blog | werkgroep caraïbische letteren

Rose-Mary Allen eerste vrouwelijke hoogleraar Universiteit van Curaçao

Op donderdag 28 januari 2021 aanvaardde Rose Mary Allen haar benoeming als buitengewoon hoogleraar Cultuur, gemeenschap en geschiedenis, in het bijzonder met betrekking tot het lokale en het Caribisch perspectief aan de Algemene Faculteit van de Universiteit van Curaçao Dr Moises da Costa Gomez. Zij werd daarmee de eerste vrouwelijke hoogleraar aan deze universiteit. Hieronder haar uitgesproken inaugurele rede.

Prof. dr Rose Mary Allen

Doctor Rector Magnificus,
Members of the Supervisory Board,
Faculty Deans,
Colleagues, students and friends, Dear audience,


I begin this Lecture with a poem from 1974 by the multitalented Elis Juliana (1927-2013),1 whose merits in the literary field have been recognized more than his ethnographic work on the cultures of the Dutch Caribbean.

Fiami un piki

Fiami un piki
pa mi koba
kurason di e baranka aki
mi ke deskubrí
e ardu misterioso
ku unda leu mi por bai
ta keda bati fuerte
den e baul di mi sintí

di unda e grasia
ku riku i pober
di tur kredo
di tur rasa
topando riba kaya
ta grita hari kumindá
hala otro den brasa

p’esei mi kier un piki
pa mi koba té den
kurason dje isla’ki
pa mi adorá
e ardu misterioso
ku unda leu mi bai
ta keda resoná
den baul di mi sintí

Give me a pickax

Give me a pickax
to dig into the core of this rock
I crave to discover
the mysterious vein
that, however far I go,
keeps firmly hammering
in the coffers of my mind

I wonder whence that charm
shining from people rich and poor
all creed
all race
when they meet in the streets,
burst out chuckling a hello
in frank embrace

that’s why I need a pickax
to dig as far as
the very core of this island
to worship
the mysterious vein
that, however far I go,
keeps on resonating,
in the coffers of my mind

In his usual poetic form, Juliana gives us an idea of what it means to study and try to understand one’s own society. What is remarkable is his use of the pickax, a tool for striking and breaking, to symbolize his methodical work. Elis Juliana, together with his research partner Fr. Paul Brenneker, broke down traditional research barriers. They collected previously excluded life histories and other data to reveal Afro-Curaçaoan working-class culture.

Elis Juliana, november 2009. Foto Michiel van Kempen

Juliana’s above poem helps me to ground my Lecture and to start a discussion on culture and the arts, on how they intertwine with collective identity and belonging, on decolonizing history and cultural heritage, on community, inter-connectedness and inclusion, as well as on questions of gender and sexuality, particularly in the (Dutch) Caribbean context. Meanwhile, my Lecture’s title, ‘Di kabuya bieu pa kabuya nobo [From old ropes to new ones]’, which is a twist on the Papiamentu expression ‘konopá kabuya bieu na kabuya nobo’ [connecting the new to the old], underscores the dynamism of culture, the notion that the new is not necessarily a carbon copy of the old.

I am going to approach my Lecture as follows. First of all, I want to discuss the problem of grappling with and putting into practice the concept of culture and its relationship with the issues mentioned above. Culture is a complicated term with multiple meanings. This observation by Raymond H. Williams, the well-known Welsh literary critic and one of the founders of cultural studies, still holds true and is pertinent to the Curaçaoan situation. Culture is a term with many different associations and connotations. And it is double-edged: praised and exalted as an essential contribution to life, yet also questioned and contested. Culture as a phenomenon must be understood as a complex, multi-layered, dynamic, ongoing process, something that is constantly considered, negotiated and (re)shaped, and that must be approached critically from a (Dutch) Caribbean perspective. In this Lecture I will use Curaçao as a case study and my focal point, while keeping in mind that each of the islands of the Dutch Caribbean has its own particularities when it comes to culture, which warrants serious scholarly attention, including comparative investigation.

The issues that I want to explore tonight are not new. Critical thinkers, grassroots movements in the Caribbean region, and international platforms such as UNESCO have dealt extensively with culture. I do not mention this as a disclaimer but rather as the background for what I am presenting this evening. I will build on long-standing concerns surrounding culture, community and history to argue the need to critically place Curaçao within these wider discussions as well as to move the intellectual work on culture forward by taking into account the social context, both past and present.

