Vincent Vulsma’s exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum Bureau Amsterdam explores the use of appropriation through the history of Dutch colonial expansion. He presents a contemporary artistic perspective on our relationship with colonialism beyond imperial history. Using and re-working a number of works originally seen in the ‘African Negro Art’ exhibition in New York’s MOMA in 1935, Vulsma displays the historic artifacts along with modern designs, in order to confront us with contemporary meanings behind colonized objects.
The exhibition’s title, which initially appears ambiguous, is in fact a reference to the writings of the French historian Fernand Braudel. The phrase ‘a sign of Autumn’ describes:
‘the time when the leader of the preceding expansion of world trade reaps the fruits of it’s leadership by virtue of it’s commanding position over world-scale processes of capital accumulation. But it is also the time when that commanding position is irremediably undermined’.
The accumulation of objects under the umbrella of this exhibition title it an attempt to prompt us to reflect on the postcolonial conditions of empires.
The central object in the exhibition is a Baulé tribe mask from the Ivory Coast. The mask, shown with the inside on full view instead of the humanized facial features, was originally collected during the Dutch colonial expansion into Africa. Its fine, idealized features, with its symmetry, craftsmanship and quality of material, are hidden, promoting the viewer to carefully investigate the vitrine in which it is secured. The trade number and the stamp from where it originated are displayed with stature, emphasisng Vulsma’s views on postcolonial theory, where the colonial marks carry more historical and cultural importance than the figure depicted.
Besides the mask, ‘A Sign of Autumn’ includes a series of assemblages, combining a set of walnut stools designed by Ray Eames and three stools on loan from the Royal Museum of Central Africa in Tervuren, Belgium. The layering of crafts, materials, time and race altogether attempt to provide an understanding of postcolonial life within a world of things new and old.
A third exhibition element is the Jaquard textiles on the SMBA walls. They are reproductions from Kuba textiles from the Congo region, which, again were originally presented at the ‘African Negro Art’ exhibition in New York’s MOMA in 1935. Vulsma used photographic documentation taken by Walker Evans in 1935, and re-worked the photographs back into a series of Jacquard textiles, which were woven by means of computer-controlled looms. Today presented as reproductions of reproductions. This appropriation and layering of artifact and documentation, becomes a confusing blur, where the meaning and significance of Vulsma’s practice becomes disorientated, filling one’s head with more unsolved questions than relevant answers.
Yet, in many ways, this confusion is a pieces of the colonial history puzzle. Where artist like Vincent Vulsma’s creative practice acts as an alternative expression for postcolonial generations to reflect upon our countries dominating history.