Sebastian Lopez interview - Gate Foundation, Amsterdam (2001)

R. J. Preece
artdesigncafé - art | 15 October 2011
This interview was previously published in ART AsiaPacific, 30, 77-81 in 2001 with the title "On gatekeeping".

Welcome to the time warp. Artwork by artists of colour shown in ethnography museums, often not given access to art institutions, artists deprived of shows and publications and, more shockingly, sometimes their very existence denied by certain power holders. Such is the case in the "liberal utopia" of the Netherlands. The art galleries project an overall glimmering whiteness, despite the Dutch landscape now having sizable non-white populations in cities such as Amsterdam and Rotterdam.

Argentinean-born and Dutch national Sebastian Lopez, Director of Amsterdam’s Gate Foundation since 1997, has spearheaded consistent art programming of artists from Other continents— artists born in the Netherlands, those resident in the country, as well as those from outside. The Gate Foundation, located in the city centre in a seventeenth-century gabled house on a picturesque canal, puts on its own shows, as well as those organised "outside the house" in conjunction with other Dutch and international institutions. Under Lopez’s directorship, the Gate Foundation pursues research into contemporary and modern art and maintains an archive of documentation of work by Dutch and European artists of colour, and those from other continents. Since 1997, Asian artists who have exhibited at the Gate include Bhupen Khakar, Wang Du, Sikay Tang, Ding Yi, Hong Hao, Tiong Ang, Yee-Ling Tang, Tariq Alvi and Ken Lum. In addition to his work at the Gate Foundation, Lopez was co-curator with Keith Piper of the 2000 "East International" and "Riverside" exhibitions in Norwich, England.

What is the situation for Asian and Other artists in the Netherlands and Northern Europe? I interviewed Sebastian Lopez in August 2000 to find out about the behind-the-scenes politics.

R.J. Preece: Why was the Gate Foundation established?

Sebastian Lopez: People found that artistic production from other continents has not been shown properly in Europe. In Holland and other European countries there haven’t been many contemporary or modern art exhibitions from Asia, Africa or Latin America. And when it happens, it’s an exception. Sometimes it’s related to a specific situation, and sometimes not related to an artistic one. In 1992 a fair number of exhibitions of Latin American art occurred because it was the 500-year anniversary of the so-called discovery of the Americas. The starting point wasn’t an art celebration; art was used to celebrate something else.

R.J. Preece: This sounds very similar to the wave of Japanese art shows in 2000 related to the 400-year anniversary of Japan-Holland relations. There was a scramble for anything Japanese. But for Asian artists who are interested in Holland, is this an open art scene compared with others in Europe?

Sebastian Lopez: No, it is not open in any European country. The situation is as difficult for anyone who comes to a place without knowing anything, which happens in 90 per cent of the cases. You need to build up a network of relationships, to present the work, to explain where you are coming from. It’s not that Europeans are "bad people"— this is also a problem for those born and living here.

R.J. Preece: So it’s part of the cultural fabric imposed on everyone.

Sebastian Lopez:It’s part of the way that art institutions function. But we are talking about visual arts, which is different from, say, music. You can fly around the world with a cassette or CD. What do you do with a painting, a site specific work or an installation?

R.J. Preece: Do you think that accessibility to the art scene is an issue for Dutch artists of Asian descent?

Sebastian Lopez: Yes. It is very difficult for them to gain access to institutions, to publications and to art criticism. At this moment, Holland and Europe have completely changed with the presence of people from other cultures [through immigration]. They don’t get the same chances white artists get.

R.J. Preece: So does the Gate Foundation have a positive interventionist role?

Sebastian Lopez: We try to. For example, last year we organised a round-table discussion explicitly called "Black Dutch artists". When some people found out we were preparing this, they laughed, saying, "We don’t have black artists in Holland!". It’s unbelievable. That evening, 120 black artists attended— some of whom have been working for a very long time.

R.J. Preece: I have heard that this lack of recognition of artists of colour extends to powerful institutions in Holland. I was personally shocked at the gatekeeping practices I experienced at an organisation that bills itself as a comprehensive information source.

Sebastian Lopez: For that reason, the Gate has an artist archive. It concentrates on "foreign" artists working and living in the country— people coming from other cultures. In this archive, we have documentation on more than 750 artists, updated as often as we can. The archive is open to everyone. If any curator wanted to do something with these artists, they are welcome, and they are helped by the staff and myself. The archive is important because it’s a collection of reproductions by these artists— many of whom have been neglected by institutions.

I invite art critics and curators from the Netherlands, Europe and abroad to use the archive as a resource. Last year, at least five exhibitions were curated based on our archive— which also has information about artists working in other European countries.