Mainstreaming culture generally

Let’s start with the heart of the matter: with a resurfacing concern for culture, universally and locally as evidenced in the establishment of a Chair in Culture, Community and History at the University of Curaçao, we should ask: What do we mean by culture and why does culture matter?

Discussing culture is not something new. Culture has acquired diverse meanings in the course of the time, all of which can be applied to the Curaçaoan situation. Culture comes from the Latin verb colere, meaning to cultivate, to tend, and with that meaning it is present in terms like agriculture and horticulture. In Papiamentu, the creole language spoken in Curaçao, Bonaire and Aruba, the term kultura can in fact be used as a synonym for agrikultura, as the anthropologists Ieteke Witteveen and León Weeber point out in their seminal work on Banda ’Bou (the countryside on the western part of the island of Curaçao.

At some point in time, culture came to signify a developed state of the mind and the process of this development, but understood as reserved to the elites of a society. This meaning came to be expressed through the opposition between high culture and low culture, known in Dutch as Cultuur met hoofdletter C and cultuur met kleine c. This particular meaning of the term culture became tied to the arts: people who knew how to appreciate fine arts, music and literature were said to be ‘cultured’ and ‘well-mannered’.

Then, as early as in the late 19th century, culture emerged as a central concept in anthropology. This discipline defined itself in opposition to the science of sociology, which was considered to be the study of the modern western world. For a long time, anthropology had to fight against its portrayal as the study of the exotic, but nowadays it is a discipline that examines communities no matter how old or new and simple or complex they may be comparatively.

For anthropologists, culture is no longer the domain of an elite group, but is a whole way of life, a signifying system through which social order is communicated, reproduced, experienced and explored. Within the discipline of anthropology, what culture is exactly, has become quite contested, as Kroeber and Kluckhohn show in their publication Culture: A Critical Review of Concepts and Definitions in1952, in which they provided a set of 164 different definitions of culture. This set has surely grown considerably since.

In the wider academic world, the field of cultural studies first appeared in the 1950s in Birmingham, UK, and is now present nearly all over the world. It is an interdisciplinary field covering both the humanities and the social sciences, with a focus on popular culture. It involves the analysis of texts, such as television programs, popular music, and internet texts, as well as the study of lived cultural practices, such as beauty pageants and nightlife. It pays attention to everyday culture, thereby diminishing the distinction between what was believed to be high and low culture. Cultural studies also became intertwined with gender and sexuality studies as both are concerned with the negotiation of power, agency and systems of social control, while both also agree that the various existing forms of social inequality should be researched to support socio-political change.4

Beyond the academic world, in certain international institutions and settings, culture has come to be seen as a ‘motor’ or facilitator of the economic, social, governmental and environmental dimensions of sustainable development. For example, the United Nations declared the period from 1988-1997 to be the World Decade for Cultural Development, and the UN Secretary General at the time, Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, observed that development efforts often failed. This was  “because the importance of the human factor —- that is the complex web of relationships and beliefs, values ​​and motivations, which are at the heart of any culture― was underestimated in development projects” .

In 2010, 2011 and 2013, The General Assembly of the United Nations passed landmark resolutions recognizing the importance of culture in promoting development and in achieving national and international development goals. This culminated in the integration of culture into the 2030 Agenda for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), adopted in 2015. The United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG), a global network of cities and local and regional governments, whose members are located in the 120 member states of the United Nations, held its third Culture Summit in 2019, focusing on the relevance of culture and its role in all 17 SDGs.

UNESCO has played a special part. From its inception in 1945, UNESCO has emphasized the relationship between culture and development, as can be gleaned from its mission statement. This became intensified during the World Decade for Cultural Development (1988-1997), as seen before. To make their mission of contributing to peacebuilding, poverty reduction, sustainable development and intercultural dialogue in the fields of education, science and communication more socially relevant and effective, UNESCO added culture and a cultural approach to all its activities. The arguments that UNESCO has developed with regard to culture and cultural diversity have been adopted by several other organizations within the United Nations. UNESCO uses a broad definition of culture and sees it as a set of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features that characterize a society or social group; culture therefore includes not only art and literature, but also, for example, ways of life, fundamental human rights, value systems, language, traditions and beliefs.

Partly because of the 2003 UNESCO Intangible Heritage Convention, the importance of popular cultural activities has penetrated into governance and has culminated in attention for local cultural expressions and products. UNESCO’s relatively recent introduction of the concept of the orange economy, also known as the creative economy, connects economy and culture with a focus on goods, services and activities that have cultural, artistic or patrimonial content.

