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Rotterdam Cultural Histories #12: Witte de With; What’s in a name?

‘As long as the Dutch Imperial past does not form part of the common, general store of knowledge, which coming generations should have at their disposal, as long as general knowledge about the exclusionary processes involved in producing the Dutch nation does not circulate more widely, multiculturalism now cannot be realized...’
— Gloria Wekker, White Innocence

“Cultural memory and discourses on the past do not themselves constitute institutionalized agencies capable of redressing injustices. However, they can create arenas where injustices are recognized and new frameworks are imagined that are necessary, if not sufficient, for their redress.”
— Michael Rothberg, From Gaza to Warsaw: Mapping Multidirectional Memory

Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art was recently challenged, through the process of the Cinema Olanda: Platform project, to reconsider the legacies of its name. The question that was posed by the Platform’s programmers during preparations for the project, and later through an open letter addressed to the institution, was ‘What does it mean for a white institution to do “critical work” under the moniker Witte de With?’

This edition of Rotterdam Cultural Histories is devoted to a part of this question. It attempts to lay bare the activities of Witte Corneliszoon de With, the motivation behind street-naming in the nineteenth century, and the naming of the institution 27 years ago. It also aims to provide a space for public feedback on the question as to whether Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art should change its name.

The project has finite parameters, running from September – December 2017, and once staged it will be archived both within the institution’s public archive, and made permanently available online on our website, as a record and exposition of the colonial history the name Witte de With is a part of. The name has been long untroubled by this institution, a fact that is symptomatic of a wider national issue regarding the denial and sanitization of colonial histories. This is our first step towards recognition and acknowledgment.

This project has been developed through the input of a cross-departmental team of Witte de With staff members.

Rotterdam Cultural Histories is a collaborative project between TENT and Witte de With that explores our common roots in Rotterdam and articulates meeting points between both of our programs. Rotterdam Cultural Histories is conceived by Defne Ayas (Director Witte de With) and Marielle Dölle (former Artistic Director TENT).

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