Portrait of the Deportation of the Artist as a Young Man
“With all due respect for the talents of Mr. Kusuma, we have found no indication that his presence in the Netherlands is of any cultural importance,” began the letter sent by the Dutch bureau of immigrations and naturalizations to the concert pianist Harimada Kusuma.
Perhaps the very incantation “with all due respect,” whenever uttered by authority, suggests what is to follow will probably be the opposite, most likely the destruction of dignity.
Kusuma’s deportation has little to do with the fact that he is a pianist from a former Dutch colony, Indonesia. He was born in 1983 in the Javanese port-city of Surabaya. As a child, Kusuma regularly played the concert hall of the Yamaha corporation’s music edifice, and in the Erasmus House in the sprawling capital, Jakarta. The prodigal young musician had won two “awards for excellence” in annual Jakarta piano competitions, before being accepted to continue studying music in the Netherlands, enrolled at the conservatory of Rotterdam. As a conductor he directed multiple choirs in the Netherlands.
Kusuma’s livelihood came mainly from playing concerts with exciting renditions of Prokofiev among many other composers, including Louis Andriessen, the author of the prophetic Dutch symphony The State (De Staat), and inevitably, the repertoire known as “The three Big B’s” Bach Beethoven and Brahms.
Agents of the IND (Immigration & Naturalization Service) cited insistently that Kusuma’s contributions were insufficient evidence to prove cultural relevance to Holland.
The musician’s students, fans, and fellow alumni from Rotterdam’s conservatory were scandalized, and expressed their solidarity. Petitions circulated and protests ensued, eventually raising the attention of reporters from beyond the music world. To prolong his right to reside, Kusuma struggled to prove on paper, in the required jargon, that he was an artist producing inside a Dutch context.
According to IND officials, Kusuma’s failure to verify that he is a professional artist, was in his inability, as stipulated “to (administratively) show that he has obtained cultural subsidies, arts-council funding, or grants from a Dutch institute approved by the Kingdom.”
In a twisted paradox, it was Kusuma’s privilege of being able to earn a living by playing music that led to his incapacity to be believed. Because he had never needed to make use of the available funds from Dutch committees, he could not be certified in the official mind of his adversary, regardless of the reviews and acclaim for his concerts. (Here, the logic of the right wing that supported sweeping austerity measures in the arts and a penal immigration policy seemed turned on its head: typical right-wing rhetoric in the Netherlands, as expounded from the rank and file of the center-right, accuses artists of depending overly on subsidies, living parasitically from the average person’s tax-money in order to produce art that no one outside of the ungrateful and hermetic left wing circles wants to see or hear.)
Clearly, the bureaucrats and specialists-in-deportation sought any bureaucratic logic in order to support their enthusiasm for deporting the artist. The personal musical tastes of the IND clerks is unknown.
Interviews with Kusuma, as well as articles written in his defense, appeared from time to time in the more left-leaning Trouw newspaper (a paper originally founded by Protestant rebels in the underground during the German Nazi occupation). News stories about his misfortune appeared, then vanished promptly in the wider, flashy stream of the Dutch presses. Petitions and rallies by his students were passionate but ultimately insufficient. After struggling for years, Kusuma reported fatigue. Tiredness set in from procedural postponement of an inevitable expulsion, with the possibility of imprisonment in between.
No choice remained other than the return to Java. Back home, the accumulated rumors of his achievements garnered in the Netherlands were treated as substantial and weighed in his favor. New opportunities for performance awaited him.
Officials of the IND made a public show of their power to harass Kusuma, while denying and effacing his status as an artist in spite of his defenders. Some of his supporters and friends are not shy of saying it was a form of persecution.
But can the treatment of Kusuma by the Dutch government be called censorship?
Objectively, the artist was harassed, his achievements belittled.
What seems inherent to the attempted removal of the poet and pianist by a government bureau, is not so much the classical stereotype of censorship under totalitarianism—but that of an obsessive regard by the censor for the artist’s work, showing fear for the power of art.
In the Netherlands—famed as a beacon of tolerance and Western values—the case of Kusuma appears at first to be the absolute contrary to censorship. Such a total disregard and non-recognition of the artist, often invoked in the name of “equality” and normalcy, is conventional in the Protestant, provincial culture of the Netherlands and Scandinavia. In these once-Calvinist cultures, an attitude of pragmatism tends to reprise the arts as mere vanity and flamboyance.
Kusuma’s status as an artist was denied, thwarted by technicalities and by the technicians who wield them. He is not alone.