Culture entered the development discourse of small island developing states (SIDS) during the 2005 Mauritius International Meeting, also known as Barbados+10, where the participating SIDS reviewed the implementation of their 1994 Program of Action for sustainable development. The SIDS have incorporated culture as the fourth pillar of sustainable development with, as Keith Nurse (2006) proposes, an emphasis on values ​​such as cultural identity (identification of a community or group), self-reliance (self-sustaining development based on own resources), social justice (prioritizing the most deprived) and ecological balance, such that future generations can also experience the benefits of growth. Culture is not seen as an obstacle to modernization and development but as an instrument for these processes. Nurse emphasizes that while the ability to participate freely in the cultural life of a community may be a right for everyone, as anchored in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, there are also vulnerable groups for whom participation is not always self-evident (‘law in action versus law in books’).

The valorization of culture in Curaçao society

Having given an overview of how the concept of culture has mattered universally, I now turn to examine how it has manifested itself in the Dutch Caribbean, and the Curaçaoan case in particular. In the Dutch Caribbean context, culture has also been thought about, shaped and re-enriched over the years, both within and outside academia. In the case of Curaçao, one can distinguish certain historical periods that have been decisive in shaping popular and scholarly thinking about culture. To understand this requires getting to know the complex layers and dimensions of Curaçaoan society ―a society that, as the sociologist René A. Römer has explained in Un pueblo na kaminda (1977), is en route, with its evolution circumscribed by politics and relations of power.

Proefschrift R.A. Römer, 1977

To properly contextualize this discussion, it should be mentioned that in Curaçao, as the rest of the Dutch and wider Caribbean, colonialism and slavery have not only had a significant and lasting effect on culture, but have also influenced people’s thinking about culture. In the past, people of different cultural backgrounds were placed together in a hierarchical social order of slave masters, voluntary immigrants, and forcibly imported enslaved persons. Colonialism and slavery have resulted in ethnic and racial boundaries that persist in the present, for example in the notable practice of ranking people according to ethnicity and color/race. The persistence of this habit has been exposed in the recent study by the anthropologist Angela Roe, The Sound of Silence: Ideology of National Identity and Racial Inequality in Contemporary Curaçao (2016).

Local elites have long denigrated the working-class culture of the black masses, first during slavery, and later under continuing patterns of exploitation and discrimination. A clear example of this condescending view are Hamelberg’s publications Het kiesrecht in Curaçao (1893) and Antiquarische denkbeelden buiten ‘Antiquiteiten’ (1895), in which he points among other matters to the use of the Papiamentu language as an example of uncultured behavior. Two anthropologists have documented this repression of folk expressions: René Rosalia did this in his 1997 Ph.D. dissertation, De legale en kerkelijke repressie van Afro-Curaçaose volksuitingen. Een case-study van het tambú, and Su Girigori in her 2006 Master’s thesis, Beat the Drum & Break the Silence: Constructing a Collective Ethnic Identity for Curaçao through the Tambú.

The arrival of the oil refinery in Curaçao in 1915 initiated the island’s entry into the industrial era and modified the traditional social structure. Industrialization was accompanied by a substantial influx of immigrant workers of different national and ethnic origins, changing Curaçao’s demographics and traditional culture notably. Migration has been a defining phenomenon in Curacao the island has known emigration, immigration and return migration. At the end of the 19th century, Spanish-speaking people in Curaçao were considered desirable immigrants and Spanish was viewed as a cultured language which local poets and writers liked to use, as literary expert Elizabeth Echteld shows in Literatura en español en Curazao al cambio del siglo (1999). The arrival in the early 20th century of new groups of immigrants , however, led to concerns about the decline of the existing cultural panorama. John de Pool y Danies’ Del Curaçao que se va (1935) and Van Meeteren’s Volkskunde van Curaçao (1947) both expressed this concern, even though neither of them deemed the disappearing local culture to be highly civilized. De Pooly Danies even characterized some of its elements, such as the ocho dia (the nine-night ceremony after the burial of a deceased person), the stick fight during the seú harvest feast, and the tambú, as barbaric. Why then the concern? According to the sociologist Aart Broek, both authors shared this concern with the Roman Catholic Church; they saw their grip on the black, working-class population diminish with the arrival of large numbers of non-Catholic, empowered immigrant workers ―men and women from principally the then British West Indies and Suriname.

