Quotidian 2 (December 2010)Flora Illes; Theo Meder: Anansi comes to Holland

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Anansi in the Netherlands

Our research into contemporary Anansi tales in the Netherlands focuses on the cultural meanings in the stories, which allow us to consider the animal tales as essential characteristics of Creole cultural identity. To arrive at these insights, we took our inspiration from the framework for assessing culture by Geert Hofstede from the 1960s, which provides a concrete and (for our purpose) workable set of instruments for the description of cultural manifestations. Hofstede (rightfully) received criticism on his framework, because it suggested a hierarchy of cultural manifestations, which does not match reality, and which also carries the danger of ending up with exclusive cultural stereotypes (see Tennekes 1995, 69-70, 72-74). According to another critic (Holden), Hofstede’s conception of culture carries the danger of essentialism, because it supposedly leads to the categorization of cultures in static terms.[10]

In our research, however, Hofstede’s model is not used to arrive at hierarchical cultural structures or to isolate static Creole stereotypes on the basis of folktales, but rather to discuss the dynamics and the interrelation of cultural identity and folktales. Culture manifests itself most concretely in cultural products, like folktales, and by the analysis of these concrete data, we hope to be able to expose the more implicit and subconscious connection between stories and values. The application of Hofstede’s framework with symbols, rituals, heroes and values to folktales is concrete and above all innovative: hardly ever has it been done before with the intention of retrieving cultural meanings from folktales. We chose to research the following folktales on the basis of four criteria. The symbols, the locations, the heroes (or characters) and the rituals are studied and their implicit or explicit cultural meanings semanticised.[11] By revealing and semantisising these four criteria in the stories and the illustrations, we hope to answer the question of how the spider stories, the illustrations and the cultural identity of the Surinamese and the Antilleans in the Netherlands are interconnected.

The core of the analyzed data consists of an online database of contemporary, orally-transmitted Anansi stories. The corpus includes the animal tales that were told by Surinamese or Antillean storytellers in Rotterdam and Amsterdam in 2006 and 2007. Most of these recordings – together with recordings from Ghana – were added to the Anansi Masters DVD from 2008, entitled Waarom alle verhalen Anansi’s naam dragen (“Why all stories carry Anansi’s name”). The visual material used in our research comes from the publications of Noni Lichtveld, an artist and writer of children’s books with a Surinamese background. Lichtveld is the writer of the text, as well as the designer and creator of the visuals. In her books, text and image are constantly complementing one another, visual and linguistic elements are mutually supportive. During the writing process, Lichtveld draws on the oral tradition of her ancestors, the stories of her father (Lou Lichtveld, known by his author’s name Albert Helman), aunts, friends and the work of Surinamese writers. Being an illustrator, she strongly relies on images during the writing process: “In the beginning, there was the image, from which the word arose.” Up to a point, the story is told by the images (Kempen 2002, 249). The unity of the books reaches a higher level due to the constant harmonious interaction between text and image. Lichtveld was also the illustrator of Het Grote Anansiboek (“The great book of Anansi”) by Johan Ferrier, which saw a colourful reissue in 2010. Besides Lichtveld’s drawings, we take a look at the new images accompanying the recent reissue of Nilda Pinto’s animal tales (2006).


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The first level of research focuses on the symbols in the oral and visual corpus.[12] Symbols are broadly conceived here as (variable) signs in a culture, containing a symbolic value for the identity of the group, such as objects, clothes, hairdos, words and gestures. In the Anansi stories on the Anansi Masters website, we encountered some recurring elements that possess a specific meaning to the cultural identity of the Creoles. These are: the tropical hammock for taking an afternoon nap, the pitcher Anansi took along from the African forests and which recalls the spider’s mythological roots, and above all the many dishes. As an object of desire, food is a central motif in the Anansi tales. In the animal tales, it always concerns food characteristic to the tropical climate, and which is designated by its original, Creole name. Food is part of the identity of the individual and of the collective group, and Anansi’s choice for a specific dish makes him part of a specific group with its own preferences and traditions.

