To an empty class

A page has been opened on Instagram called CallOutDutchArtInstitions. On this page, current and former students of Dutch art academies share their experiences of sexism, racism, and other discriminations. Most of the posts correspond to my daily memories of the time I have studied at the Rietveld Academie. Although it is difficult for me to imagine any form of structural change through the help of social media, what makes me endlessly excited is that the “Art Academy” has finally become a subject to talk about. The absence of this kind of discussion during the time spent there has always been my main frustration. I believe that the inability to talk about the academy itself and how it runs, created a painful lack of politics among us.

A portrait Gerrit Rietveld 2013

After entering the Academie, it soon became clear to me that the political baggage I was carrying with me from Tehran, which was at its peak of maturity and transparency back in 2010 (because I was involved in a popular political movement back home), was not to be shared with my class. Not because there was any limitation in showing it—actually I could “show” anything as long as it was a one-man/woman show based on either my past, or my personal stories, my identity, or my style and even in my taste in Art. But this kind of work never became a substitute for the politics I knew.

I had learned that politics begins with the confrontation of different ideas and it continues by creating a common ground in which we locate ourselves, in a constant dynamic of questions and dialogues. As an international student, it was impossible (still not possible) to understand Dutch politics and identify the forces that make up this politics, so I had to come closer, beginning from my gray classroom on the third floor of a modern cubic building that is a heritage of the Dutch art world. I had to discover the politics that surrounded my classmates and I, in Amsterdam South. This politics was extremely invisible for me. All my attempts to make it visible were often labeled as ideological and over-politicized questions. My inquiry was interpreted as grumbling and observed as being stuck in a topic—“An Iranian girl eager to argue about everything” “an angry Iranian/Arab/Turkish girl who loves politics!”

Many times, as a response to my work related to the politics of Academie, I have heard from my teachers that I should not work about Rietveld itself because it is too reductive.

At the Rietveld Academy, the word “Freedom” was often mentioned, we were hearing this word over and over again most of the time by highly non-political male teachers and professors. Now, years later, when I look closely at the works of those teachers, I realize that I needed to study this aesthetic more than constantly explaining myself and my works. I needed to know everything about this masculine, noisy, hollow art, simply to understand that: When a meaningless and empty work with no aesthetic (which is an aesthetic itself) carries the word Freedom to conquer an empty stage, we have to ask ourselves “What power structure made this boundless self-confidence for this position?”

Comments like: “Your work is too much,…there is a lot of spice in this work, make it less tasty. .. Do not talk so directly .. Your work is too obvious ..” In fact, they were not referring to my work, but to their works. Works that are actually very local, coming from a long tradition of the art market—the Dutch one, heavily influenced by the money injected to this form of art in the past 30 years. Why do they call it universal? Why do they call themselves international art teachers? I believe that there is a reason: our absence in making an international imagination.

Calibration 2013

Instead of simply calling these teachers racist and ignorant, I am eager to draw the attention of all of us to the absence of politics that made us voiceless, made us in the corners of the academies alone, helpless, paranoid in the ocean of misunderstanding and built a wall of fears around us.
Our politics, a form of collectivity that gives us a voice, starts from our rooms, homes, and neighborhoods and slowly with the constant practice of participation, becomes an abstract agreement we can stand on, to define equality and freedom for our community. A politics that could have started from the same gray classes where we spent hours together and could have a say in the way our works were valued, continue to change many things in the Dutch art scene, or even create a fresh international imagination for the academy. A politics of courage, of facing our differences, fears, and insecurities. This all could happen in a practice of living together if we would allow ourselves to question the set of values and ideas and visions that make this system function.

I’m the only one 2014

It was only in Studium General curated back then by Gabrielle Schleijpen that I have finally found a space for critical thought, meeting Jonas Staal and studying his works which drew up a political plan of the Dutch art world, and later on, in the occupy movement I could finally participate in shaping local politics around my existence in Amsterdam and being less anxious in the academy.

Now, ten years later, I realize that during those 4 years, with the fragile instincts in a completely new world far away from my home, the only antidote I found in the academy to the dysfunctional framework of identity politics (which was always proposed to me) was to base my work around the academy itself, trying to build the smallest version of a collective politics, which gives us a voice to start to talk about other issues. “We are from Rietveld” was the sentence I started my graduation project with (and of course I ended naming that project: “You may say I’m a dreamer but I’m the only one”).

I’m the only one 2014

Eventually, despite the fact that all my efforts to build politics among ourselves at the academie have failed, still, those four years were really valuable experiences in understanding a world that left its imagination of internationalism completely to the hand of international institutions.

Finally, what today I am fully aware of is that Rietvel Academie was absolutely a unique experience of living together, which happened to be due to the local moral and behavioral characteristics of the Dutch society: a Northern climate with a strong Northern economy within the European Union, which we can never generalize as a universal or common ground for internationalism. This specific geographical situation has also a very special definition of freedom, which allowed our togetherness with 69 nationalities in the tribe of Rietveld—despite the fact that it was forbidden (we were not able) to label anything as Dutch.

Golrokh Nafisi
Nov 2020

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