The socio-economic changes brought about not only cultural shifts, but also stimulated political developments which became particularly evident in the latter half of the 1940s (Gibbes et al. 2015). The working-class population, both men and women, guided by Dr. Moises da Costa Gomez, mobilized to demand a broad range of civil and political rights, including the right to vote, from which they had historically been excluded. This group also began to challenge the internalized, intersubjective and debilitating obstacles which Alejandro Paula later analyzed in From Objective to Subjective Social Barriers (1967) and which Valdemar Marcha would even later address through the concept of culture of fear. The historian Margo Groenewoud provides archival evidence of the growing self-awareness and resistance on the island since the 1940s in her 2017 Ph.D. dissertation Nou koest nou kalm. Groenewoud describes the dynamic of traditional elite control over black working-class behavior and its gradual decline. What was happening in Curaçao at the time cannot be separated from what was taking place internationally and especially in the region. Throughout the Caribbean region, the 1940s were a period of turmoil as people questioned, among other matters, the colonial status of their nation. This would eventually lead to constitutional reform and/or transformation in most Caribbean countries.

As popular attitudes toward culture were being reconceptualized in Curaçao, a scholarly debate on cultural cross-fertilization surfaced, involving a juxtaposition of the concepts of creolization and cultural plurality. The main pillars of this debate were the studies by the sociologists Harry Hoetink and René Römer. They followed the Surinamese sociologist Rudolph van Lier who had introduced the notion of a segmented society and a plural culture in the discussion on race, ethnicity and class (Sankatsing 2002: 60). Van Lier focused on Suriname, where, after Emancipation, laborers had been brought in from different parts of Asia, which diversified the population and complexified the social structure. According to Van Lier, the various groups of different race, ethnicity, language, religion and economic activity coexisted but hardly mingled.6 Hoetink adapted this concept of a segmented society. In his view, initial cultural plurality disappeared through cultural interchange and sexual contact between the different ethnic groups. In Curaçao, cultural fertilization ―as Rex Nettleford calls the creolization process― came about through the coexistence and admixture of a white Protestant West-European culture, the Latin (or Iberian) culture of the Sephardic Jews, and African cultures, and manifested itself in cultural areas such as music and dance, eating habits and architecture, and especially the use of Papiamentu, which became an important constitutive element of a creolized Curaçaoan identity.

Studies by the anthropologist Richenel Ansano show that the process of creolization did not start on the island: enslaved persons imported from Africa had already undergone creolization in Africa. Furthermore, my own studies of migration show that creolization does not stop on a given Caribbean island. When intra-Caribbean migrants return to their home country, they usually take along newly acquired cultural ideas and expressions that can become creolized and accepted in the receiving society. An important example is the importation of Cuban music instruments and musical genres into Curaçao when Curaçaoans returned home after the labor exodus to Cuba that took place at the start of the 20th century.

In most studies, the concept of creolization does not  sufficiently capture the tensions and contradictions accompanying cultural fertilization. This was particularly true when in some studies on creolization, certain customs of Curaçaoans of African descent  were considered to be elements of folk culture, African survivals, or ‘echoes’ from Africa. In the 1977 reference book called Cultureel mozaïek van de Nederlandse Antillen [Cultural Mosaic of the Netherlands Antilles], which was edited by Römer, these expressions were named as separate customs that were not part of the larger society. Römer seems to acknowledge this omission in a later publication in which he mentions certain African elements as part of the creole culture belonging to all ethnic groups of Curaçao (Römer 1998: 82).

Paul Brenneker

When people started to take the ethnographic research conducted by Fr. Paul Brenneker and Elis Juliana more seriously, a further change occurred in the way culture was understood, and the contribution of all social groups began to be valued much more. In a lecture in the 1980s, Elis Juliana mentioned that their research was originally belittled and looked upon as amateurish. They often had to re-use the same audiotapes for lack of funding to buy new ones. Brenneker and Juliana visited neighborhoods in Curaçao twice a week and asked the residents questions about specific aspects of popular life. Brenneker and Juliana recognized the wisdom of these long-neglected and supposedly underdeveloped people. Their knowledge and intelligence, rooted in nature, was a ‘counter-culture’ to that of the elites. Brenneker’s interest in this social group stemmed from his vision, as a priest, that missionary work should be based on familiarity with the culture of the people in the field. For both ethnographers, authentic Curaçaoan culture lay in a life of the past in the countryside, something that was rapidly disappearing. But the older generations remembered it and provided a connection to this culture.

