Shantrelle P. Lewis Talks Blackface In The Netherlands & Her Passion For Curating

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So far, you are close to achieving your 20k fundraising goal for the film. This is a great sign that folks are definitely interested in learning about the Zwarte Piet and the Dutch blackface tradition. Why do you think there is so much interest in this topic, particularly a topic as foreign as this Dutch Christmas fable?


Although our Kickstarter goal is $20,000 or actual total goal is much more than that. $20,000 was the minimum amount we felt that we could raise initially. However, we’re really shooting for $40,000 via this Kickstarter campaign. To date, we’re now over 80% of our goal. Hopefully by the time this piece publishes, we’ll be closer to reaching our minimum goal!


There are numerous Kickstarter campaigns that are launched every day. I think that this particular subject resonates with different groups of people for different reasons. For the Dutch community, at least those people who have expressed anti-Zwarte Piet sentiment both privately and publicly, I think this film comes as a sigh of relief. I believe for some of them, it feels as if this film can serve as reinforcements for the battle they have already waged against the celebration of the tradition. I believe that many others also feel like it’s an opportunity for their voices not only to be heard locally but also globally. There indeed is power in numbers.


For Americans, I believe that it’s a matter of shock value. People are literally flabbergasted – both Black and white – that this tradition is taking place, en masse in the Netherlands. Since we speak about race more openly here in the States and the subject isn’t as taboo (which is the case in the Netherlands – you can’t believe how many times I’ve heard white people there say that racism is an American issue and not a Dutch problem….right), I believe that even white Americans are embarrassed and taken aback when they visit the Netherlands and are confronted with Zwarte Piet.

Now don’t get me wrong, that doesn’t absolve white Americans of their own racism and privilege, nor does their reaction to Zwarte Piet mean that they themselves, are not racists or upholders both consciously and subconsciously of institutionalized racism. What has been said by literally thousands of people who have been introduced to this tradition for the first time via the launch of this documentary, is that the tradition is racist based on basic definitions of racism. While the history of blackface is clearly different in the U.S. and in the Netherleands, they have a shared historical past and by most standards, people around the world believe that blackface, particularly as it is expressed in this case, is outdated and has no place in the 21st century, particularly in a country where many residents feel offended by the tradition and seek to at the very least, change if not abolish it.


So for inquiring minds, how does a black woman find her way into curating art exhibits? Did you grow up wanting to be a curator or did art just happen to find you? How has being a black woman enable and/or influenced your work?


How much time do we have? I’m sorry but I have a mouthful to share about my entry into curatorial work because of the misconceptions that people hold about who and what a curator is and does. As well, people often wonder how I arrived at this place in my career. My path to curating was totally non-conventional. I wouldn’t consider myself representative of the prototypical curator – I’m actually atypical. I grew up wanting to become a doctor. In fact, the reason that I attended Howard was because it was #2 in placing African Americans into medical school (after Xavier University and I didn’t want to stay in New Orleans). I attended summer science and pre-med programs every summer until I graduated – programs such as the Medical Minority Educational Program at Yale University, the Ronald McNair at Howard University’s Hospital. I taught high school for a few years, and then decided to go back to school.

At that point in my life, I still didn’t know that I wanted to become a curator. I volunteered at the African American Museum in Philadelphia as a first year student in the M.A. program in African American Studies at Temple. While there, I fell in love with the idea of combining my love of history and culture of Black people in one space. I worked in the education department for a year or two before realizing that I wanted to become a curator, after being highly blown away by Dr. Deborah Willis’ exhibition “Saturday Night, Sunday Morning.” Soon after, I curated my first exhibition which was a huge success.


Several months later, I decided to move back to New Orleans. This was in 2007, two years after Hurricane Katrina, so the city was still in the early stages of recovery. Upon my arrival, I was introduced to Dr. Dwight McKenna, an African-American surgeon, who founded a museum in honor of his parents a year before Katrina hit. He entrusted me with the enormous task of revitalizing the museum and establishing it as a functioning and respected institution. Well with lots, and I do mean, lots of sweat, blood and tears, and more elbow grease on the side, the help of my childhood friend Jewel Bush and the love and support of my family and the community, that’s exactly what happened. While in New Orleans, I curated exhibitions constantly. It was a curatorial training day of sorts for me. Without the pressure of feeling that I had to compete with or fall within a ready made narrative of how a Black woman is to curate, I had the opportunity to shape my own voice as a curator, one who approaches aesthetics from a place of relevance, activism, history and sacred cosmology. It wasn’t easy – there were many times that I questioned what I was doing and whether or not I was doing it correctly. However, I continued to listen to my inner voice and allowed that to serve as my compass as to how I should curate. Also, during that time I for the most part worked pro-bono and lived at home with my parents. So it wasn’t all magic. It required a lot of sacrifice for me to arrive at the place that I’m at in my still emerging career.

After a few years, Dr. Marta Moreno Vega invited me to join the staff at the Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute (CCCADI) and the rest is Black History! So if anyone is reading this and has a desire to become a curator, I’d say, get ready to put in work, honey. The fashionable and Hot exhibit openings are superficial. The real question is who does your work speak to? What does it have to say? Most importantly, will it create or invoke some sort of change? If not, what’s the point?


If you would like to donate to Kickstarter campaign for Black Pete, Zwarte Piet: The Documentary, please click here.

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