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Volume 49, Number 6November/December 1998

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Rotterdam's Rainbow

Written by James M. Dorsey
Photographed by Tor Eigeland

The bland ranks of postwar apartment buildings and the hodgepodge of cranes that edge the world's largest harbor hardly seem a likely setting for a wave of artistic energy and institutional creativity that is rapidly becoming the envy of Europe.

Yet Rotterdam, the second-largest city of the Netherlands, appears to be developing a cultural model that straightforwardly acknowledges—even embraces—its transition from an almost exclusively Dutch city to one whose non-Western, predominantly Muslim, immigrants will by the year 2000 account for one-third of the metropolitan area's one million people.

Led by budgetmakers and policymakers for the arts, Rotterdam is nudging cultural expressions from such far-flung places as Turkey, Morocco, Iraq and Guinea-Bissau to the center stage of Dutch cultural life. And in doing so, it is sparking a cross-fertilization of artistic traditions that might otherwise never have met.

"Rotterdam has set itself the aim of building a bridge between the old and the new social cultures. In this way, the multicultural harbor city hopes to create a better understanding among Western-oriented institutions of the background of large groups of the population whose roots lie in different countries," the city government said in a recent presentation of its cultural policies.

This transition is an economic necessity as well as a social and cultural experiment, since the city's cultural institutions have discovered that they must broaden their appeal and attract an audience less rooted in Western art, theater and music.

"It's quite simple—the city is changing and its cultural institutions lose their raison d'etre if they don't adjust to the change. As a result, we are targeting the various cultural groups in the city," says Hans de Lange, concert organizer for De Doelen, Rotterdam's major concert and conference hall.

That change, and efforts to harness it, are evident as Rotterdam rocks to tunes from Uzbekistan, Morocco, India, Turkey and Argentina. Theater and dance groups from the Middle East and North Africa perform to full houses. Expatriate playwrights who have made their homes in the Netherlands find their work welcomed. Each year, audiences flock to the Doelen for the city's "Dunya-on-Stage," a five-day theater and music event that grew out of the city's summer music festival, called Dunya. A unique combination of theater and music, Dunya (which is both Arabic and Turkish for world) seems set to duplicate the success of both Rotterdam's Poetry Festival, which makes a point of featuring poets from the far corners of the Muslim world, and the Rotterdam Film Festival, which has become one of Europe's top three or four cinema events.

At the Doelen recently, Arabs, Berbers, Africans, Indian Gypsies and others played under one roof, transcending ethnic, national and religious differences and even persuading the usually stolid Dutch to dance in the aisles of the formal concert hall. Epitomizing the cultural outreach, Moroccan singer Amina Alaoui showcased the best of Arab-Andalusian music alongside Sephardic songs.

Similarly, in a world premiere, Uzbek singer Matlubeh's passionate, high-pitched voice, accompanied by the woody sounds of the 'ud, the lute-like predecessor of the guitar, and its bowed cousin the rutab, blended with the flamenco of guitarist Juan Carmona and singers Paco Santiago and Juan Cortés. Iranian percussionist Bijan Chemerani joined in, creating a unique fusion sound that could be called flamenco-oriental.

Opposite the Doelen, the Rotterdam Theater opened its doors for Moroccan theater director Tayeb Saddiki, whose "Elephant et Pantalons" brings traditional Moroccan comic sketches to life for children. Iranian playwright Nasim Khader witnessed the premiere of his first play written in Dutch, "Shelter."

Across town, Dutch producer Gerrit Timmers drew crowds to an Arabic-language play with Moroccan actors and Dutch surtitles. The play, "Civilization, My Mother," is based on a novel by prominent Moroccan writer Driss Chraibi; it has gone on to play to full houses across the Netherlands as well as in Morocco and Belgium. With the same cast, Timmers has since then staged a second Arabic-language play in Rotterdam, this one based on a novel by Algerian writer Rachid Mimouni.