In the 1970s, as awareness of cultural heritage grew, Brenneker and Juliana’s extensive research data was preserved in the Zikinzá collection, a collection of about 1,400 songs, stories and small life stories sourced from informants who had been enslaved or whose parents or other elder family members had been enslaved. Brenneker and Juliana also incorporated their material into their publications

Juliana’s contribution to archaeology has also helped to uncover the ancient Amerindian cultures, and together with the work by archaeologist Jay Haviser, it has contributed to debunking the common myths about the Amerindians, something which the more recent (2018) publication by the anthropologist/historian Luc Alofs, Koloniale mythen en Benedenwindse feiten. Curaçao, Aruba en Bonaire in inheems Atlantisch perspectief, ca. 1499-1636, also does. Juliana was also able to hold up a mirror to the Yu di Kòrsou and to make people think critically. For example, his term ‘kultura di tapa kara’ [culture of hiding one’s face] was an attempt to change the attitude of indifference which he noted among Curaçaoans.

A key milestone in Curaçaoan history is Trinta di Mei, an uprising that took place on May 30th 1969. After Trinta di Mei, culture became intensely debated and politicized. Trinta di Mei can be seen as a 20th-century instance of ‘nibbling’ away at colonialism. It started as a struggle for higher wages, but it also had undertones of a struggle against class and racial oppression ―factors that still determined many aspects of life in Curaçao, even after the island, as part of the Netherlands Antilles federation, had obtained autonomy (internal self-governance) in 1954. The revolt of May 30th 1969 was a key moment in the reshaping of the collective, cultural identity of Curaçaoans. From the late 1960s onward, cultural/national identity was  more heavenly debated and negotiated with questions like: Who belongs to Curaçao? Who is a real Yu di Kòrsou? And what can be considered authentic Curaçaoan culture? In the period immediately after Trinta di Mei, there was a surge in the number of grassroots cultural organizations that promoted the arts (literature, theater, painting) and they became an important voice in the public domain. The same period also saw the formalization of certain nation-building processes on the island, with attention on culture and history. Examples are the establishment of the National Archives in 1969, and the introduction in 1970 of a new form of Carnival as national identity marker. Nation-building policies attempt to deal with some of the challenges that a society faces in preserving what is believed to be its traditional culture. There was now the expectation that Curaçaoan culture would become more inclusive of the culture of Afro-Curaçaoans in particular. It should be mentioned that attitudes toward Trinta di Mei were and have remained ambivalent. On one hand, Trinta di Mei is seen as a beacon of hope that reinforced the Afro-Curaçaoan identity. On the other hand, there is also a negative perspective that sees Trinta di Mei as an event that hampered development, in particular tourism, and that should never be repeated. This ambivalence is clear in the volume edited by Gert Oostindie (1999) that includes interviews with stakeholders reminiscing about Trinta di Mei on the occasion of its 30th anniversary.

The search for a greater degree of self-governance, still within the Kingdom of the Netherlands, and also within the present-day context of globalization, clearly has cultural ramifications and can produce concerns and anxieties regarding collective cultural identity. This is visible in the government’s cultural policy of 2001, Rumbo pa independensia mental, drafted by René Rosalia. As the title suggests, it aims to advance the mental emancipation of the Curaçaoan people. It emphatically moves away from the colonial notion of culture as the high arts exclusively, by refocusing on popular expressions that were traditionally considered unworthy of being called ‘culture’.

The search for authenticity and the celebration of traditional culture have been central in the work of Ieteke Witteveen and León Weeber in the neighborhoods of Curaçao in the 1990s. They introduced the concept of ‘kultura propio’ [authentic culture] to reconsider and revalorize the important role of culture and authentic values in sustainable economic development. They conducted action research through ethnography in Banda ’Bou, the western part of the island which many consider to be the cradle of authentic Curaçaoan culture, and in Brievengat, a neighborhood where residents were placed together in public housing in the 1960s. For Weeber and Witteveen, authentic Curaçaoan values include especially: a respectful attitude toward others and toward nature, and autonomy in one’s aspirations in relation to work. These values are fundamental to the Curaçaoan social psyche. They manifested themselves more clearly in the past, especially during events such as births, funerals and harvests, and in the present particularly through Carnival, when people come together to work toward a common goal.

The National UNESCO Commission ―for the Netherlands Antilles between 1983-2010 and for Curaçao since 2011― has stimulated debate and action in Curaçao related to the UNESCO Conventions on cultural heritage, such as the Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage (1972), the Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage (2001), and the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage (2003). As far as material heritage is concerned, the placing of the historic core of Willemstad on UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1997 has boosted the image of Curaçao’s capital city center.

