Interview with Dr Janice McNab: Culture as a mirror of the population

20 januari 2020

To celebrate the deep cultural connections between North Sea Neighbours the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, the Dutch Embassy in London has published a magazine full of interviews with Dutch artists that work in the UK and British creatives earning their money in the Netherlands.

Read the interview with Dr Janice McNab , head of the Master Artistic Research at the Royal Academy of Art, The Hague (KABK) as it appeared in North Sea Neighbours. Strengthening cultural ties between the United Kingdom and the Netherlands (January 2020).

Culture as a mirror of the population

Interview: Arnoud Breitbarth

During lunch break at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague, one of the oldest art academies in the world, the canteen is filled with students from all around the globe. They look at sketches, discuss a new exhibition and gossip about classroom politics. Apart from their dedication to art, there is one other thing they have in common: they all communicate in English.

“This is an English language school, our programme is very international”, says Janice McNab, who leads the MA Artistic Research. “We want our students to engage with people from different backgrounds and cultures. Other ideas and perspectives are fundamentally important for understanding the world, and what our own presumptions and beliefs are, what our own cultures are.” McNab gives an example from a recent class debate on colonialism. “A Japanese student pointed out that the discussion was completely Eurocentric. In Japan colonial discussions don’t necessarily reference Africa, Indonesia or India. They are about Japan in relation to Korea, Taiwan and China. The idea that there is more than one colonialism hadn’t come up until that point.”

Internationalism, the principle that advocates for greater cooperation between nations and people, is one of the pillars of the academy. “That important postwar idea is under pressure, both in the United Kingdom and also – to a lesser extent – in the Netherlands. Culture is a diffracting mirror of society and so, as a whole, it is an important place for conversations about societal beliefs.”

McNab points to the developing conversation around the Dutch tradition of Zwarte Piet as an example of this. The debate was in large part initiated by people who did not grow up hearing the story of the black-faced helper of Saint Nicholas. “As a foreigner trying to build a life in the Netherlands, Zwarte Piet was a shocking confrontation with how a different culture held onto its past. I did not understand how dressing children in eighteenth-century slave costumes, painting their faces black, and asking them to run around a white man, high above them on a horse, could be understood as fun. It seemed to re-enact the power relations of the plantation a bit too closely: endlessly interchangeable black helpers – all infantilised and given the same name – gleefully bouncing around as they re-enact a ritual that is fundamentally tied to the exchange of goods. That adults would choose to make their children black for a day in order to experience these power relations, and then go home and wash this blackness off, and receive gifts, left me dumbfounded. It’s dehumanising, open racism that seemed to be instilled into very young children as the way things are if you want to prosper and enjoy life.”

The intense discussion in the Netherlands is having an impact on the tradition of Zwarte Piet, McNab is happy to notice. “It proves the importance of cultural activity in people’s understanding of themselves.”

It could be argued that compared to the Netherlands the United Kingdom has dealt more fully with its colonial past, and the necessary rewriting of histories from many perspectives, McNab says. “The longing for the old days of empire, and the recent rise in xenophobia and racism in Britain, indicate however that something was sadly missed in that re-writing.”

It’s important that everyone who lives in a country sees themselves at least partly mirrored by the cultural production of that country. “If only the lives of middle- and upper-class white people seem to be present there, then everyone else is left to perceive themselves as not being a valued part of that culture.”

McNab thinks that the streaming of Dutch children at secondary school level isn’t helpful. “People from working classes or ethnic minority backgrounds often have less access to home tutoring or protected time and space for homework. They therefore have less chance to get the education they need to go onto higher education, they are passively weeded out before they can ever apply to higher education like art school. For culture to thrive, it needs to be open to many voices, so its presumptions can be constantly challenged. That way things like Zwarte Piet don’t happen.”

The Royal Academy currently has 34 students from the UK. “British culture is influential throughout the world, and we would like to continue to involve British perspectives in our educational conversation. Brexit would make British students non-EU students however, with fewer available spaces and higher annual fees.” In the current academic year, non-EU students pay €7,500 a year instead of €2,000 for EU-students. However, that is still less than the £9,250 students pay in England.

The possibility of studying in the Netherlands is relatively unknown in Britain. To counter that, McNab suggests a government-led advertising campaign. “It’s an interesting way to maintain longstanding cultural ties in a post-Brexit world.”

McNab wonders if the northern part of the United Kingdom might be specifically open to the exercise of Dutch soft power. “Scotland voted to remain and many Scots want to be part of the EU. The country is even considering separating from England for this reason, if Brexit goes badly. So strengthening cultural ties with Scotland and keeping them in the loop could be fruitful.”

Until the EU referendum, McNab had considered returning to the UK at some point. “Brexit was a clarifying moment, the public discourse in Britain changed. Certain media outlets have allowed quite fascistic viewpoints to come into the open, and discussions that were inconceivable ten years ago have become everyday. Racist xenophobia now often goes unchecked – even in my hometown Aberfeldy in Remain-voting Scotland.”

McNab is happy with her recent move to The Hague from Amsterdam, where she lived previously. “There is a supportive artistic community, and the city places value in affordable studio spaces.” She says she is now fully committed to staying in the Netherlands, where she maintains an artistic practice, an academic career, and a social circle. Applying for dual nationality would have been the next step, but the required change in Dutch law was recently removed from government business for the coming year. “This has been a great disappointment to many Brits living here, and as an artist, travel is part of my life. Dual nationality would really help.”

Despite the current uncertainty, McNab is planning to take her students to Scotland next year to work on a programme around the 700th anniversary of the Declaration of Arbroath in which Scotland claimed its independence. They will meet Scottish artists, researchers and international students. “It’s a link that continues to build between the Scottish cultural community and students from The Hague. Encouraging these conversations creates generational bonds that may be more important than only seeing examples of each other’s work in international museum shows. Perhaps we can fight creeping xenophobia, at least a little, with such conversations, and the exchanges within them. In that respect, enabling artists to spend time in each other’s countries is more important for culture than frictionless movement of goods.”

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