Dunya is already the talk of the European Forum of Worldwide Music Festivals, where organizers are groping for formulas for reaching new ethnic groups. And Timmers's Onafhankelijk Toneel ("Independent Theater") has become a prime example of multicultural theater for groups across Europe. Amsterdam is seeking to establish a similar festival of its own, and the Hague recently hosted its first Worlds festival, which focused on rai music, a North African fusion of Arab and African rhythms with jazz and pop. An important Dutch museum of modern-art, Boijmans-van Beuningen, has organized for this fall a two-month exhibition, with several workshops, exploring new ways of viewing Moroccan pottery.

"Rotterdam leads the pack, their policy inspires me," concedes Frans Gossens, music director at De Melkweg, a sugar-factory turned music center in downtown Amsterdam. "Rotterdam is a city where things happen once they are conceived. It takes me years to get the backing of the big art-world institutions." Nonetheless, De Melkweg, together with the city's prestigious concert hall, Het Concertgebouw, held its first Roots Festival this year, an outdoor music and food happening, and plans to make it an annual event.

For Gossens as well as much of the Dutch art world, the big question is how to draw "new Europeans"—largely the continent's Muslim African and Asian immigrant population—into museums and theaters that until now have been bastions of western art. "These new Amsterdammers have different interests, different habits and a different way of living. We need to ensure that they are attracted by expressions of their own cultural heritage, as well as by Bach and Schubert," Gossens says.

Even so, how does a gray North Sea port city like Rotterdam become the trend setter for the art world? Insiders credit a powerful and engaged city government that has made the integration of non-Western, predominantly Islamic, art a cornerstone of its cultural policy. After World War II, Rotterdam had to rebuild itself from the ground up after German carpet-bombing leveled the old city center. That bootstrap effort left behind an administrative legacy that might be called a "command culture." "The politicians have ordered us to go along with the change," says de Lange. "That means connecting various cultures with one another."

Yet de Lange and most other administrators of the city's cultural institutions have little but praise for the local government's efforts to revise cultural emphases in Rotterdam. In part, of course, that is due to government's hefty contribution to the arts. Officials say turnover in the Rotterdam art sector—excluding cinemas, the only commercially operated institutions—averages $100 million a year, and 80 percent of that is funded by the local administration. However, the city government has been careful not to rely exclusively on its financial muscle, but to also consult closely with art institutions on ways to encourage the gradual broadening of their focus.

In Rotterdam's city hall, cultural affairs chief Kees Weeda surrounds himself with contemporary Rotterdam paintings, many by recent-immigrant Dutch artists. A Rotterdammer by birth, Weeda says the rhythm of the city is dictated by the need to load and unload ships in the harbor as quickly as possible, because in international trade, time is indeed money. "The same is true for the arts in Rotterdam. We don't have a long tradition. We are nomads in our own city. We're always going somewhere," he says.

In the past five years, Weeda affirms, the $400 million the city has invested in the arts is successfully driving cultural institutions to look to non-Western as well as traditional Western sources. "Thirty percent of our population is inspired by non-Western civilization," he says. "Their sources of inspiration need to be tapped. That is the basis of our multicultural policy. Producers of theater must read not only the ancient Greeks but also the ancient Arabs. Then you're producing art for everyone in this city, and encouraging integration of people from different cultures. That's our policy goal," Weeda says enthusiastically.

Six years ago, to kickstart the city's cultural outreach, Rotterdam and the European Union launched Med-Urbs Vie, a cultural linkage of five cities: Rotterdam, Cairo, Istanbul, Casablanca and Lille. Managed initially by Nadia Mabrouk, a Moroccan-born economist turned arts organizer, Med-Urbs Vie was given substantial funds to distribute among the city's cultural institutions; as such it served as a cultural bulldozer, clearing the path for multicultural programming and intercultural linkages that many institutions might otherwise have sniffed at. "Rotterdam has the vision other cities often lack," says Mabrouk, who now helps municipalities across Europe develop multicultural policies.

Behind the bulldozer, municipal grant policies began to favor institutions and projects that emphasized multiculturalism. "This is a sensitive issue. You'll never succeed if you fail to exert pressure," says Robert Haas, director of the Rotterdam Art Foundation, a motor for much of the city's cultural life. Within a year of Med-Urbs Vie's creation, major cultural institutions like De Doelen and the Rotterdamse Schouwburg, the city's foremost theater, were bending over backward to make the city's minorities—particularly Moroccans and Turks—a focal point of their activity.