Meanwhile, the interplay of historical inheritances and modern-day globalization provokes debate about culture, insular/national and global identities, and the need to preserve the island’s cultural heritage. In a public lecture called ‘Critical Thinking in Curaçao and the Construction of Forgetting’, Richenel Ansano explores 20th-century critical thinking in Curaçao and regrets the loss of unique traditions in a society marked by a history of colonialism, slavery, and rapid industrialization.

Curaçao’s legacy of cultural complexity and cross-fertilization is further complicated by the existence of a sizeable Curaçaoan diaspora in the Netherlands. They are the “product of and response to the twin processes of globalization and diasporization”, according to Christine Ho and Keith Nurse in the introduction to Globalisation, Diaspora and Caribbean Popular Culture (2005) and also represent the“double diaspora experience”as Guiselle Starink-Martha calls it. Diasporic Curaçaoans return annually in large quantities to the island for Christmas, Carnival and other holidays, return to settle, and contribute to the public discourse on and about the island. This has been visible recently in the debate about Zwarte Piet [Black Pete] and Saint Nicolas. Their contribution to the decolonization of certain heritage institutions such as museums in the Netherlands is also worthy of attention.

The arrival of new labor immigrants from the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Jamaica and Colombia at the end of the 20th century has added new degrees of diversity and complexity to the already multicultural fabric of the Curaçaoan society, and certain neighborhoods in particular. Curaçao likes to brand itself as a place where people from many different cultural backgrounds have lived together peacefully for centuries. But the reality is that public opinion toward immigrants has not always been favorable and this reveals a certain inconsistency or ambiguity. Luc Alofs has discussed the Othering and framing of immigrants within the Caribbean region in ‘De vreemdeling in discussie’.8 Studies by Witteveen and Weeber (1993) and more recently by Jeanne de Bruijn and Maartje Groot (2014) show that immigrants are often seen as a threat to the local culture. The same is apparent in the public discourse conducted through newspapers, on radio talk shows, and on Facebook and similar platforms. The print and non-print mass media generally play an important role in shaping public opinion through the mechanism of framing. In Curaçao there are about 8 newspapers in circulation and approximately 28 commercial radio stations.9 Nearly all of these radio stations have talk shows hosted by “organic intellectuals” as Francio Guadeloupe (2009) calls them for the case of Sint Maarten.10 In an article titled ‘A Cog or Wrench in the Political Machine? Talk Radio in Curaçao, New Media, and Alternative Politics’, the Curaçaoan anthropologist Louis Philippe M. Römer concludes that political talk radio has the greatest influence on public opinion.

The most recent period in which matters regarding collective membership and cultural identity have flared up again was the beginning of the 21st century, when Curaçao was preparing for a change in its constitutional status. For most Caribbean nations, the construction of a collective identity has been tied to greater or lesser degree to the search for political independence and economic self-sufficiency, development and survival. At the end of the 20th and start of the 21st century, when most Caribbean countries had long left their colonial past behind and some were already celebrating half a century of independence, Curaçao and the rest of the Dutch Caribbean islands were still struggling with constitutional change. The issue was not independence, but whether the islands should remain together or split so that each would have a more direct link with the mother country. On October 10th 2010, the Dutch Caribbean federation called the Netherlands Antilles ceased to exist. All the islands remained part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in one form or another, but separately. Curaçao became an internally self-governing entity or ‘country’ with direct ties to the Netherlands. The debates about constitutional issues during the first decade of the current century again stirred passion about identity in Curaçao, involving an interplay between national/collective and cultural identity, as can be deduced by studies done by Gert Oostindie, Wouter Veendaal, Gilbert Cijntje, Nastasha van der Dijs and myself.

One may say that since 2010, the highly contested Curaçaoan search for identity and belonging and the struggle for citizenship (membership/inclusion), rights and benefits has become increasingly politicized. Cultural identity has become an important marker in contemporary political conflicts. One might speak of a post-October 10th 2010 period, in which people are continually asserting and re-asserting collective identities. It looks like a dialectic response to a complex, contradiction-laden situation in which power interests dating back to colonialism intermix with newer issues related to globalization.

A research agenda for culture, community and history

We have seen that people, communities and governments constantly construct, contest and reconstruct culture. The complexity of both culture and cultural reflection, manifested globally, in the Caribbean, and in Curaçao, leads to a final question: How should the UoC’s newest Chair navigate the multifaceted and precarious waves of culture and cultural discourse?