There is a painful parallel to Kusuma’s experience of the supremacy of pragmatism, and of the Dutch regard for technicalities leading to his evisceration. These forces also affect poetry, a literary form related to music.
Experiences of migration have been a wellspring of material for Dutch-Iraqi poet Rodaan al-Galidi. He spent years in wandering, after having fled his war-torn homeland Iraq. He endured years in the close confinement of labyrinthine refugee detention centers of the Netherlands.
Not having a date of birth (as no one kept records in the dusty, small village of his birth) proved especially suspicious and difficult to file for the Dutch authorities processing his case.
He learned in the Netherlands that “filling in forms [were] everything. A Dutch authority always prefers a neat, clean lie to the messy truth.” Being a poet, a messy, impractical and creative person, makes one unwillingly into Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener, who crashes the system inadvertently.
Inside the detainment centers he learned discipline—his memoir How I Acquired Talent for Life, recounts refugees being ordered to stand in a corner by their supervisors, among other routines.
He also learned Dutch and began writing poems in the language. Eventually, he adopted the tongue of the Netherlands as his literary language, writing verse from his position of perpetual insecurity in the detainee-labyrinth. Quoted here from the collection To the Nightingale in its Egg (Voor de Nachtegaal in het Ei) is my English translation from the poem “Should Doors Increase in Number” (“Als Deuren Toenemen in Aantal”).
If doors increase
then there will be problems
with the act of leaving.
Somebody behind two doors:
one for entry and exit
the other for rescue
and that one is the boss
There are non-upright people
armed with words and appearances
behind each door.
If steps and elevators increase
then there are problems with going up,
you might just arrive
at the wrong story.
Al-Galidi’s poetry collection The Autism-Patient and the Homing Pigeon (De autist en de postduif), won the European Union award for literature in 2011. One month after winning the award, Al-Galidi once again surfaced as a ripple on the radar of the Immigrations Dept., whose officials had gotten to know him throughout the many years of his being monitored and transferred as a refugee in official limbos.
The poet had been assigned to take the “Citizenship Quiz” (Inburgeringstoets) a course about integration and Dutch culture. Al-Galidi flunked the test, with a score of 70 percent.
The compulsory exam is paid for by the examined foreigner (who, in case of poverty, may apply for a loan). Failing twice can result in denial of resident status.
How could a foreigner steeped in Dutch literature, history, and art have flunked on the Dutch integration course? “Nowhere in the test was there a question about Van Gogh, or the Night-watch (of Rembrandt), canals, or St. Martin. Instead there were exam questions such as “Mo (short for Mohammed) lives off welfare, and yet he also wants to put his son in the daycare center. Who will pay for daycare?” Or, “Mo and Amal have a house assigned by the housing institute. If their expenses exceed their welfare, what will happen?”
Al-Galidi was handed the question-sheets after watching short movies—specially produced for the course—about the cartoonish, bungling duo Mo and Amal, two Moroccan immigrants living from welfare. “Frankly, I think that half of the Dutch population would be embarrassed if they saw these films, and I don’t know what Moroccans would say if they saw them.” Al-Galidi also told the Dutch newspaper Algemeen Dagblad that ten questions on the test could only be correctly answered by women. “How could I know when a woman can expect her period after a miscarriage? I have never been a pregnant woman, and I have proof of that.”
The test for foreign applicants for a Dutch passport or residence permit was first conceived and designed by lawmaker Rita Verdonk, a criminologist and former warden of two prisons in the Netherlands, who went on to become Dutch minister of immigration and integration from 2003 until 2007. The policies left in her wake reflect on her past career as the prison-overseer, a role much admired by the VVD (People’s Freedom and Democracy) party she defected from in 2007. (Despite Verdonk’s Indonesian-Dutch ancestry, she went on to found the “Proud of the Netherlands Party” an alt-right movement.)
The integration course halved the annual amount of immigrants to the Netherlands, and appears to have been designed specifically to fish for those who show the promise of “competence” on the labor markets.
After having to retake the humiliating exam, and being obliged to fund it himself, al-Galidi received an official letter stating that he was again facing deportation to Iraq within a matter of months, despite the South of Iraq no less calmer or safer for him since the years after he had fled military service in Saddam Hussein’s army.
“The autism-patient and the homing pigeon” (De autist en de postduif) was not al-Galidi’s first publication. He is the author of numerous books in which he often appears referring to himself as Zorro. A vast quantity of nominations and shortlists for the major literary awards given to poets of the Netherlands had come his way before the prize.