While music and theater were quick to embrace the new trend, the plastic arts remain wary of efforts to broaden their Western foundations. Efforts to introduce architecture tailored to the more communal living styles of various ethnic communities have long been hampered by fears that such design would merely formalize ghettos. "We are struggling with this issue, but are always open to new ideas," says Joost Schrijnen, the city's senior official in charge of town planning and housing. For example, he points out, Chinese architects from Rotterdam's sister city of Shanghai recently began developing prototypes of housing for the Chinese community in Rotterdam.

Museum directors and art experts also fear that the sudden shift in orientation, effectively redrawing the parameters of their field, may push some of them onto thin ice in matters of artistic knowledge and authority. "I'm tired of this whole discussion," exploded Frans Kaiser, modern-art curator at the Hague's Municipal Museum, at a recent discussion of multicultural art at Amsterdam's Stedelijk Museum for modern art. "If you want to define art, you have got to refer to art history. It's quite simple—art is what is found in a museum."

Kaiser's frank rejection of "the Rotterdam model" is unusual in a country in which objections to multiculturalism have become political liabilities. More often, defenders of the preeminence of Western art fight a kind of rearguard action, using delaying tactics and theoretical expressions of good will. "The Dutch have the experience of centuries of trade in their blood. They know better than to outright confront their opponents," says Haas of the Rotterdam Art Foundation.

At the other extreme is Chris Dercon, one of the Netherlands' trendiest museum directors. He administers Boijmans-van Beuningen and was among the first to embrace the new direction. "The arts world is in disarray. Suddenly everything is supposed to be possible," he says. "Plastic arts from non-Western countries are defined by very different ideas of art. It is no longer clear what art is, what a museum should be exhibiting and what it should not."

His museum's Moroccan pottery exhibition this fall, a multi-faceted undertaking, is an example. Designed by Japanese architect Itsuko Hasegawa, whose work is influenced by Moroccan concepts of light, the show will help forge links between the modern art museum and the city's 25,000 residents of Moroccan origin. Workshops in which Moroccan women are invited both as teachers and participants will, Dercon hopes, help ensure that minorities become progressively more involved in the museum's activities. Significantly, organizing the exhibition in a fine-art museum rather than an ethnographic one moves Moroccan pottery—and by extension Moroccan culture—out of the category of folklore and into the category of art.

"We are looking for new ways to communicate with the public. One third of this city is non-Dutch. We don't know who they are, they don't know who we are. The goal is not simply to exhibit Moroccan art, but to create a situation in which our Moroccan population can say, 'That Hieronymus Bosch painting is mine also; I know it and I understand it,'" says Dercon.

To achieve its goal, the museum has developed a series of activities to complement the Moroccan exhibition, including a cooking group designed to increase social and cultural contacts between Moroccan and Dutch women. Exhibitions covering Moroccan table etiquette and the symbolism of wedding gifts in the Netherlands and Morocco serve the same purpose. Participants in the workshops will serve as docents during the exhibition.

In a similar vein, Dercon is organizing an exhibition this fall that intersperses Afghan carpets made during that country's resistance to the 1979 Russian invasion with 17th-century Dutch old-master paintings that show Oriental carpets. Starting this summer, Boijmans-van Beuningen will also mount an overview of Egyptian influences on Dutch art and artisans in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Proud and hopeful, Weeda surveys activities at Boijmans-van Beuningen and the city's array of other cultural institutions and says: "We're not there yet. We're still struggling to get it right. It's trial and error."

James M. Dorsey is a correspondent for The Wall Street Journal Europe. He is based in Istanbul, and his beat includes Turkey, Central Asia and the Caucasus.

Free-lancer Tor Eigeland has photographed forAramco World for more than 30 years. He lives in southern France.

This article appeared on pages 10-15 of the November/December 1998 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for November/December 1998 images.