Many linguistic elements refer to the Creole roots. Titles of stories, songs being sung together with the audience, as well as personal names occur plentifully in Sranan and Papiamento. Especially in strongly emotionally charged dialogues, arguments and shouting matches, there is the tendency to resort to the mother tongue. The (austere though not particularly clever) white king, for example, is called Shon Arei in the Antillean stories. This Papiamento name is likely to be a composite of the English name of John and the Spanish word “el rey”, meaning “the king”. The ritual of singing together in the indigenous language creates a powerful feeling of oneness during the performance, and takes the act of narration back to old storytelling traditions.[13] So these elements refer directly to people’s own cultural identity and traditions. Apart from this, the orally-transmitted animal tales display an increasing number of elements bearing witness to a modern existence, albeit frequently on the superficial level of objects, such as photos, glitter suits, psychiatrists, civil servants, policemen and gymnastic exercises. The admission and integration of these new elements in the animal tales demonstrates the tendency of the stories to undergo changes, and their constant need to adapt to the expectations of a changing intended audience.

On the level of the images, the portrayed objects provide information about the social context in which a story is set. The attributes of the daily environment, the depicted pieces of furniture and objects for everyday use strongly determine the atmosphere of children’s books and have a major symbolic value to the attentive observer. They provide an insight into the daily behaviour and the material culture of certain groups, showing the “actor” behind the objects (De Bodt & Kapelle 2003, 147). The images can also be interpreted as “genre paintings” of children’s books, in which scenes from daily life are featured. In the illustrations of Anansi stories, we often see traditional inherited houses (“erfhuizen”), which are also described in Surinamese literature. Activities portraying an ideal household match those images, like broom sweeping and dishwashing, thus adding a didactic value to the depicted world for the benefit of the audience. But we also frequently encounter images of interiors which, in all their plainness and bleakness, assume a world of poverty. Among the portrayed objects, clothes also carry a symbolic meaning. They imply the cultural and social background of the depicted world. In this area, the changeability and the adaptability of the spider is aptly expressed. The African garments, the traditional Surinamese hats, headscarves, wide skirts and shirts (image 2,4), as well as the prestigious Western suits with top hats, and the contemporary jeans, sneakers and baseball caps represent stages implying the cultural metamorphoses Anansi underwent, and they also visually illustrate the ever-changing cultural identity.

We can thus establish a twofold tendency in the development of the Anansi stories on the level of symbols. On the one hand, there is the attempt to maintain and emphatically portray the motifs of the traditional culture; and on the other hand, there is room for flexibility and adjustment, although this is the case in only a minor number of stories. Furthermore, all this underlines people’s awareness with regard to the dynamic and changing character of their own cultural identity: depending on time, place and the “period eye”, several different cultural traits can become apparent and seen as part of one’s own identity.


When taking into consideration the locations of the stories, we can also discover specific cultural meanings. This layer of interpretation contains real and fictitious places with a symbolic value to the community, which contributes to the identification and the retention of cultural identity. In the oral corpus, we encounter places like the heavenly forest with tropical plants and bright sunshine, or the plantation with a poor “erfhuis” and a rich king’s palace. In some way, such representations are “lieux de mémoire”, stereotypical places of memory that refer directly to a historical period in the life of the Creole people. One of the stories contains a concrete historical event, the construction of the Brokopondo reservoir in Surinam in the 1960s (Bonen met zoutvlees [“Beans with salted meat”], told by Jacqueline Balsemhof in Rotterdam). As a result of this construction, thousands of Maroons were forced to move to the city and start a new life there. The animal tale allows people to ventilate their feelings of discomfort about this event in a humourous way. Furthermore, we can see the emergence of the city as a modern


Image 5: Anansi hides in the bushes. Drawing by Noni Lichtveld (1984, 73).

habitat, e.g. when Anansi goes shopping in the big contemporary department stores or garden centres – a very clear reference to Dutch reality. In the stories, the locations thus serve as a cultural setting for daily life, or they are called upon as historical places which serve to embed the past of the people. Especially in the context of migration, the value attributed to traditional, tropical and historical locations tends to increase. The inclusion of Dutch cities as modern locations is symptomatic of the changed cultural identity: as a real survivor, Anansi should also be able to hold his own ground in this “new jungle”.