R.J. Preece: Amsterdam’s Royal Tropical Institute, a museum of ethnology, also occasionally has contemporary art shows. How do you feel about this?

Sebastian Lopez: I have mixed feelings about this. A museum of ethnology is not the place to show contemporary art because the framework in which this production is presented is not the framework it needs. Secondly, the museums of ethnology in Europe have all been colonial museums. However, I need to say that it’s thanks to people working in these museums in Amsterdam and Rotterdam that some work has been shown in Holland. I recognise the pioneering role that these people have played. In this sense, I’m grateful, but it’s not the ideal place. Some artists have mixed feelings too— some deciding they’re not going to show there, others saying "if there’s a chance to show my work, I’ll do it."

I tried like crazy to open up spaces and it wasn’t possible. We even organised a huge symposium in the late 1980s at the Royal Tropical Institute, inviting contemporary art curators from all the museums in Holland. We gave lectures, distributed information and showed slides. The work of many Asian artists was shown there— from India, China, Indonesia, Japan, Korea. At the end there was a group discussion, and we asked: "Are you planning to show anything in your museum— did something touch you as interesting?" And no-one showed any interest in the artists that had been shown.

R.J. Preece: Don’t you find this to be contradictory? If you ask people about Holland around the world, it has a reputation for being something of a liberal society, and yet here we are talking about ethnography museums and access.

Sebastian Lopez: It’s just a simple fact that Holland was a tolerant country in the seventeenth century— not after the seventeenth century. People build up their own image and description of a country that most of the time is not reality.

R.J. Preece: Can you cite artists who have shown at the Gate and, by putting the spotlight on these artists, it provided more opportunities for them?

Sebastian Lopez: The art world is slow. Sometimes you have the opportunity to see the results quickly, with others you don’t. Sometimes it takes three or ten years. What I can tell you is that we have curated exhibitions of some artists that have been presented for the very first time in this country, and some of the works have been included in other exhibitions in other spaces in Holland and other parts of the world. That’s a nice achievement— I’m very proud of that.

Pakastani-British artist Tariq Alvi has participated in many group shows in Holland and had a solo exhibition here in 1999— a year we had more solos than ever before. As artists have many different things to say, the only way to show that is in a solo. I don’t know if it’s because of our show, but Alvi was invited for a solo at London’s Whitechapel Art Gallery [in January 2001].

R.J. Preece: Do you think the issues confronting artists of colour in Holland— about access and crucial beginning steps— are understood, or even known, by the powers of the Dutch art world? Are they even recognised as issues?

Sebastian Lopez: [Pauses] Some curators, in some museums, are interested in such issues. You know how it is in a big institution, it’s not only a question of the institution— there are people working there. My experience is that some individuals working within an institution are interested and do go to see some shows, do visit artists. But it’s just a very small number.

R.J. Preece: Isn’t this disappointing?

Sebastian Lopez: I was reading an article a couple of days ago in which a museum director is quoted in an interview from 1982, when this director was in charge of a major, well-funded international exhibition. A journalist asked him, "Are you going to invite artists from other continents?" And he answered, "If artists from other continents want to be shown, they need to organise their own exhibition." The situation has not changed that much.

R.J. Preece: You’ve highlighted a language issue: here’s a publication, printed in Dutch, with a quote that would certainly raise eyebrows within international art circles. Do you think that one of the issues is that what we read and hear daily is internationally unknown— particularly because the Dutch language is not spoken widely?

Sebastian Lopez: It could be one of the reasons people are not aware that some people think in this particular way here. I don’t know if this director has changed his mind since 1982. I’m afraid he hasn’t. Thank God the "Third World" has organised its own large-scale international exhibitions.

R.J. Preece: What do you think needs to change in order for Holland— or other European countries— to have more integrated, multicultural art scenes?

Sebastian Lopez: This is a question for a politician because it’s a political question.

R.J. Preece: It’s too big isn’t it?

Sebastian Lopez: Yes. It has become a political question in Holland. The present culture minister is trying to implement ideas to convince people in Dutch cultural institutions that it is necessary to work in different ways. In the past six months and longer, we’ve witnessed a strong reaction against these ideas and policies. So, I’m afraid it’s going to take a long time for this to be implemented.

R.J. Preece: Are you talking about the ministry’s panorama of ideas or specifically those regarding multiculturalism?

Sebastian Lopez: The awareness, as I was saying before, that Holland and Europe have changed. Other people are here, many of them are interesting artists, and there need to be exhibitions organised around their work. Within the visual arts world, there has been strong resistance to this. He [the culture minister] was talking not only about artists, but also the necessity of institutions to open up to a wider public— an issue that I think is extremely important. For us, it’s a funny feeling, because we’ve been talking about it for years. But if this is going to be implemented from policy into practice— even from the ministry— that’s something I need to see.