What does it mean for a white institution to do “critical work” under the moniker Witte de With, the name of a high-ranking colonial naval officer who worked for both the Dutch West India Company and the Dutch East India Company (VOC and WIC)? What does it mean to engage in “critical reflection on timely issues” (from Witte de With website) under that name—a name that conjures up a history of terror? What does it mean to validate, market, and circulate such a name? We, a group of cultural professionals, artists and activists, draw attention to the disjunction between the stated criticality of Witte de With, a Center for Contemporary Art in Rotterdam, and its failure to acknowledge its entanglement with colonial violence. Witte de With has “failed” to come to terms with its own internal contradictions, and has yet to reckon with the historical figure it symbolically embodies. Even though our critique is directed at Witte de With, it extends well beyond this institution’s white walls. The issues we address are endemic within major “critical” cultural institutions in the Netherlands (….) When questioned about its naming during a meeting convened to discuss Cinema Olanda: Platform, director of Witte de With Defne Ayas disclosed that the issue of the Centre’s name had not previously come up in its 25-plus-year existence. The senior staff as a matter of course readily admitted that the institution’s naming is “unfortunate,” expressed their dismay, and a “willingness” to change the name. Yet, what should we make of this admission, “willingness” and outward display of dismay in the context of 25-plus-years of non-action and recent re-action? Why has not the Centre troubled its name? Let’s not be unclear about it: the fact that Witte de With has remained silent on the historical actions of its namesake has been a purposeful choice. What’s more, by brandishing the name “Witte de With” the Centre has been sanitising and tacitly promoting the violent dispossessions that marked Dutch colonialism.
Egbert Alejandro Martina, Ramona Sno, Hodan Warsame, Patricia Schor, Amal Alhaag, Maria Guggenbichler in Open letter to Witte de With (googledocs)