The unfolding news
A couple of days ago and I received a message on Messenger from a long-standing friend I met while in the Netherlands. He is an African in his last year of a PhD at the Wageningen University and Research Center, Wageningen, The Netherlands. He went straight: ‘’Hi bro, how are you doing? I hope everything is great. Can I please ask you to read this piece and tell me what you think about it? If you double-click on any of the pics, you will find some notes underneath. Thanks in advance.’’
In the messenger message was attached this link. https://www.jurrianveldhuizen.com/
Nature of the exhibition and behind the scenes agitations
Series of agitations unfolded from the African students on the Wageningen University campus from last week and still unfolding. It has given rise to stories worth sharing, worth pondering and worth hammering home as follows:
African Students in the Wageningen University and Research Centre of the Netherlands have halted an exhibition of photographic images from Kumasi waste sites that grossly could not meet basic cultural, research and ethical queries the African student leaders put forward to the exhibitor, Jurrian Veldhuizen. Consequently, the Wageningen University and Research (WUR) authorities have moved to have the exhibition halted in response to appeasing the embittered spirits of African fellows on the WUR campus. The exhibition is a project by a Dutch alumni of the Wageningen University Mr. Jurrian Veldhuizen and showcases images of waste collectors in Kumasi on large format billboards ‘outside’ the University campus. Jurrian Veldhuizen, the author of the works calls it ‘’…the task of giving voice to the voiceless, giving image to the imageless…’’ and captions it as ‘’Power of the Wasted.’’ For Jurrian, he merely is ‘’…fascinated by the things and people that were hidden’’. Yet, this fascination fiercely provoked some Africans on campus who believe Jurrian merely is playing on the sensibilities of Africans on campus.
Two quotes are necessary here: ‘’A story is not always the way it seems on the outside’’- (excerpt from an Indian movie) and indeed, ‘’the camera can photograph thought’’- Dirk Bogarde.
Is Jurrrian’s rendition of the phenomenon of waste about to change the way we see, talk and act on intricate issues of the Ghanaian and global waste economy? Is he merely photographing his thoughts on a seemingly complex phenomenon?
Exhibiting Controversy? ‘’The Power of the Wasted’’
Jurrian, 25 year-old Investigative Journalist has had his photography project dubbed ‘’Power of the Wasted’’ flouted with controversy as African students on the Wageningen University have expressed worrying concerns over the nature and manner the exhibition is conducted. The ‘’Power of the wasted’’ exhibition shows images captured from Kumasi waste sites in Ghana – exploring the intricate dynamics and complexity of wasted materials and ‘wasted lives’ – taking inspiration from Bauman’s ‘’Wasted Lives: Modernity and Development’’. What seems to be causing the stir on WUR campus is the fact that Jurrian’s referral of a people as ‘’wasted’’ is deemed contemptuous and African student leaders on campus argue such a representation reinforced by his exhibition can eventually enter into the common stereotypical lexicons with which similar identities are visualized particularly identifies of African origins. The questions Chimamanda Ngozi persuasively ask at the 2021 Humboldt Forum is simple but relevant here: ‘’Who tells the story? Who is the teller? Who is told about? And finally, ‘’Who has the right to exhibit the other?’’
Indeed, covering people’s faces with filth is absurdity: the distance between waste and humans must be respected. When people of particular identity are considered ‘wasted’ it can become the general standard image by which others similar in kind are judged, evaluated and visualized.
According to Jurrian, he ambitioned that ‘’With the project Power of the Wasted’’, he could ‘’…shed an alternative light on the hidden world of waste’’. He took this assignment ‘’Following plastic waste and waste workers in the Ghanaian informal recycling industry…showing the dumping site as a place of power, hope, and togetherness’’. Yet it might seem as he pursued this seemingly arduous task with unwavering passion, the living spirits of Africans on WUR campus had their scepticism aroused and their hope of belonging to an inclusive Wageningen community dwindling with every look the exhibition received. Indeed the project ‘’Power of the Wasted’’ is controversial; yet for someone like Jurrian who identifies in part as an Investigative Journalist, the idea of integrating elements of controversy or courting controversy to sell a well-crafted exhibition could not have come as an after-thought than ardent inclination to defy the odds. Yet, it might seem like his stakeholder consultations failed him after he forgot that Africans in his University are important gatekeepers he obviously was not going to be able to do without. It turned out the Africans won the day by making some legitimate claims to warrant Wageningen University authorities siding with them to halt the exhibition.