From 2011 until now, Al-Galidi has garnered support for his legal defense, and by 2016 he finally secured his resident’s rights in the Netherlands. In his novelistic memoir about the harrowing years in detainment centers How I Acquired Talent for Life (Hoe ik Talent voor het leven kreeg), his accounts become strikingly reminiscent of the literary genre about insane asylums and their infantilizing humiliation of inmates—such as Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (also a foray by a poet into prose), among many other books. The Dutch-Iraqi diary’s prose is by no means capable of the beauty of Kesey’s, nor does it have the richness of Al-Galidi’s poetry, yet it is artful in its clarity of exposing a detention facility that makes its inhabitants castrated and deranged. Al-Galidi writes with love, humor, and fondness for his fellow detainees. The book of decisively un-poetic narrative prose is atypical of the poet who introduced Arabic’s exalted Oriental metaphors firstborn into Dutch poetry. The novelistic memoir has been his first commercial success, with 1,500 copies sold in the first week after its publication.
“Where the diplomas? Where the forms? Who issued your license?” were the questions asked by inspectors. (And perhaps al-Galidi, despite his publications and award, was also incapable of convincing his examiners of being a useful entity.)
There is a certain historical familiarity, an echo, to the oppressive and alienating situation in which a poet flunks an exam meant to test whether he is a productive citizen or social parasite. It’s similar to the predicament of the musician, told by a board of examiners to prove himself an artist, but without being able to refer to music, or to prove himself by playing the piano for them. The deaf bureaucratic examination results in judgment and dispossession.
Certainly, the experiences of these artists do not easily coincide with the famous Dutch PR image of the Netherlands as a beacon of tolerance, democracy, and open-mindedness. The un-freedom of these, and other artists in the Netherlands, bears similarities to the accounts of Soviet artists and poets who were put on trial, such as Joseph Brodsky.
In November of 1963, after Russian poet Joseph Brodsky was publically denounced in a newspaper article as a social parasite and traitor to the motherland, a trial ensued during which he failed to defend himself and his status of being a poet. In a USSR obsessed with official paper qualifications, Brodsky dropped out of high school at age fifteen. The autodidact had no relations with official institutes of the Writer’s Union or with Russian universities.
“Who ordained you to the ranks of poets? Who gave you your talent as a poet?” asked the judge, to which, according to transcripts (and legend) the unschooled one replied “It comes from God.” Followed by “Who ordained me to the ranks of human race?” Brodsky was expelled to the Siberian wilderness of Archangelsk. The jury “strongly recommended” that he leave Russia for good.
Perhaps it is pretentious to make comparisons between the post-democracy of the Netherlands in 2013, and post-Stalinist Russia of 1963. Yet during the height of “austerity” reforms, European societies see (or are unable to see) an un-criticized penchant for militarism, a damaged judicial system, and a war on immigration conflated with the “war on terror.” Such campaigns have eroded post-war memory, and are matched only by the war on education. In high school education, history classes might no longer be given in Dutch high schools: the education commission deems, fully in tune with the epoch of management that ‘’history needs to be dynamized,” used only to supplement context for technical studies. The teaching of history in the Netherlands was already highly deficient. Perhaps the omission of troubling material in secondary school history classes owed to the therapeutic culture of consolation in the Dutch educational system and society. Long before the current austerity measures, basic education in the Netherlands was the opposite of the archaic system on the Dutch Caribbean Antilles islands: Montessori and other experimental schools, allowing free development of children. It was rich in form, but poor in content, at least when it came to history: for example, the real rate of Dutch Nazi collaborators and the exploration of Dutch colonial history were often absent. Now the subject might disappear altogether, laments Dutch journalist Bas Heijne.
Today the Dutch have effectively entered a phase known by political theorists as post-democracy. Among the growing authoritarian traits, are the everyday actions of Immigrations Department whose clears enjoy impunity, uncontested as they belittle the achievements of artists on European soil. The IND is known to hold the independence of the judiciary and the rulings of court judges in contempt, by constantly resorting to the right to appeal whenever a judge rules against immediate deportation.
A more direct and recognizable, “classic” censorious act by the Dutch government happened during the night of September 13, 2011, when a Dutch detective team, alerted by national surveillance organs and by the Justice-ministry, broke into the Amsterdam home of Dutch anarchist activist-poetess and Dadaist performer Joke Kaviaar, as a response to a “terror alert” about two pamphlets she published on her website. According to her defense lawyer, Jeroen Soeteman, the investigators took 369 photographs of each possession in her house, confiscated her computer, and arrested her—an extreme measure explained by the police as their attempt to establish whether she was the person behind the seditious pseudonym “Joke Kaviaar.”
