Unwrapping a colonial gift: Groninger Museum has the moral obligation to break-up with gas.
The Groninger Museum could be understood as the gift of gas. Its iconic postmodernist building is, as one may expect of icons, loved and hated with competing intensity. The commission of this new building was made possible by the donation of 25 million guilders by the biggest company of the region and the notorious moneymaker of the country: Gasunie. A temple of the arts, as the former director Frans Haks called ‘his’ project, opened by Queen Beatrix herself in 1994.
But gifts aren’t free. The gift of gas creates a story that obscures there’s more to gas sponsorship. The golden tower doesn’t just hold cultural and artistic treasures, it treasures its gifter too. It is the shining emblem of the wealth Dutch gas extraction brought us. All the while, Groninger people are suffering from gas extraction-induced earthquakes. Who is it that really profits from fossil fuel funding? Let’s start unpacking.
The capitalist extraction of fossil fuels is a colonial enterprise: always and everywhere.
Untie the bows: unravel the system
With our newest work, Colonial Gift, FFC NL underscores the need for a decolonial perspective on the climate crisis – because the climate crisis is a colonial crisis! It is long overdue that we act on the understanding that capitalist colonialism (re)produces the destructive powers that threaten all life on earth. Decolonial thinker Rolando Vazquez underlines that a decolonial perspective is not a theoretical invention but arises from very real struggles. With the unpacking of the museum as a colonial gift, a supposedly local issue, we intend to broaden the scope of solidarity and show the extent of our demand that the museum cut its ties to the gas industry.
The colonial difference marks the racial line by which colonial powers divide Earth between zones in which the humanity of the people is questioned or denied, and zones in which it is recognized. The people in the former zones, primarily situated in the Global South, live in (extreme) poverty because of the capitalist dispossession, extraction and exploitation. They suffer disproportionally from the destructive effects of the climate crisis and can hardly appeal to any rights in their struggles along gender, sexual, class and other lines. The Global North still benefits from the exclusion, erasure and capitalization of lives and livelihoods, especially, and most violently, in the Global South. Mindful of this global power structure, we want to stress that fossil fuel companies are amongst the most destructive colonial players.
We believe that institutes should reflect on the ways in which their practices either reproduce or undo the colonial difference. Upon this self-knowledge they should act and develop new policies when needed. As long as the Groninger Museum accepts Gasunie and GasTerra as partners, their response to the above is inadequate because the (Dutch) fossil fuel industry is a subsisting part of our colonial legacy.
The gift is actually a venue to host their own party: not only to clean-up their image but also to facilitate a stronger lobby and to celebrate their toxic relationships.
Unwrap the gift: revealing the gifter and positioning the receiver
The Dutch fossil fuel industry has its origin in Dutch colonialism. It was a Groninger administrator of the East-Sumatra Tobacco Industry, Aeilko Jans Zijlker, who in the late 19th century Dutch Indies ‘discovered’ crude oil by appropriating local Indigenous knowledge. This way he founded the first organization that would grow to become Royal Dutch Shell. As the head of a colonial, fossil fuel empire with many subsidiaries across the Earth, it has left a historical record of: land devastation, water and air pollution, dispossession of people, racist division of (forced) labor, racialized health problems, early child deaths, supporting Apartheid and complicity in the oppression and murder of resisting workers and activists in many places in the Global South, amongst them former Dutch colonies – Indonesia, Curacao and South-Africa – and the West-African region, first and foremost the Niger delta.
The Global North is not only thriving on exploiting the Global South. Extractivism is just as much the strategy of the colonial fossil fuel empire within the zones where the humanity of the people is acknowledged. In 1947, Shell and Exxon’s daughter, Esso, founded NAM (Dutch Oil Company) in order to drill for oil and gas. A year later, the first gas drilling took place at Coevorden. In the 1950’s, an immense gas field was confirmed in the province of Groningen. Gasunie came into existence in 1963 as a fully state owned company to be responsible for the transport – the whole country (and a large part of Europe) had to be connected to the Groninger gas by Gasunies pipes. GasTerra is a fairly young offshoot of Gasunie. It is made “independently” responsible for the buying and selling of the products. It is 50% owned by Shell and Exxon, the companies that own NAM. Different names, same colonial players.
