Shantrelle P. Lewis, New York-based curator and scholar, has been all over the globe – Haiti, Brasil, Nigeria, Ghana, Egypt, Cuba, Jamaica, Sweden, Paris, and elsewhere black folks can be found – researching, documenting and presenting the African Diaspora through exhibits like, Dandy Lion: Articulating a Re(de)fined Black Masculine Identity and Life After Death: A Multi-Media Analysis of the Persona That Was/Is Fela Anikulapo Kuti.
Her new project, Black Pete, Zwarte Piet: The Documentary will send Lewis back to the Netherlands in an effort to explore the tenuous relationship between a Dutch holiday fable and the local black community. Taking time out from fundraising, Lewis talked with MadameNoire about the film; the passion behind the project; and the fascinating story about how a former pre-med student and high school teacher found her true calling as a keeper of the culture:
First tell us about Black Pete, Zwarte Piet: The Documentary? More specifically, for those not aware, who is Zwarte Piet?
“Black Pete, Zwarte Piet: The Documentary” is a film about the Dutch celebration of Sinterklaas and his helper – Zwarte Piet (Black Pete). St. Nicholas as a figure, is harmless and famous around the world right? Well the narrative attached to the celebrations of Sinterklaas in the Netherlands includes another element that is virtually unknown outside of the Netherlands. During holiday celebrations there, white people dress up in blackface in their roles as the Zwarte Piet character. This tradition has been practiced and widely celebrated throughout the country for many years. However, when larger numbers of Black people started to migrate to the Netherlands from Suriname and former Dutch colonies in the mid/late-20th century, of course, some people were not happy about this tradition.
Over the years, various individuals and groups have resisted the celebration while many others have assimilated into mainstream culture and adopted the celebration themselves. It has been within more recent years that more visible protests have been formed against the practice and people have increasingly in larger numbers began speaking out and publicly protesting the blackface character, who supposedly received his dark color from falling down a chimney. But if that is indeed the case, why is that he has “nappy” or “curly” hair (e.g. afro wig), exaggerated red lips and gold hoop earrings that are synonymous with the same types of earrings worn historically by people of African descent? Also, why is his entire face black? And why aren’t his clothes covered with “soot” as well?
This documentary seeks to explore several subjects – the history of Zwarte Piet’s blackface, activists and Dutch citizens who believe that the performance and imagery associated with Zwarte Piet are racist, and individuals in the Netherlands who feel that the tradition is harmless and shouldn’t be changed. Additionally, we seek to locate Zwarte Piet in a larger context of the race, racism and (mis)representation of Black people in the Netherlands.
What compelled you to want to explore such a racially-charged and culturally sensitive topic through film?
As a curator, I’ve always been attracted to the medium of film. While I use the exhibitions that I curate to explore subject matter that isn’t necessarily for the faint of heart, I’ve never been too afraid to approach sensitive subject matter. For example, my exhibition Sex Crimes Against Black Girls, was probably the most emotional and professionally challenging experience I’ve had thus far in my career. So when it came to the subject of Zwarte Piet, I wasn’t necessarily interested in curating an exhibition – there have been several exhibitions about the subject already. My primary goal for attempting to tackle the subject of Zwarte Piet through film comes from a desire to educate masses of people, not just in the U.S., but internationally, about what some may deem as an international issue of concern. Unlike the accessibility of other languages like Spanish, French and English, Dutch is a localized language, one that isn’t spoken by many people outside of its borders and its former colonies. Thus, much about Dutch history and contemporary politics are virtually unknown by the rest of the world. My goal as a researcher is to explore a topic of interest and concern to me since I’m currently heavily involved in research about the Dutch Caribbean, but through a medium that provides greater access and awareness. It also concerns me because it affects my colleagues and friends – people that I’ve grown close to during my experiences in NL. I could have curated an exhibition but honestly, how many people would have had the opportunity to engage the subject matter? The work that I do as a curator and researcher, the manner in which I present the topics that I’m de-constructing and exploring, is about accessibility. I felt that Zwarte Piet is a topic that has already experienced enough isolation and I want to test my ability as an educator to assist in placing it on a larger platform for critical discourse.