What makes them tick – Alex van Stipriaan

What makes them tick – Alex van Stipriaan

In the series ‘What makes them tick’, Erasmus researchers explain why they love their research and where their passion comes from. In this episode, Professor Alex van Stipriaan (History department) talks about his studies on Afro-Caribbean history and culture in Surinam, the Dutch Antilles, and the Netherlands. ‘Combining the ivory tower of science and the dirty smell of the streets, that relation between theory and archives on the one hand and real people on the other, is what makes me tick.’

His research
‘My research focuses on the cultural, socio-economic and art history of Surinam, the Dutch Antilles and the Netherlands, in the extent to which it’s connected to the Caribbean. For ten years I combined my professorship with a curatorship at the Tropenmuseum, where I was involved in exhibitions, art projects, research, and international cooperation. Now I work part-time as an independent consultant and researcher.’

What makes him tick
‘Growing up in the Netherlands, I experienced what it was like to be an outsider. I was born in Belgium, and bullied and made fun of because of my accent and shy, polite attitude. In my eyes, the Dutch children were aggressive and assertive: it was a real culture shock to me. In Belgium I used to be fascinated by news reports on the liberation of Congo, and now I’d become kind of exotic myself. In a natural, organic way children of Surinamese, Antillean, and Indonesian descent attracted me. They became my friends.

‘That was probably why I knew that when I would study history, it had to be non-western history. Now, Surinam has become my second home. I often go there, have friends there, and I speak the language. I always stay in a friend's house where I have my room and a shelf with my own t-shirts. The dog recognises me. That’s home.

The other side of the Golden Age

‘My research increasingly involves legacies of slavery in the Netherlands, such as anti-black racism. That means I’m also very much involved in political activist debates on, for example, Black Pete. That's a hot debate among the Dutch, not necessarily about the assistant of Sinterklaas only, but about inclusion and exclusion in Dutch society at large. Although we’re all equal, everyday practices are much more stubbornly unequal than we would hope, partly because of that history of slavery.

‘The Netherlands are famous for the Golden Age, Rembrandt, the Amsterdam canals. But there is another side to that age, which could be called the black age. No Golden Age was possible without colonialism, slavery, and imperialism. That story is not just a black page in Dutch history, it’s part of the whole book.

‘In the Netherlands, there’s long been a tendency to glorify the Dutch golden past, and more or less deny those less glorious chapters. Part of my activism as an academic is stressing the fact that there’s much more history than that glorious one. Especially now that societies are becoming more nationalistic and opposed to immigration, we should recognise that our legacies stem from that less glorious past. Why? Because part of the migration issue is understanding postcolonial migration. Why did people come here? Because we were there.

The importance of activism

‘I think it’s my obligation and responsibility to take a social stance. I’m trained to do research, and so I can delve a bit deeper than others in some histories and problems. I feel it’s my duty to give back to society. That resulted, for example, in me being an active member of an activist group that fought for a national monument to commemorate slavery. In which we succeeded in 2002. I can’t be an academic without that activism: I can’t study history and cultures without being on the street as well. They’re one world to me. That’s also where the fertility of science lies.

‘For instance, I once gave a series of lectures to master students in Yogyakarta in Indonesia on critical anthropology and museology. But after two days I thought: It doesn’t work. What am I doing here, someone from the Netherlands, knowing so little about Yogyakarta? So we went out on the street. I asked my students: Please, show me around. We’ll pick a theme and make an exhibition. You teach me about this society, and I’ll teach you about museology and critical anthropology.

‘They showed me around on their motorbikes, which was wonderful. We picked the topic of street art as a social message. After three weeks, I knew much more about Yogyakarta and local street life, and they had learned how to be critical museologists and make an exhibition.

‘Combining the ivory tower of science and the dirty smell of the streets, that relation between theory, archives and books on the one hand and real people on the other. That’s what makes me tick. When I teach and start talking about my travels and the people I meet, my students often tell me that’s the moment my eyes start glimmering and I really get into it. I do research not for research’s sake. I really want to contribute to society at large. I want to turn the things I learned into something valuable for society or the groups I work with.’