Back in the days when I used to work at the office, I walked up and down to flights of stairs multiple times a day. The kitchen, the toilets and the mailroom were downstairs. My desk and the printer were upstairs. I suppose all of those things are still where they’ve always been, but what can you be sure of these days…?
The distance from my bed to my workspace has been reduced to six footsteps. The toilet is somewhere in between the two.
When I realized how small my world had become I decided to take small walks through my neighborhood during my lunch breaks.
In March, the blossom from the nearby cherry trees drifted sweetly through my empty street. The trees themselves were locked behind the closed gates of Leiden’s museum of ethnology. It was like the scene from a dystopian Japanese animation film.
When the museum started allowing people back onto its terrain, I immediately knew where my next walk would lead me. I sniffed the spring air and stared at the cotton candy trees for a while, fully realizing it would be gone in a few days.
I continued my walk around the museum building, towards the back exit that would lead me back to my home, my desk and my ringing telephone.
And that is when I stumbled upon the museum’s stunning mural. It is hard to believe I hadn’t seen it before, but there was no denying it now. It was like an explosion of light, color and static motion. It stopped me dead in my tracks.
There was so much going on in that painting, I did not know what to make of it but I was certain it meant something and I wanted to know more.
The wallpainting was signed: Yatika Fields.
Luckily, Yatika Starr Fields was quite easy to find, so I decided to contact him. I received an elaborate mail shortly after, in which he answered all my questions and more.
He let me know he had made the piece in September 2019 and named it “Resilient Light: accommodating strength, our land, our hearts”.
Being a Native American artist, he incorporated a lot of elements in the mural from his culture, such as sage and cedar, to symbolize a moment of inner reflection, of purification and of healing. This applied to the physical space the art piece was made in as well as the place in time.
By adding these elements in the mural I am creating a space where this is a metaphor to the healing past, but also to bless the mural and the space in occupies.
Coincidentally, the museum building has been a place of healing ever since it was built in 1873. At first this was the case in the most literal sense, as it was designed to be a hospital. It served for this purpose for half a century, but being an academic hospital they soon desired more lab space, as well as more comfort for the patients.
The Museum of Ethnology moved in in 1935, just a few years before the beginning of the Second World War. I can imagine any study of cultures or ethnology would have required quite some sensitivity during that epoch.
It would be interesting to see what the exhibitions looked like in the museum in the period before, during and after the occupation.
This year, 2020, marked the 75th anniversary of the end of second world war for the Netherlands and we are only now starting to reflect honestly and truthfully about where we went wrong, what we could have done differently and who deserves an apology (and then some).
All though 75 years may sound like a long time to come to terms with major historical events, Yatika Fields’ mural demonstrates that scars from the past can stay open for centuries.
The piece he painted was in fact “in commemoration of 400 years of colonial presence in America”, as he put it in his e-mail response. The museum will shine its light on this occasion in its own way, as well as many other institutions across the globe, as part of the Mayflower 400 celebration.
As a Dutch citizen I could say Native American history and modern day US policies have nothing to do with me, but if the past few months have taught me anything it is that everything and everyone is connected.
Decisions and choices made by one individual have consequences that ripple out in every direction and continue to be felt 400 years later.
Yatika Fields even expresses this in his piece, as he explained to me:
The light in the mural is a metaphor to strength. It’s leaving the hand of one figure and in a manner of projection is being caught and illuminated by the others.
This is significant in the distribution of resources, tribal identity, cultural knowledge to keep us sustained spiritually to persevere in all the difficulties we face as a people in the county we are from, from the colonizers.
We still face these issues today, in the light of COVID19. Native communities and communities of color are being targeted with lack of federal and government aid.
The shells and nautical reference relate to early trade in the Americas and thus reasons of expansions. The ocean and water between were a catalyst to change, just as the tides change with time.
In a way, the shells and nautical references in mr Fields’ piece are part of my story too.
I am the child of a development worker, the grand daughter of a naval officer for the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army and the great grand daughter of a preacher who sailed to the Dutch colonies, with the bible in hand.
It’s not up to me to apologize for the choices of my forefathers. It’s not up to me to defend them either.
All I can do is shine a light on my own actions.
I hope to be able to keep my sense of wonder and take in what the world has to tell me; be it through the blossom of a Japanese cherry tree, the symbolism of a mural or the conversation with a fellow human being.
Bring in the cedar and sage. Let’s talk. Let’s heal.