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

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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).