Vermeer reinterpreted: Girl with an Amber Earring

Angèle Etoundi Essamba’s photo series “Noire Vermeer” takes a fresh look at the Dutch painter Jan Vermeer. The Cameroonian photographer’s project is also a reckoning with the Netherlands’ history with the slave trade.

This year,the Netherlands will mark 150 years since theabolition of slaveryin the country’s colonies. Cameroonian photographer Angèle Etoundi Essamba was inspired by this memorial year to reflect on the dark history behind it in her artwork. She’s created the 37-image photo series “Noire Vermeer,” for which she photographs Black women wearing an amber earring. The project also incorporates sculptures and a video installation.

“Noire Vermeer:” Amber earring instead of a pearl

In her new interpretation of the famous painting “Girl with a Pearl Earring” by Dutch painter Jan Vermeer (1632-1675), Angèle Etoundi Essamba replaces the titular pearl earring with one featuring a dangling piece of amber. She presents her Black subjects as free, self-confident women.

“The ‘Girl with an Amber Earring’ claims the right to look, to shine, and to exist – fully authentic. She examines us with her penetrating gaze, stares at us and invites us to contemplation and beguilement. In so doing, she demonstrates inner strength, intimacy and beauty,” Essamba says, summing up her work to DW. “But she also remains unattainable; she has only herself to live up to.”

Early fascination with Dutch painter Jan Vermeer

Vermeer’s paintings, created during the Dutch Golden Age, are considered masterpieces of European art. Twenty-eight of the works, including “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” are currently on show in a sold-out exhibition in Amsterdam. After his death at just 43 years old, Vermeer was largely forgotten for almost the next 200 years and was only rediscovered in the second half of the 19th century.

Essamba admired Vermeer’s paintings from an early age. “What has always fascinated me about his work is the central place he gave to women in his paintings,” the photographer explains, adding that her photographs parallel his works while reinterpreting them. “The subjects of his paintings are vivid-looking people from everyday life – just like the women and girls that I have photographed.” The Dutch painter’s influence is also seen in the formal style of “Noire Vermeer” in the use of light and contrast, and of the primary colors blue and yellow.

A Golden Age for whom?

But despite being fascinated with Vermeer, Essamba also looks critically upon the time period in which he painted, known as the Dutch Golden Age, which was largely during the 17th century. “It was a time when the Netherlands became the world’s leading economic and trade power. And it was also a time when the country’s art and culture flourished. But all the glory and splendor of the Dutch Golden Age should not make us forget the darker side — that prosperity was based on a colonial system full of violence, which in turn was based on inequality and exploitation.”

For that reason, Essamba says the question needs to be asked: “A Golden Age for whom?” She adds that Black people were “portrayed in paintings back then as possessions, mostly in order to emphasize the high status of their owners.” By putting the focus on Black women, she says, she creates a new narrative and celebrates “these enigmatic Black figures, who for centuries were relegated to the background of Dutch painting.”

“The Dutch don’t like to talk about slavery”

Born in 1962, the photographer has lived in the Netherlands for 40 years and has followed the way the country’s history is dealt with. “The Dutch don’t like to talk about the dark and very painful period of slavery in their history,” she told DW. So her project is also a means of coming to terms with the history of injustice that Black people have suffered.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, the Netherlands was one of the world’s major colonial powers. It’s estimated the country enslaved some 600,000 people, whom they shipped under inhumane conditions from Africa to South America and the Caribbean. The kingdom was one of the last European countries to officially abolish the slave trade, which it did on July 1, 1863. Essamba says, “That period shaped the society of the Netherlands as we know it, and is therefore the history of all of us.”

In December 2022, the Netherlands officially apologized for its involvement in the slave trade, and acknowledged the long-term consequences, which are still felt to this day. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said at the time that the government wanted to cooperate with descendants of slaves to come to terms with an alleviate the suffering.

2023 memorial year is an “important step”

But the government’s official apology has been criticized for being half-hearted. “The history of slavery still negatively affects the daily lives of some people. Many continue to suffer from racism and discrimination,” says Essamba. She adds that there’s a need to recognize this past, so there’s still much work to be done.

Still, the artist continues, “It’s an important step of recognition that can help strengthen social cohesion.” She says the memorial year can also contribute to that. And with her “Noire Vermeer” project, Essamba says she wants to invite people to take a critical look at the past, and to deconstruct outdated perceptions.

This article was translated from German.

Author: Kevin Tschierse

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