Following from the temporary halting of the exhibition, series of back and forth engagements have happened between the African student leadership and Wageningen University authorities culminating in the hope that the exhibition could re-surface to offer platforms for appreciating the
diversity of thoughts, opinions, views, emotions etc that actually is characteristic of an open academic and intellectual environment. Could this be the commencement of a big debate to ever happen on the University campus? Is this the time to question how the University studies or pursues studies about Africa? These are points for reflection and fine-tuning.
The said exhibition was earmarked to last between 1st of September till November 1st. However, the controversies brought it down after a 24-hour ultimatum was issued by the UCAS calling the Wageningen University authorities to respect the identities, dignity and self-worth of Africans by halting the ‘’Power of the Wasted’’ exhibition. It is apparent that the organizers of the exhibition disregarded the need to confer with the African students’ body in the first place. In the view of the African student leaders, proceeding with an African-focused exhibition without involving the student body that represents Africans on campus spewed suspicions as to the motivations, validity and adequacy of narratives behind the exhibition on campus.
‘’Unjustly monetizing the ‘’wasted’’ images is questionable’’ – Prez Chisom Ruby Udeh
Another angle to the exhibition that has been met with anguish is the fact that Jurrian, the photographer has gone the extent of selling the images or calling buyers who need any of the images to contact him on his website without consent from those photographed. This has been considered unethical by the African student leaders. Selling images of people who have no idea their images are on the market place of a consumer society raises ethical questions. Jurrian rightly notes on his website that one of the waste collectors is engaged in this act because he apparently needs money to not only survive but to also cater for his immediate family. As advocate of ‘hope’ for the ‘wasted lives’’ is he contemplating fundraising to support the waste pickers and to what level of transparency? Fundraising to support the waste pickers while using some portions of the monies to pay yourself for the time investments could be justified but as it stands now, no one knows where the monies made from selling the images go – leaving one to conclude that Jurrian alone is pocketing the monies. Had it been an ideal world, one would expect that the photographer finds creative ways to remit part of proceeds of sold images to support the betterment of the waste pickers he bemoans as ‘wasted’.
The President of the United Community of African Students Ms Chisom in her firm voice and focused position remarked in a voice chat:
‘’The so-called ‘’Power of the Wasted’’ exhibition cannot be made to hold as it blatantly offends the sensibilities of Africans everywhere. Just imagine the fact that this researcher turned self-styled ‘Investigative Journalist’ makes money of the images he took in Kumasi at the expense of the people whose images appear in his shots – it is like taking us back in the days of colonialism where we are told our fellow Africans got chained and taken against their will to be sold abroad, this time without the chains – only the images sold without consent. We cannot be quiet over such blatant photographic blunder, impunity and disrespect towards us, towards our very dignity! We don’t have to beg to feel dignified from anyone anywhere’’, Chisom commented. Chisom and her African
Students Leadership issued a communiqué to the peaks of the Wageningen University and Research Centre ordering the exhibition to be halted in not more than 24hours. And they succeeded!
(Insert: Read the African students’ ‘Report’ here)
‘’Power of the Wasted’’ Exhibition was held in collaboration with the Rural Sociology Group of WUR
It appears that the said exhibition was closely organized not only by Jurrian Veldhuizen as a private photographer but rather in close collaboration or even at the commissioning of the Rural Sociology Group of the Wageningen University. A post on the Rural Sociology Group’s facebook page concerning the exhibition seems to give weight to the fact that Jurrian was not acting alone in his Kumasi waste site photographic collections.
Leadership of the UCAS (the African student body on campus) said a communiqué (‘’Report’’) they issued on the matter actually resulted from a dialogue where Jurrian Veldhuizen, the photographer and alumni of the WUR was questioned about diverse angles to his work to which he admitted to having made egregious mistakes. The university later took over the adjudication process by side-lining Jurrian Veldhuizen and ensuring that peace of mind and serenity of heart prevailed among anyone deemed to have been offended by the short-lived exhibition.
It however appears that a Professor at the Rural Sociology Department did not take the halting of the Exhibition kindly. The said Professor who feels ‘’uncomfortable’’ about the removal of the exhibition made his feelings clear in that post.