I think that Stuart Hall’s understanding of the ways in which Caribbean people define themselves can be helpful. According to Hall, Caribbean cultures are subjects of the continuous ‘play’ or interplay of history, culture and power in the present and into the future. Culture is something with a past, present and future; it involves both being and becoming (Hall 1989: 225). Culture is so fundamental to the human experience and because of its (potential) role in human development and economic growth, and as a repository of knowledge, symbolic strength, stability and value-based meaning, it is seen as essential for addressing contemporary, sometimes historically inherited challenges (Kamugisha 2013, Centeno Añeses 2018). Renato Rosaldo says in his foreword to Redefining Culture: Perspectives Across the Disciplines (2006) that major debates concerning culture are to be expected, because there is no single, permanent definition of culture; rather there are provisional ones that must be revised as debates emerge and move on.

Although Curaçao shares certain experiences with the rest of the Caribbean, until now local scientific institutions seem to have been somewhat less concerned with the study of culture than the universities in the rest of the region. The University of the West Indies (UWI) has not allowed science to ‘trickle down’ from the global North into their cultural studies: they study local and regional customs transmitted from generation to generation such as reggae music, but also more controversial forms of popular culture such as dance hall and the bubbling dance form. For the case of Curaçao, this would mean studying the seú, wals, tambú and other traditional expressions, but also popular youth culture, including the musical styles of rappers such as Dongo, Mosta Man, or that of Gigi (Gigi Clothilda) one of the few women performers in the male-dominated music scene . They also represent a social system of shared meanings, beliefs, practices and objects among youngsters.

Questions that the Chair in Culture, Community and History may tackle are: How do Curacaoans look at culture and  what are the elements of cultural heritage to which Curaçaoan people still feel connected and which they think should be preserved? As tourism has become one of the main pillars of the Dutch Caribbean economies, questions may include: How should the island emphasize its unique heritage to tourists without falling into the trap of excessive folklorization and even fossilization, while failing to recognize the wide variety of new cultural expressions? Also, as Richenel Ansano and Tim Timmers ask in their report titled Verkenning van de implementatie van het 2003 UNESCO Verdrag inzake de Bescherming van het Immaterieel Cultureel Erfgoed in het Nederlands Caribisch gebied (2018): How does the island avoid giving more support to cultural forms that are easily commercialized and marketed than to those others that are not. Another important research question is: How are gender and sexuality inscribed in daily cultural practices, learned and performed, based on cultural norms of femininity and masculinity? In respect of the younger generations, relevant questions may concern the way in which aspects of cultural identity inherited from the older generations are absorbed while taking into account cultural creativity and dynamics in a rapidly globalizing world. Finally, the Chair might play a role in investigating the effects of the current COVID-19 pandemic on the local cultural sphere. The pandemic is a stressful period that certainly has its impact on culture, both inside and outside academia. All these questions should be placed within a larger Kingdom, regional and international comparative framework.

The Chair in Culture, Community and History recognizes that the abovementioned and other complex issues can only be studied in transdisciplinary fashion. The Chair will focus on the research area of ​​culture and community, combining methodological and conceptual insights from history, the humanities and the social sciences, with an emphasis on the co-creation of knowledge that is meaningful to the society. The Chair will critically engage with the concept of culture and development and for this purpose it will use knowledge and experiences from fields such as gender studies, queer studies, equity studies, religious studies and postcolonial studies from both local regional and international perspectives (Cabarcas Ortega 2014).

Frank Martinus Arion, april 2014. Foto Michiel van Kempen

Finally, the Chair in Culture, Community and History must aim to debunk the complaint from Frank Martinus Arion, one of Curaçao’s best-known literary writers and a Caribbeanist pur sang, expressed in ‘The Great Curassow or the Road to Caribbeanness’ (1998), that the Caribbean nations have one thing in common, namely “a complete ignorance of each other’s existence. There is more Europeanness than Americanness and practically no Caribbeanness in sight” (1998: 449). Perhaps the Curaçaoan proverb ‘Si awa yobe serka mi bisiña, lo e pinga serka mi’ can serve as a reminder that the Dutch Caribbean must pay attention to, engage with, and learn from its neighbors.

Words of gratitude

Now that I have come to the end of my Inaugural Lecture, I would like to say a few words of thanks.

