“No better means of fostering a feeling of inferiority in a race than this history education in which only the sons of another people are mentioned and praised,” wrote the Surinamese-Dutch writer, freedom fighter and resistance member Anton de Kom in 1934 in his book We slaves of Suriname.
In the preceding passage, he tells how he and his classmates were taught by Tilburg brothers who taught the “heroic deeds of Piet Hein en de Ruiter, van Tromp en de Evertsen and Banckert”, how they “tortured their heads to make the pumping in the dates of Dutch, Bavarian and Burgundian Counts’ houses”, how they had to become enthusiastic about “the rebelliousness of Claudius Civilis and the brave Verlatinghe of Willem den Zwijger”.
This Thursday, a page in the history lesson will be added: on the eve of the Independence Day of the Republic of Suriname, a memorial stone of Anton de Kom (1898-1945) will be unveiled in the Nieuwe Kerk in Amsterdam. It will be placed between the stones that are already there by the writers and thinkers Joost van den Vondel, PC Hooft, Hella S. Haasse, Johan Huizinga, WF Hermans, Multatuli and Coornhert. Painter Natasja Kensmil (1973) designed the stone. De Kom’s will be different from those of his colleagues, because typography will not dominate.
For example, the stone of Haasse, unveiled in 2018, only says ‘Hella Haasse Writer. / Here commemorated 1918 – 2011 / 2018 Her hundredth birthday’. That of WF Hermans already deviated slightly because, in addition to a quote, a cat was also engraved in the stone, which was placed in the mouth with the text “Sleep tight, boss, that’s what I do too”.
Kensmil goes one step further: of course her design also includes the name, date of birth and death with a quote from De Kom, but she also added a portrait and tried to incorporate the birthplace in Paramaribo. “I found it remarkable that they asked me for this assignment, I am a painter and do not work with stone. The other memorial stones were still lifes in letters, they didn’t want that now,” says Kensmil. “With the translation to stone and the making of this sculpture, I tried to get close to his ideas, and to my love for Suriname. I hope to celebrate his ideas in this way.”
Born in Amsterdam himself, but with a family history in Surinam, Kensmil read at a young age We slaves of Suriname. Only at a later age did the power of that work really sink in. His story fascinates me. Both We slaves of Suriname as his life story. That is a story about inequality, systematic oppression and how you can resist it. I was impressed that he was able to articulate that so early. How he portrays the skewed power relations touches me because I am also involved in this in my work. My paintings are also about the traces left by inequality, the shortcomings of historical figures and the failure of man who wants to do good, but does evil.”
Kensmil may not be used to working with stone, but the choice is understandable. With her paintings – especially the hollow-eyed portraits of regents and regentesses became known – in which every layer of civilization seems to have been peeled off, she seems to want to depict what De Kom tried to put into words. When she was awarded the Johannes Vermeer Prize, the Dutch state prize for the arts, for her work in 2021, the jury praised her for the way she reinterprets history, “distorting” instead of “staining, removing and ignoring”.
The memorial stone comes two years after Anton de Kom, who met We slaves of Suriname wrote the first published work criticizing Dutch colonialism in Suriname from a black perspective, is included in the Dutch Canon. This happened a year after the cabinet passed a motion to acknowledge that De Kom had been treated wrongly by the then government. De Kom was seen as a communist who was detained without trial by the colonial government in 1933 and was sent back to the Netherlands.
We Slavs of Suriname ends with a painful account of how he is followed by the police in Paramaribo because he founded a consultancy agency where he wrote down the stories of his compatriots about how they were treated. De Kom was arrested for sedition, two people were killed during protests against his arrest and the notebooks in which he had written down the abuses had ‘disappeared’. De Kom finished his book in the Netherlands and concluded it with ‘Sranang my fatherland. Someday I hope to see you again. On the day when all misery will be wiped out of you. Words that can also be read on the memorial stone in front of his birthplace on the present-day Anton de Komstraat in Paramaribo.
Kensmil did not opt for a quote, but for images. That’s what matters to her. In NRC Kensmil, who made many postmortem portraits, previously explained the importance of honoring the dead, saying: “By making it more beautiful, you give the dead an honorable place, you want to close their death, that’s why decoration is important .” That is no less true now, as of Friday that ‘decoration’ and the ‘homage’ to De Kom has been set in stone.
Read also: Writer Anton de Kom, the man who wanted to do something against ‘the parade of misery’
A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper of November 24, 2022