Image 6: Anansi’s daughter as Little Red Riding Hood in the Bijlmer (a multicultural Amsterdam “banlieu”). Drawing by Noni Lichtveld (1997, 88).

We can observe a clear opposition in the iconographical and stylistic characteristics of the images set in the Caribbean and those set in the Netherlands. The drawings of the Caribbean display bright sunshine, flowers, trees and leaves, or, in other words; a light, warm, colourful and plentiful world. In the image by Noni Lichtveld entitled Anansi houdt zich schuil in het bos (“Anansi hides in the bushes”) (image 5) with its abundance of exotic plants and animals, one has to make a real effort to discover Anansi, given the lushness of the tropical scenery, which appears as background, but also as a place of memory. Supposedly, this motif refers to the episode of the Maroon uprisings in Surinamese history, when the escaped slaves hid in the dense bushes of the inlands. The Maroon slogan saying that one has to feel at one with nature to survive is portrayed here. The pictorial means used by the artist evoke a lively, exotic atmosphere, and at the same time, they represent the concealing function of the forest in which Anansi is barely perceivable. The meandering lines, the abundance of shapes, colours and scents, the large number of visual elements and details, and the lively composition display the energetic world of the jungle. Storyteller and author Johan Ferrier (1910-2010) also recalled the history of the Maroons when he had Anansi going down the river in a boat with two chickens to win half a village for the king (i.e. the white authority!):

In this story Anansi paddles along a river past several villages. The thing is, the Maroons from the inlands of Surinam had run away from the plantations in slavery times. They had fled into the jungle and lived along the upper reaches of the rivers, past the waterfalls and rapids.

The image of the Netherlands clearly functions as the opposite of the tropical world. Iconographically, we see attributes of modern, European life: blocks of flats, mills and typical Amsterdam houses (images 1, 6 and 7). Like the stories, the drawings move with the times and express Anansi’s modern perception of the environment. The changes in the stylistic solutions are striking: the visual language becomes more austere, restrained, both with regards to the shapes and the use of colour. The colours are more subdued, the air gets darker, and there are more taut lines and geometric shapes. The uninhibited, free, exuberant visual world which was so close to nature in the jungle drawing gives way to the controlled order of the human mind and civilization. In the picture of the story about Anansi’s daughter (as Little Red Riding Hood), who is on her way to her grandmother in the Bijlmer, we can even see a Mondrianesque image in a geometric building style (image 6). The technical design of this picture also corresponds to the developments in visual arts in the sense that it uses modern collage techniques and integrates photography and the art of drawing into one image. The visual material has been intensely adjusted to the new setting and to the “local eye” of the intended audience.

These examples show that both the spider tales and their illustrations are open to modernization and inclined to adapt to new surroundings. The visual material has experienced a kind of creolization process, in which the indigenous, familiar elements from the old culture and environment have mingled with new attributes. In this way, the integration of two worlds leads to the emergence of a third, unique one. In terms of cultural identity: the fusion of the two cultures leads to the creation of a third culture.


Image 7: Anansi in wooden shoes, drawing by Minke Priester (Meder 2008a, unpaged colour section).


The third level of our research concerns the heroes or characters in the animal tales. The question how the characters in the spider tales are being presented, which values they represent and how they interact with each other can provide a better insight into the social norms and values of the narrative community. Anansi is the main character of all the narrated stories in the corpus, and in the narrative culture of the Caribbean, he is still a liminal figure situated between two worlds. He displays many animal traits, which are primarily expressed in the references to his eight legs and his extended circle of animal friends. But his cleverly executed tricks, his recurring position as head of a family and owner of a house make him very human. Ambiguity and paradoxes are still very prevalent. He is hero and antihero at the same time; he is a figure of identification, but also someone who constantly breaks the norms. Wit and cleverness are the characteristics that make him attractive as an identification figure for the Creoles. Most of the stories emphasize the mental process of the clever Anansi, which he uses to once again come up with something and give a new impulse to the course of action.