First, I would like to thank the Supervisory Board of the University of Curaçao, Rector Magnificus Dr. Francis de Lanoy, Dean Dr. Liesbeth Echteld and the other colleagues of the Faculty of Arts, for their trust in me and also for having the vision and the courage to establish this Chair. I am very honored to guide a Chair that is set up to look at culture in the broadest sense, including the arts, community, and history.

I would also like to extend thanks to the Faculty of Law for having offered me the opportunity to ground the law within the local culture since the early 2000s.

I want to express my gratitude to all those who have stimulated and influenced my scientific career. First, I thank Prof. Gert Oostindie who guided me in my Ph.D. dissertation. I would like to thank Dr. Sruti Bala for her stimulating observations on various papers and publications, and Prof. Alex van Stipriaan who often functioned as a helpful sounding board. A special word of thanks goes to Peter Jordens, whose insight and knowledge often help to sharpen my thoughts both before and after I produce certain texts. In addition, I would like to express thanks to Richenel Ansano, Pam van Engelshoven, Saida Piar, Dr. Margo Groenewoud, Oscar van Dam, Lisenne Delgado, Winifred Browne, L[Dr. Francio Guadeloupe,  Laura Quast and Ieteke Witteveen.

I also thank my parents, who instilled in me the virtue of persistence, my sisters and brothers, and my two sons Kwame and Amilcar. This Lecture is dedicated to my three granddaughters, Phabbs, Thaissa and Akanni, with the hope that as women they will excel in whatever they choose to do in the future.


Dear audience, I have tried to show you the challenges that the Chair in Culture, Community and History of the University of Curaçao will take on. We have a lot of work to do and every answer will certainly give rise to new questions that need to be examined. But, barku ankrá no ta gana flete, without effort we cannot succeed. To our young scholars, I would like to say that the title ‘Di kabuya bieu pa kabuya nobo’ also means that I, a kabuya bieu, will seek to leverage the Chair as a platform for opening up possibilities for conversation and further engagement with the younger generations.

I have spoken.


1   Lucille Berry-Haseth has translated this ‘Fiami un piki’ poem upon my request in January 2021. Translated work of Elis Juliana can be found in the anthology De kleur van mijn eiland: Aruba, Bonaire, Curaçao. Ideologie en schrijven in het Papiamentu sinds 1863 (ed. Aart G. Broek, Sidney M. Joubert and Lucille Berry-Haseth, Leiden: Brill, 2006) and in the collection compiled and translated by Fred de Haas, Hé patu / Waggeleend (Haarlem: In de Knipscheer, 2011).

2   Antropologen Beroepsvereniging, Antropologie en de cultuur van de machtigen, April 13th 2017, (accessed January 2021).

3   Berdien de Groot, Volkscultuur: een gedeelde erfenis. Over Overijsselse volksculturele uitingen binnen een veranderende historische cultuur, Thesis Seminar Cultureel Erfgoed, University of Utrecht. Available at (accessed January 2021).

4   Becca Cragin and Wendy Simonds, The Study of Gender in Culture, Handbook of the Sociology of Gender (ed. Janet Saltzman Chafetz, Boston: Springer, 1999), pp. 195-212.

5   Giovanni E. Reyes, Four Main Theories of Development: Modernization, Dependency, World-systems, and Globalization, Nómadas 4 (2001): 1-12.

6   R.A.J. van Lier, Cultuurconflict in de heterogene samenleving, Sociologisch Jaarboek 8 (1954): 36-56.

7   Römer maintained that Curaçao’s distinctive culture manifested itself predominantly in the Papiamentu language. See René A. Römer, Het ‘wij’ van de Curaoënaar, Kristòf 1(2) 1974: 49-60, and also Cultuurbehoud en cultuurverandering: Een Caraïbisch dilemma, Kristòf 8(3) 1993. This creole language has a different status than those on other Caribbean islands in that all social classes equally recognize and use it as a medium of communication (Römer 1993).

8   Luc Alofs, L. Milliard and B. Stigter, De vreemdeling in discussie, University of Aruba Studium Generale Publications No. 1 (ed. Wim Rutgers, Aruba: University of Aruba, 2003). Available at (accessed January 2021).

9   Renske Pin, Susan van Velzen and Irwin Korstjens, Assessment of Media Development in Curaçao Based on UNESCO’s Media Development Indicators (Paris: UNESCO/IPDC, 2016), p. 13. Available at (accessed January 2021).

10   Francio Guadeloupe, Chanting Down the New Jerusalem: Calypso, Christianity, and Capitalism in the Caribbean (Berkeley, University of California Press, 2008).

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