of decay. 

Water is part of city life here. Pleasure boats. Legs dangling on the side of canals. Glasses clinking. Charm. Lovers walk alongside the canals. Transported by the scenic waterways into a place of innocence. Once in a while old rusty bikes get dredged out of the water.

 At night, the lights on the bridges come on and reflect a golden shimmer on the still water. I keep waiting for the ripple in the canal to move faster, to crash harder, but it remains so quiet, so still. Just a mild stir. Something so unsettling about how quiet these canals are, I find. 

I used to work for an Amsterdam canal cruise tour boat company. A few times a week I would serve people drinks while moving through the infamous Amsterdam canal ring, known as the Grachtengordel in Dutch. The narrow mansions are probably the city’s most iconic feature. The inner-city canal ring, a network of intersecting waterways, was built during what they call the Golden Age of the 17thcentury. On the tour, I inevitably picked up fragmented and scattered bits of information. The tax paid on the width of the canal mansions. The workings of the sewer systems. If you look closely at the structure of the inner-city canals – you see that they form a ring of half circles. Singel. Herengracht. Keizersgracht. Prinsengracht. The tour guide speaks of the trade and the subsequent wealth that exploded the 17th century. No mention of the violence that generated wealth. No mention of the Dutch involvement in the slave trade. The water keeps silent. The voice keeps going. 

It’s years ago, but I held on to those scattered pieces of information. I remember how the boat slows down before turning. A slight ripple of the water. The canals encircle the old medieval city-centre. They form a protective barrier. Half circles. Water pushes in. The locks drain out the dirty water. Water pushes out. Technologies of control – water management and hydrological engineering. The city was built to invite water in and to keep water out. The contradictions of living below sea-level. All this fight that lives under the surface of that gentle ripple. The Dutch have been fighting water and colonising land for about 400 years. 

II

My dad fled apartheid South Africa by boat. He sailed the world for about three years before jumping ship in the United Kingdom and eventually moving to Amsterdam. Circled back the journey Dutch colonialists made. I think of this complex ancestry I hold. People being moved and moving via the water. My father’s people were shipped from the south of India to Durban, South Africa. Indentured labour. Harbour cities. Ports. My white Dutch ancestors – water farers, colonists, concurring the water. Somehow, my father and I never spoke much about the three years he spent at sea. I was always intrigued that he held out so longer on the water – a Capricorn at sea. In 2015, my father died. It took a few years before I started going through old letters and paperwork he left behind. I started photographing his books and coding system. Frank’s Archive. 

Little paper slips with his handwriting. I think about when things become archival. Sometimes I feel relieved by the limitation of this archive. I don’t need to know the ending of his handwritten letter. Frank’s Archive came forth out of making sense of the space between mourning and communion. It was about figuring out how we were familiar. In one of his old calendars, I come across appointments with mental health practitioners, hospital check-ups, and a note to call a friend. My relationship with these materials is ongoing. Their presence doesn’t equate access, though. I’m constantly negotiating with these fragments and scatters – being pushed back in my need to know. In the quiet of my living room, surrounded by boxes, I am figuring out what this responsibility to care means.

 

Archival Family Photo. My father (left), grandparents (middle) and uncle (right). Durban (year unknown). Courtesy of the Author

 

Archival Family Photo. My father (left), grandmother (middle) and uncle (right). Durban (year unknown). Courtesy of the Author

My father’s transition from this earthly world continues to blur time. His story lives in fragments and the yellow turned paper in my hand. I get to inhabit some of his world. To think of daughter as verb. He spent three years working for Union Castle Lines. Australia, New Zealand, Latin America, Germany. The British cargo ships were built in the early 1900s. In 1968, my father spent his last Christmas in Durban before boarding one of these ships. I’ve been looking at old postcards of these ships and browsed through numerous crew lists. Many of the postcards feature the ships (named after castles) laying diagonally in the water. Other ships are shot in front of Cape Town’s Table Mountain. I’m still working through this colonial maritime aesthetic where ships pose. I’m part of this temporal loop of working through ‘past’ rather than just dwelling in a past time. I tell these migration histories not as mode of recovery, but as the impossible totality of expectations broken into the ripples that stir the water. 

I’ve always felt like I was made out of the questions that live between these bodies of water. Questionable ancestries. For, I don’t quite know what journeys my ancestors (both sides) made across the water. And how I make sense of the way that water displaced and held us. I remember my dad and my uncles loved to drive out to the ocean in Durban. Chewing down sugar cane, we’d drive up early in the morning, a big outing with my cousins in tow. I remember the ritual of walking up to that ocean. Feeling the pull of a current that never made me quite comfortable to swim in oceans. 