It may be worth our while to briefly pay attention to a story entitled Kompa Nanzi en Kompa Raton, which throws a remarkably different light on the spider.[14] In this story, Anansi appears as a judge facing his nasty neighbour, who displays unreliable and mean behaviour. This story shows a major shift in the original characteristics of the spider: he now uses his intelligence and his tricks for the sake of justice. This is another example of the enormous flexibility and employability of the narrative character. We are dealing here with a creative adaptation of the old motifs, resulting in entirely new issues. We are touching on a deeply-rooted characteristic of the spider: he turns from (sympathetic) trickster into judge, from an “exempla contraria” into an “exempla virtutis”, i.e. someone who punishes objectionable behaviour (Beheydt 2009, 11). This is however an exceptional case in the corpus – in most cases, Anansi’s basic character remains untouched. He is still not a positive model of social behaviour. He is rather an antihero who manifests rebellious and unsettling behaviour, thereby shifting the moral boundaries in society. At the same time, he embodies many positive values, like intelligence, love for his family, the power to survive, and a good sense of humour, all of which manoeuvre him in a position between antihero and hero. Nevertheless, Van Duin (2003, 187) observes -- with some storytellers in the Netherlands -- a process of “bourgeoisation” or even “dulling”, which takes the sting out of Anansi and leaves us with a “one-dimensional joker”.


Image 8: Anansi’s wife on a bicycle (Lichtveld 1997, 86).

Anansi has been portrayed by various illustrators in many different ways. In most cases, he is depicted as a hairy wood spider with eight legs, living in a human environment, wearing clothes. His African tribal-culture origins are expressed in the drawings depicting him with a mask-like face and a body covered with linear scar marks, appearing between lianas and exotic animals. Apart from such references to his mythological primal roots, his role as a comforter for the slaves lives on too. An image displaying him tied to a chair with a big chain by way of punishment for a theft contains an implicit reference to the colonial past (Lichtveld 1997, 77). The chain to his legs could refer to the period of slavery and has a veiled symbolic value for the collective past of the narrative community. The modernization of Anansi can also be discerned in the visual language, combining traditional Caribbean characteristics with Dutch elements. In one image, for instance, we can see Anansi’s wife balancing on a bicycle, which is just another visual adaptation of the contemporary process of creolization (image 8). A black spider lady wearing a typically Surinamese headscarf and traditional clothes, riding a very Dutch upright bicycle – the mixed symbols in the image represent the modern reality of the Creole inhabitants of the Netherlands. In short, we can see that the spider, depending on the place, the time and the surrounding culture, can take and incorporate any possible shape, while still remaining a principal carrier of Creole identity. After all, the metamorphoses of the narrative character reflect the awareness of the cultural changes that have taken place in the history of the narrative community. Anansi is a living example of the dynamics and changeability of cultural identity.

Besides Anansi, the animal tales and the drawings display his extended family with his wife, his twelve children, nephews, nieces, and cousins with their own families. The family relations can be called rather close – here applies a broader concept of “family” as a cultural value than is usual in the Netherlands. In the more modern stories, we can see that the family image increasingly deviates from the traditional Caribbean image with the submissive children and the great respect for the father figure, and that it tends to adapt to the Dutch family image with more rebellious children.

In the world of the spider tales, the “opponent”, the antihero who is being tricked, plays an essential role. As we have explained before, this opponent can be a more powerful character than Anansi himself, such as the king or the tiger, but more often they are fellow animals or relatives, who are Anansi’s equals or even his inferiors. In the oral corpus, the king is in all cases the personification of the mighty, though not always very bright opponent. He is severe and merciless; his fixed attributes are the palace, the prison, and the soldiers, emphasizing his wealth and his position of power. In the world of the Caribbean animal tale, the king is the adversary against whom the puny spider rebels. The tricks Anansi plays on him are attempts to recalcitrance, resistance and the circumvention of authority.[15]