Kaviaar, who prefers to use her pseudonym, is only a terrorist in the Dadaist understanding of the word, perhaps a guerilla-poetess. She was temporarily released. Two pamphlets she published on her website were declared “banned texts” by the court in 2014. The samizdat texts made reference to the actions of the Dutch 1980s left-wing cell RARA, asking the reader, “Is it time to raise the torch of RARA again?” She called for the left to show more militant resistance against the state machinery of deportation and anti-immigration. She called for “storming the fortress of the IND,” a phrase that can be broadly interpreted.
RARA, or “Revolutionary Anti-Racist Action” was arguably the Dutch variation of the German RAFF (Rote Armee Faktion), though the RARA had appeared later on the scene, towards the end of the 1980s, and used violent methods and explosives against Dutch corporations like Makro and Dutch Royal Shell for their doing business with Apartheid South Africa’s regime. “Boycott Divestment Sanctions” against South African Apartheid did not exclude violent resistance, of which the RARA was fond. Makro was successfully intimidated by the bombs, and withdrew from South Africa. There is an additional reason why the high court of the Netherlands and the prime minister Mark Rutte would see any mention of RARA’s methods as a personal threat: in 1991, a bomb went off in the house of Aad Kosto, the Dutch Labour politician who was then handling cases of Yugoslav refugees as minister of justice. (His successors have often been to the right of Kosto, who has criticized the current establishment for its attempts at cherry-picking the most talented and able youths from among applying immigrants.)
Kaviaar’s performance-poems are usually activist, fun and provocative standoffs, meant for the once vibrant and colorful subcultural left of the Netherlands. The police had a thick file on her activism and jumped on the opportunity when the orders were issued from The Hague.
The “September 13th circle” of young activists came together to defend the cause of free speech in the Netherlands, distributing the banned texts of “incitement” in posters and pamphlets, in public defiance of the Justice Ministry. Members of the circle have also repeatedly been harassed by police and taken to court for joining the seditious Joke.
Censorship in the arts is seldom associated with the Netherlands, or with any liberal democracy in the era of consumer societies. Such societies seem awash in the opposite of censorship—a crisis of overproduction, where the average citizen in incapable of any introversion or “self-censorship” and permits a constant stream of mindless self-documentation to be published in numerous internet platforms.
The Dutch ideal of incorruptible “transparency” and the freedom for any citizen to be outspokenly opinionated, are inherent to Dutch identity. Despite its current expressions of twisted consumerism, that identity is at once rooted in Dutch morality, reaching back to the times of reformation and the Protestant Dutch revolution, when emerging middle classes of the Netherlands converted to Lutheranism. Amsterdam became a semi-autonomous region where fugitives from religious persecution could seek harbor.
“Religious persecution is bad for business” went the logic of armed merchants who presided over Amsterdam. In the “free city,” refugee status was granted to Catholics, Mennonites and to the Spanish Jewish fugitives such as the family Spinoza (these Sephardi Jews are known, erroneously, as “Portuguese Jews:” the Jews fleeing the Spanish Crown and Inquisition in search of Northern sanctuary, stated on their documents that they were Portuguese in order to ease the decision-making of Dutch migrations bureaucrats, who served a Dutch state then at war with Spanish imperialism.
Part of the prerequisites for such immunity, however, demanded that Catholic and Jewish congregations meet in clandestine quarters and in utmost discretion, while a secular business-world could transact the streets, waterways and walkways by day.
That empiricism and Protestantism that granted freedoms of speech and of persuasion, is paradoxically also the source of a potentially brutal pragmatism that in times of crisis degenerated into economic fundamentalism. Rembrandt lived in poverty and social ostracism at the edge of society, in the Jewish quarters, where he befriended Spinoza. And it was during a time of financial crisis when the vulnerable Jewish minority of the 18th century Netherlands sought to publicly dissociate itself from any perceived subversives or trouble-makers. Spinoza’s banished status meant that no other member of the Jewish community were allowed to greet him or to be seen within a radius of miles of the accursed philosopher who spent his last years in a rural setting far from his childhood world and from the libraries he’d made use of.
The pragmatism of the Netherlands has only reinforced itself in the recent years of a global trend towards absolute utilitarian and disciplinarian economics of neoliberalism. Privatization ideology (“neoliberalism,” neither new nor liberal) views all aspects of human social life as needing to be economic and lucrative, or else severed.