III

I’ve come to the water in different shapes. I pull these stories of water in when I came across archival materials of what was called the Black, Migrant and Refugee (BMR) movement organising in the Amsterdam city centre. Growing up, I had no idea there had been such a thriving feminist and queer movement of colour in the city. The BMR movement was comprised of women from post-colonial communities, labour migrants and later women who had come from war-torn areas. What does it mean that women from the Dutch Antilles, Indonesia, South Africa, Suriname, Philippines, Morocco, and Turkey converged here? What kind of intimacies are generated by this unique constellation of diasporic women who were trying to figure out the praxis of homemaking? 

 Flamboyant Newsletter. Photo by the Author. Courtesy of Atria

 

In the archival materials, I come across the materials of Flamboyant, the very first and only nation-wide Black and migrant women-run meeting place and documentation centre. I’m struck that Flamboyant held its headquarters on the Singel nr. 260, one of the main canals between 1986 and 1990. The Singelgracht, dug in 1872 for defence purposes was the city’s outer limit at the time. Singel is Old Dutch for ‘encircle’. I think of this landscape of half centric circles and what it means to envision a feminist and queer presence of colour from this centre. Or even what it means to shift our notion of centre and to whom it belongs. I use water as a way to think about movement/moving – my ancestors – my own – and the communities to whom I’m tethered. I’m not lost on the fact that many of these migrant communities have been portrayed and treated as unwanted ‘flows’ who ‘overflood’ the country. And still, when we think of migration and those who arrive at the shores of the Mediterranean, we need to think about how the way that Fortress Europe is built on anti-black and anti-migrant structures that are embedded in the situating of the sea as frontier. 

 

Flamboyant, named after a fierce red blooming tropical tree, ruptures the Dutch sinking landscape. In many ways, this centre was a confluence of diasporic flows invested in communal survival. At Atria, which is a library and knowledge institute, holding one of the largest collections on the women’s movement in Europe, I sit down to read the newsletters. The BMR materials are scattered across archives and collections and do not exist as one collection. I conducted research at Atria for several months. Keeping to a daily rhythm, I would request materials, wait for the trolley to come down, open boxes and folders, take notes, scan materials, and end the day with another bike ride down the canals. 

The newsletters tell stories about the rich activities and groups that came together: 

Black women’s literature course; seminars for Pakistani women; Filipina women’s conferences; Black and migrant sex worker rights forum; Moluccan women’s theatre group; Political gatherings of ANC women; BMR policy workshops; a Gathering with Black lesbian women in the diaspora

I’m not invested in telling these stories as a romantic return to 1980s feminist and queer organising. However, I want to spend time with what the meeting of BMR women at Flamboyant meant for the way that we envision and make sense of belonging in this Dutch watery imaginary. Going through the archival materials, I am struck by how adamant the women are to set up their own archives. They speak to what it means to not be found in a library, an archive, in a special collection. They speak to the importance of being legible not becoming legible. For a couple of years, the Flamboyant women spent time working towards organising events, workshops and conferences geared to educating BMR women. This move inwards – to encircle your own is powerful. Forecasting pedagogies from the canals. 

I haven’t been able to find any photos of Flamboyant’s occupancy at the Singel. Instead, I’ve been spending a lot of time with the Flamboyant flower. After I spent time with the Flamboyant archival materials, I start to see her bloom during my travels. I meet her in Durban, I see her in Çuracao. The collective chose this flower because of its resilience and refusal to shrink within the Dutch living room. The flowers when in bloom are flaming. 

I spent quite some time walking up and down these canals without a specific place to be. Sometimes I sit down and witness how the canals hold a performative quality. The canals are a mode of transportation and leisure. When dusk falls, the outlines of the canal mansions haunt. Museum van Loon is one of these mansions. It’s the family house of one of the Amsterdam regent family who co-founded the VOC (East India Company). The very first multi-national company to trade on the global exchange. In the mid- 17th century, the VOC colonised the Cape and continued to make use of enslaved labour. On one of my walks, I notice an artwork put up on the façade of the museum. Big neon letters: The Natives Are Restless (2006/2013). It’s a light sculpture by artist Newell Harry who incorporates and reflects on his Australian, South African and Mauritian roots. The artwork has been made for the 2013 exhibition Suspended Histories. Harry uses this artwork to ask Amsterdam who is native here. I wonder what trace those big white neon letters left behind? A temporary imprint pressing down on this canal mansion. I wonder what this brief moment of touching brings about.