In the folktale illustrations, the tiger makes more frequent appearances than the king (image 7). He can be regarded as the personification of the strong and merciless slave driver and plantation owner who always wants to devour the puny, tiny spider, but whom Anansi constantly manages to make look foolish by his cleverness. In the case of the tiger – even more so than with the king – there is a rather unequivocal division of roles between hero and adversary: the adversary personifies power, strength, oppression and violence. The hero acts against him using his wit, cleverness and tricks. A nice example of the mixture of traditional and modern fairy-tale elements can be seen in image 7: the picture shows traditional characters in a new, Dutch environment. Anansi, in Dutch wooden shoes, is standing next to a mill. The tiger leers at the chicken with hungry eyes from behind the mill. This image is yet another adaptation to the contemporary “local eye”, which has moved from the tropics to the Netherlands and which is, in this case, also being appropriated by Dutch storytellers.[16] Alternatively, it can be interpreted as an establishment of the fact that in the modern world, not much has changed in the situation of the spider, and that in Dutch society, one is confronted with oppressive powers as well.

It should not be forgotten, though, that in a large majority of the stories, Anansi is dealing with his equals, his relatives and friends, and even his inferiors. In the corpus of oral stories, the king, the tiger and other mighty opponents appear in only twenty percent of the animal tales; in eighty percent of the cases, the spider tricks his equals and his inferiors (see the appendix following this article). So Anansi stories are not just about the struggle against oppression; the spider is not just an icon for the fight for freedom, but rather remains the crafty survivor who spares neither its superiors, nor its equals, nor anyone inferior whilst pursuing his own goals. In most of the stories, Anansi is hardly a popular hero with noble motives, since his motives frequently remain limited to stomach filling and selfish gain, preferably without an excess of physical strain. His dealings with equals and inferiors are mostly characterized by unreliable and unfriendly relations (image 2). The material and mental possessions of fellow animals are abused for his own benefit. Anansi tries to construct his position of power at the expense of his fellow animals. Rivalry, conflict and strife are characteristic of their social relations. There is a total lack of respect and the constant attempt to improve one’s position and status in society at the expense of others, using trickery as the primary means to reach that goal.

The stories and illustrations dealing with the stronger opponents say a lot about the power structures and about the ways power is used. Although the power and the strength of the king and the tiger are absolute, there is a subtle and complex armamentarium in development to use the system to one’s own ends. Power is continually evaded or undermined in order to survive. On a superficial level, one acknowledges the superiority of the ruler and takes part in the social game between authorities and subjects. But in reality, the authorities are being ridiculed, denounced and exploited by means of clever tricks. The spider’s ability to profit from his opponents’ weaknesses is a mechanism in the stories which has existed since the period of slavery, and apparently modern times have hardly brought about any change in this department. The common man is still the cultural hero who manages to hold his ground within a system of inequality, in his own contrary way.

Anansi’s opponents are not, however, always colonial oppressors. Alternatively, they can also come from the spiritual domain. There are several stories in which the spider has to take a stand against the devil, and in one story, he falls victim to a cacodemon. To free himself of this cacodemon, Anansi seeks the help of a local mediator between the earthly and the spiritual world: a lukuman or clairvoyant (image 3).


The last level of our analysis of the contemporary Anansi stories concerns the rituals, that is to say the conventional collective activities that are being considered essential within a particular culture to shape and maintain the social order.


Image 9: Rituals. Drawing by Noni Lichtveld (1997, 93).

Due to the presence of rituals in the folktales, they are constantly relived during narration and passed on to the next generations. Examples of such rituals are, of course, the feasts in the narrative corpus, like birthdays, family visits, and the large Caribbean carnivals. Anansi and his friends are always ready to join in, and in a great many of the stories, a cheerful, colourful world is conjured up, which includes attributes such as food, drink, music, dance and song. Besides celebrating, the ritual of being together at table is the main activity for maintaining group cohesion (image 9). In the drawings, we often see Anansi’s family, dressed in traditional Surinamese clothing, sitting at the table with a dish in front of them. The role played by the food in the images refers to the gastronomy and the elaborate dishes of the Creoles that are an integral part of their cultural identity.