Hinde Haest ponders an old daguerrotype photograph from Surinam, and its significance today.
‘What will we be, to the generations we can’t even imagine, staring at us in their futuristic museums?’
Above question was asked by Alain de Botton on a giant yellow post-it in the Rijksmuseum. The text accompanied a set of daguerreotypes, an early photographic process, displayed in dimly lit showcases. Looking at these small nineteenth-century portraits, our noses pressed against the glass, would have seemed shamelessly voyeuristic to the people in the portraits, who kept the fragile photographs in velvet-lined containers and medallions for private use.
What legitimises our communal, nigh-devoted staring at heirlooms from the past? What do these people mean to us who no longer know who they are? According to De Botton, fear of death is one meaning that the contemporary museum visitor might attribute to the daguerreotypes. ‘This is one of the saddest rooms in the museum. You might want to cry, in the half-light… The people look so present and so alive, yet we know that they are now ineluctably, definitely, dead… Images that were made to remind us of life have, unwittingly, contributed to a gallery of memento mori.’
De Botton’s interpretation was part of the Art is Therapy-intervention (April-September 2014), based on the premise that we should relate to museum objects on a personal level, as opposed to a merely art historical one. Though the sight of the beautifully immortalised deceased evokes an inevitable sense of nostalgia and evanescence, the daguerreotypes can mean much more to us than a photographic vanitas, provided we make an effort to understand their provenance. As we momentarily trade the focus on the (often favoured) personal interpretation of a work of art for the (often avoided) historic context, we will find the reality behind the daguerreotypes to be rather fantastical.
Amongst the daguerreotypes on show was an image of the Surinamese couple Maria Louisa de Hart and Johannes Ellis, , which came to the museum from a family safe, carried in a washcloth. Though Maria Lwas half-Surinamese and Johannes Ellis’ mother was a freed slave from Ghana, they are portrayed as members of the wealthy and powerful elite. Given the daguerreotype was made during Dutch colonial rule in Surinam and well before the abolition of slavery, the image forces us to add another dimension to our understanding of what being of mixed descent could also entail at the time.
It is exactly this discrepancy between what we see and what we think we know that makes this image more than just an old family photograph or a memento mori. What we know about nineteenth-century photographs from Surinam is that the large majority is of an ethnographic nature, aiming to classify racial ‘types’. What we see in this image is a coloured couple wealthy enough to afford elaborate costumes and to have a daguerreotype made, which was an exclusive and expensive event. This object distorts (though it does not deny) the existing image of colonial history we puzzled together.
Practicing art history is combining what we see with what we know, or get to know as we follow the leads that the object throws at us. For example, the daguerreotype was dated according to newspaper ads of the few photographers who travelled to Surinam at the time. From which followed that Maria Louisa was pregnant whilst being portrayed, a salient detail to remember when looking at the museum object. Knowing her son was Abraham George Ellis, the first Dutch minister of Surinamese descent, makes the daguerreotype a tangible testimony to changing colonial power relations.
Whether we see the daguerreotype as a personal family heirloom, a historic document, or a universal memento mori, it proves that the meaning of an object is volatile and can change our perspective on what we think we know. The image is no isolated relic from a past that no longer bears any relevance to us, but is part of a network of remains that continuously challenges how we relate to our own heritage. Besides a nostalgic memento mori to which we relate on a personal and emotional level, the image is also a very real document. Apart from ephemeral, Maria Louisa and Johannes were also one of the first Surinamese immigrants in The Netherlands, who carried with them an image that resonates the making of our own time.
Mattie Boom, The first photograph from Suriname: a portrait of the nineteenth-century elite in the West Indies, Rijksmuseum (Amsterdam 2014)
Alain de Botton, Art is Therapy, Rijksmuseum exhibition catalogue (Amsterdam 2014)