The comments on the Department’s facebook page suggested that the poster was peeved and did not like the idea of halting the exhibition regardless the distaste with which Africans took it captioning his feelings as ‘’uncomfortable’’. Read the full facebook post which occurred on October 5, 7:32 AM here: https://web.facebook.com/ruralsociology/
The import of Jurrian Veldhuizen’s work
Taking up the camera is also taking courage. And no matter how stiffly and sternly critiqued Jurrian’s work has been subjected to, it in no way invalidates the fact that he did a great job highlighting the issue of waste in Kumasi and in the Ghanaian context. In fact when people consider their fortunes to lie with waste and engage in it as means to survival or work, they together with the wider society have responsibilities to keep including ensuring they do not become exposed to extreme environmental toxicity mostly characteristic of waste sites; regulations ought to be in place to ensure safety standards for waste collectors and to ensure that children do not become attracted to the economy of waste sites as alternatives to schooling or apprenticeship. If regulation already exists, enforcement must be activated. But it is not as straight forward; for some people definitely must make a living from having to live on waste – they should not become the waste itself and no one should act like we have capacities to dispose people off as ‘waste’ . And no matter how extremely beneficial waste is the means to survival for people, they the people involved should not
become substituted as ‘’wasted’’. They have rights to demand better economic conditions in the constitution of that economy and that partly lies with tracking the parties who contribute to the waste making itself. All these complexities are prominent in Jurrian’s approach of the issue of waste and subsequent write ups he puts on his website. If waste collectors’ rights are best enjoyed when fought for, then Jurrian’s work also constitutes a great part of a fight that is worth it, for it is said ‘’if you ever see a good fight, join in it’’. In that, waste collectors’ power to become not wasted is a culmination of factors everyone involved in the production and reproduction of waste must show concern – people are people, even if they die, they are preserved and reserved some dignity, they are not assumed to have become ‘wasted’. No one is ‘wasted’.
It might make sense to advice future researchers and investigators like Jurrian of the importance to consult insiders and make use of context relevant understanding that ‘outsiders’ may not be privy to, endowed with or be in better position to wield when embarking on such relevant but tricky endeavours. Of course, it can be argued that the dichotomy between insider and outsider knowledge is itself insufficient, blurry and inconclusive; yet having insider insights may bring to the table awareness of the diversity of factors that create emotional intellectual forces that must be wrestled out in unravelling any given socio-cultural phenomenon. For my University, Wageningen UR, it must be a priority to tap into the expertise of Africans about their cultural heritage should it become necessary to engage on themes and subject matters of African contexts. When the butterfly thinks itself a bird, it certainly must pass the test of the fly.
By way of addendum:
Exhibiting African realities: Contextualizing the African experience in the Netherlands and why ‘strange’ images can scare
Have you ever pondered how it feels to be an African in The Netherlands? I am quite sure this question evokes enormous feelings, memories lived with nostalgia and incredible experiences words may not thoroughly surmount.
For some Africans in the Netherlands however, being black skinned is the defining order not being a different kind of human. This identity flaw can become intensely dangerous when paired with other euphemisms like to be ‘’migrant’’. The psychic of the African seems to be alert all the time to track down the simplest of racial slurs, identity flaws, fraudulent mental schemes and misdemeanours that could either exacerbate existing prejudices or even make gloomier new versions of nullifying the black existence as worthy of some dignity.
Well, if my experiences matter, I call the Netherlands my second home besides the Ghana; – the only world apart from Ghana and Rwanda I may know. And my feelings of the Netherlands is one that is full of incredible wonderment in admiration for how open and welcoming the society is for all matters adjudged immoral in Ghana for example – from legal homosexuality to marijuana and prostitution. It is a society that is bent on making everyone feel capable of expressing humanity in
different styles – call it diversity-borne society if you like. Yet, the diversity marker sometimes comes under sharp critique when it has to do with opportunities accorded African people living in the Netherlands with or without Dutch nationality. From counting among the homeless to being targets of police assault and harassment to being checked arbitrary like one cannot own the self any longer, all is not evaluated on the same threshold of ‘normality’; these outlined issues for example have become key issues of concern not only to Africans living in specific spots of the world, like the Netherlands, US, Surinam or Haiti but also Africans at home like myself. Africans trying their best to live the globalism before the world defines it mostly are bent on living just anywhere life offers a human wish endeared, desires envisioned and futures lived or outlived to circumstances. This is not to give fetish regards to exonerate the questionability of some conducts of African fellows. In fact, the foundations that create character distortion must be faced when humanity risks being sacrificed by the status quo of normality.
One African resident in the Netherlands summed his experience in there as follows:
‘’I don’t want Dutch nationality at all! I remain nice and stateless and act as an economic entity. Nationality is only political. No advantage whatsoever, so actually no use. If you think carefully, why would anyone want to be submissive to a royal house? Not me anyway’’.