Traditional censorship seemed to have a knowing fear for the aura of art—the opposite of crude philistinism. Even in Stalinist Russia, when censorship took place it seemed inevitably a persecutory love: had Russia not been a society in which poetry and poets are highly valued and admired as oracles by the young and passionate, little danger would have been seen in poets. In JM Coetzee’s essay on Mandelstam collected in the book “Giving Offense: Essays On Censorship” the African dissident counters the commonplace assumption that Stalin was a mere philistine or a dim ogre who despised poetry: many paragraphs explore Stalin’s fear, expressed in phone-calls to his informants. Iosef Stalin wanted to know whether this mocking, oral poet Mandelstam was a “Master,” meaning a great poet whose words and whose lampooning of Stalin would outlive them all into the future. Stalin feared Damnatio Memoria, condemnation by the words of the poet in posterity, and therefore sought to condemn and erase the poet first in a vicious duel between dictator and penniless, powerless bard. Mandelstam was sent to Siberia together with his wife, Nadezdha, who wrote the powerful, beatific memoir Hope Against Hope about Osyp Mandelstam’s life under persecution.
The rise of a new censorship might be a sign that the hour had dawned for artists and public intellectuals to dare make the sincere attempt, however dangerous, of answering the question ‘’What is Art?” The question must be asked while desiring an answer from mystery, beyond the mere tongue-in-cheek flippant shrug of Duchamp’s legacy that inscribes a million toilets and farces.
If artists and public intellectuals do not seek to define art, then the censors will. And these will be of the new breed of censors, who are unlike the classical censors of whom Robert Darnton, historian of libraries and of censorship, in essays such as The Soul of the Censor warns, “To dismiss censorship as crude repression by ignorant bureaucrats is to get it wrong. Although it varied enormously, it usually was a complex process that required talent and training and that extended deep into the social order.” Darnton cites examples such as the erudite Czech and Russian Stalinist censors, who were often intellectuals, and “eminent authors in 18th century” who also worked as censors. The bureaucrats of the Dutch IND who pursued the poet Al-Galidi certainly resemble the shallow stereotype dismissed by Darnton. The academic circles who promote identity politics universities, and who censor “inappropriate” language in literary texts while publishing their own poetry are probably a much closer candidate for Harvard librarian Darnton’s definition (though the latter, contemporary example also refuse to grasp the subtleties of irony).
In one of his last lectures in Argentina, Umberto Eco fabulously dissected the post-modern eras preferred method of censorship: rather than enforcing silences, the older method preferred by police state regimes of the kind that Argentinians had known so well, the 21st century Western region produces censorship by its production of noise, offering an overwhelming supply of near-identical information and choices that bedazzle and drown the consumer. In that way, no one is heard. Perhaps Eco was echoing the artist-prophet of consumerism, Andy Warhol’s prediction of fifteen minutes’ fame, while criticizing media saturation.
In the introduction to his book Giving Offense: Essays On Censorship, South African writer JM Coetzee underlined how the debates on freedom of expression and censorship have up to now failed to establish separate criteria discerning what constitutes censorship in the press from the at times very different threats that can affect the arts.
The question of censorship demands our further attention and exploration. We must ask ourselves not only “What is Art?” with sincere intent to explore the question beyond answering with a shrug, or the word “everything and nothing!” The era also begs that we ask ourselves “What is censorship in the arts today?” How does it differ from the censorship of past, 20th century totalitarianisms and medieval religion? And where do the different deformations resemble one another across history?
The purpose of citing the similar plights of Kusuma and (slightly luckier) Al-Galidi, is not merely to establish a connection between censorship and pragmatism. The oppression and un-freedom for travelers and immigrants inevitably affects artistic and cultural freedoms, evident in present-day Europe afflicted by the crisis of tribalism, xenophobia and the harmful values of technological consumer societies. These are corrosive to the arts everywhere.
Writer and visual artist Arturo Desimone was the first Arubian to be born as an Argentine citizen on the island Aruba, where he lived until the age of 22, year of his emigration to the Netherlands. He is currently based between the Netherlands and Argentina, while working on a long fiction project about childhoods, diasporas, islands and religion. Desimone’s articles, poetry and short fiction pieces previously appeared in The Missing Slate, The Drunken Boat, Círculo de Poesía (Spanish) Acentos Review, Open Democracy, and in the Netherlands-based art criticism magazines Mister Motley and Al-Arte mag. Tattoo Moon, a play he wrote won a prize for young immigrant authors in Amsterdam in 2011, and was serially published in Rosetta, world-lit journal of University of Istanbul.
Photo: The Iraq Flag, Kurios | Pixabay
Photo: The Netherlands Flag, Kurious | Pixabay
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