 

 

Look Up. Footage from the Black Heritage Amsterdam Tour led by Jennifer Tosch. Courtesy of the Author

In 2013, I’m in the excellent company of Jennifer Tosch of the Black Heritage Amsterdam Tours. [http://www.blackheritagetours.com/]

She tells us all to look up.

The presence of Black people is woven into the architecture of the canal belt. Looking up we see the histories of world domination, slavery, and racial capitalism play out on the top of the royal palace, the facades of canal mansions, and in the paintings hanging as heirlooms in the museums of families who founded the Dutch slave trade. The depiction of Black people as a sign of wealth was common for Dutch colonial merchants. Yet, the Dutch spun a dominant far-reaching narrative that these depictions were merely an imaginary. It’s a reflection of how the Dutch white psyche is so steeped in a pristine innocent way of being. [https://www.dukeupress.edu/white-innocence]

 

 Black Heritage Canal Gaze. Footage from the Black Heritage Amsterdam Tour led by Jennifer Tosch. Courtesy of the Author

The Flamboyant newsletters talk about the everyday experiences of BMR women. What it meant to work in white institutions; how women fought for independent residency permits; the lack of specific knowledge in care institutions. For me, these newsletters are an index of a racialised and gendered experience in the world. At this time, the Amsterdam municipality worked hard to keep migrants in separate non-political lanes. Arts and crafts projects or learning how to ride a bike. The Dutch state could not figure out to place BMR women in the category ‘woman’ or ‘migrant’ when it came to policy. The first term was reserved for white women and the latter for men of colour.  

The making of kinship bonds across generations speaks to how women in the diaspora practiced forms of care. Sometimes, intimacy was about acknowledging you didn’t know enough about the other. Intimacy was about figuring out other constellations of queer. Or dancing close to each other, smoking cigars for the first time and having heated discussions. None of these stories can be generalised or are can account for all the experiences of ‘Black, ‘Migrant’, and ‘Refugee’ women. And of course, this name is fraught BMR women did more than staying afloat in this aquatic landscape. They produced knowledge, created archives, and shared tools. My engagement with the newsletters is a multi-sensory exploration of how what feminist and queer relating feels like. To consider what generational stories reside in my own queerness. It’s the collectivity that I’m interested in. BMR women teach me something about how you make community and on whose terms that happens. The importance of asking questions as a praxis of self-reflexivity. To truly spend time with what ‘generational’ means and how this word stretches over time. What Flamboyant tells me is that care work requires maintenance. 

A hopeful blooming gathering of Black, brown and migrant women.

IV

The infrastructure of the canals is often referred to as a ‘forward-thinking design’. I think of the work that ‘forward’ does here. What kind of future does it signal? For who were the canals forward? There something speculative about the use of ‘forward’ in the marketing of the canals. The canals are one of the main tourist attractions in the city. The infrastructure continues to pay off.

The city centre’s architecture was built to keep the foreigner out. The Dutch canals are part of the UNESCO World Heritage list and are hailed as a masterpiece of hydraulic engineering. There are one hundred and sixty-fifty canals. The outer moats of the inner-city canals are built as a moat to protect the city from foreign invaders. The waterway systems and aesthetics have been replicated within former Dutch colonies, for example, in the Dutch colonial city of Batavia. The 17th century city planning structures were used to secure domination and establish a Dutch identity. However, due to the differences in the climate – the waterway structures didn’t work out as planned in Indonesia. Thinking about how water was managed by the Dutch in Indonesia, South Africa or the Dutch Caribbean, speaks to how water is a form of control, domination and order. 

 

BMR women’s presence within this landscape of half centric circles – opening, reaching, and closing. A site where colonial histories meet in the waterways of the canals. I listened for stories of how BMR women organised, how they envisioned solidarity, how they broke apart Dutch policy structures. 

All of this in the midst of the Dutch fight against water. The country was actually built out of a demand for land. That very same land is now sinking. Climate change experts explain that you can’t drop too low under sea level. How low is too low? Water creates a complex sense of intimacy between colony and metropole. The water shapes a sense of Dutch national identity and global entrepreneurship. The vignettes I offer on water – drawing from my personal history and the technologies of water management – remind me of the possibility to become subversive in how we envision our presence within this landscape. Sinking, in the case of the Dutch, is a slow process. It’s durational and ongoing. I can’t help but think about what it means for the water to take back the land. To have to relinquish control

***

I weave these stories together as part of a (un)listening circle. The keeper of my circle is the bloom of a Flamboyant tree. Tracing glimmers right beneath the surface of the water is about finding new orientations to these stories of water, of me of you. 

 

 Water Stories. Courtesy of the Author

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Record posted by: 
Maud Ceuterick