There are also vehement resistance against the celebration of Zwarte Piet by manifold Africans and people of African descent in Dutchland; yet Zwarte Piet stands a Dutch national celebration that is considered the peak of racist exhibition. I must emphasize though that I personally hold unpopular views about Zwarte Piet being linked to racism, for great political reasons. So notwithstanding the fact that I personally have great admiration for Dutch culture and society – after benefitting immensely from the Dutch generosity and studying for two years there, my encounters with many Africans there bring some pointers that make it evident that black people and Africans for that matter mostly live with the haunt of being racially discriminated against or mocked for long-held impressions and prejudices about Africa (including that Africa and Africans are poverty-ridden in special ways) that mostly demean at default the characterization of the African continent and its people.
While Africans resident in the Netherlands and their experiences of the Dutch society is not at all gloomy, some unexpected experiences have caused good number of Africans in the Netherlands to live circumspect if not suspicious of their identities (including considered mischievous identity images labelled or tagged to have originated from Africa) playing into the way they are perceived, generally characterized and even evaluated by law and policy. In that kind of context where efforts are consistently being invented to suppress a people by taking control over how they see themselves and how others see or should see them, (including how they define, see and value themselves) the kind of imageries such as Jurrian’s images that shape or add pepper to how the general but also unique African experiences unfold, their stories pre-told if not ordained and prejudices upheld can bring lots of revulsion and apprehension – it must be appreciated even if not understood. I make the case that it is against this background that you might expect some resistance by Africans to representational provocations that harbour tendencies to engender maladjustment of the African
experiences in The Netherlands. I think that the reactions put forward by the United Community of African Students against the ‘’Power of the wasted’’ exhibition must be visualized if not understood and appreciated against this backdrop. The reasons many Africans have aligned to the Slogan of the ‘’New Africa’’ is specifically connected to the fact that some people continue to live with a fake African impression – fake markers that notwithstanding get consumed and used against Africans. The UCAS Leadership seems to be making a call to the effect that as Africans, they can present themselves the way they know themselves than be described in unpalatable language, in unpalatable images.
Komla Dumor was smartly inclined to the mantra that until the African tells his/her own stories, it risked being told anyhow. In opening a Ted Talk, he remarks:
‘’This talk challenges Africans to tell African stories the way only Africans can’’
Consider his admonition again that ‘’The narrative will always glorify the hunter until the Lion itself learns how to write. It’s not so much about what the international media does but what you write about yourself’’. Komla Afeke Dumor
In fact, by way of finishing a rather endless dialogue by nature, I want to admit that I don’t have all it takes to talk about the African experiences in the Netherlands given the intricate dynamics, dimensions and diversity of peoples’ experience itself; neither am I duly qualified to pose like I can get it all correct when putting analytical or descriptive notes to the way Africans live the Dutch experience. Nonetheless, I can be sure for reasons of my encounters with diverse Africans in the Netherlands that, their experiences are not completely out of place – particularly after two years of deliberately penetrating the psychic, soul and logics that underpin how Africans experience Dutchness, suffice to say, even if incompletely. In fact, it is my own experiences of situations and stories of Africans living in the Netherlands that made me conceive of a project I dubbed ‘’Improving Conditions of Africans Everywhere (ICOAE)’’ – a project I am yet to take up in time. In that, I hold to the vision that if Africans deserve happiness anywhere they find themselves in the world, it lies partly with being and living as Africans unashamed by who we are, unperturbed by events peculiar to every humanity anywhere including the crises of global waste, global poverty vis-à-vis global greed.
One must however live optimistically with the believe that the African experiences in the Netherlands is improving, might be improving, can and should improve or might have improved over time with increased awareness of global affairs, global citizenry and intercultural awareness becoming part and parcel of everyday life no matter where one lives in the world. For sure, it can be expected that many Africans will not necessarily get the respect deserving of an average Dutch person who thinks The Netherlands is far better off than any country on the African continent. But wait, for no one points to the father’s village with the soiled hand. Default superiority complex of being ‘developed’ as against the awareness that Africa for many is synonymous to ‘poverty’ makes some comparisons, expose and narratives (including visual narratives) come across as outright disrespect towards Africans or even as plainly insulting of the conscience, living strategies and cultural phenomenon of Africans.
Nelson Owusu Ntiamoah (Direct further conversations and reader comments to firstname.lastname@example.org)