The first gas-induced earthquake was measured in 1986 and both government and fossil fuel industries were steadfast in denying that drilling could have caused it. Before these quakes occurred, it had already been confirmed by research in the 1960’s that drilling for gas could cause serious disturbance due to ground subsidence. The direct effects include damage to houses and cultural heritage and, of course, the threat to the physical safety of the residents. Indirect effects, reinforced by the stone cold response of the government and gas companies, include psychological suffering and even stress-related deaths. The NAM admitted as late as 2012, after a heavy quake of 3.6 on the Richter magnitude scale, that the drilling can cause subsidence. Setting up confusing and inimitable procedures, the NAM has delayed and deferred restoration of the damage caused. The profits of Gasunie and GasTerra are inextricably linked to the NAM’s colonial extraction of Groninger gas. And while its riches were taken by this very successful network of interdependent gas companies, the province of Groningen remains to deal with some of the poorest municipalities in the Netherlands.
The Groninger Museum has a moral obligation to end its complicity in the colonial extraction of fossil fuels.
Lyrical stories of “discoveries” and “progress” cast their modern shadow over large parts of the past and present, literally taking over places and silencing voices. In this vein, the story runs that Groningen and its iconic museum would never have become so great without the pioneers of gas. For their upcoming anniversary in 1988, Gasunie was looking for a gift for Groningen. They had 25 million guilders to spend and were in need of some image boosting. It would be naive to believe the Groninger Museum is just a gift by a do-gooder. The gift is actually a venue to host their own party: not only to clean-up their image but also to facilitate a stronger lobby and to celebrate their toxic relationships. With the museum, Gasunie created a perfect place to promote a new partnership with Gazprom. They even ‘helped the museum’ by putting up some unique Russian art exhibitions.
Corporate sponsoring is an important part of the Dutch art sector. Neoliberal policies have dried up funding for the field, forcing art organizations to become more like businesses and making entrepreneurs out of cultural workers. The Dutch government only provides financial support to an institution when they attract enough alternate funding or sponsors (17.5%) – the fossil fuel industry can however rely on ample support by government. This creates the perverse incentive to “ask” for gifts from this destructive industry. The other side of the coin is that sponsoring has proven itself to be a very effective branding strategy for them. In association with museums, they maintain a social license to operate. It’s one of the many situations in which it is sharply clear who truly benefits from the neoliberal cultural policy of the government.
Decline the gift: reconsider your partnerships
As an artist collective aiming to break down the social license of the Dutch fossil fuel empire, FFC NL is but one group that found a nodal point for resistance. Anywhere this empire has set up subsidiaries to extract “natural resources,” affected local communities have resisted and will continue to do so. By acknowledging our privileged positionality in the Global North, and that the severity and deadliness of the oppression of resistance is structured by the colonial difference, we are convinced that solidarity between Groningen and the Global South is fundamental for a decolonial climate movement. Only solidarity across the colonial difference is sufficient to fight the Dutch fossil fuel empire wherever it decides to operate its destructive, colonial business.
We have the obligation to find ways to be in solidarity with those who have suffered and those who are still suffering. We have the obligation to confront those who maintain power.
The Groninger Museum is aware of the need to decolonize the institutional art world. On the 10th of June, 2021, a Diversity and Inclusion charter was signed by which the museum declared its intent to work on one or more ‘dimensions’ of diversity. Leading this intention, as stated by Andreas Bluhm, are the four P’s: Partners, Program, Public and Personnel. This reflexive tool is developed by Musea Bekennen Kleur, a co-operation of Dutch museums to help each other as critical friends and experts to work on diversity in a sustainable way.
As part of the larger cultural manifestation Bitterzoet Erfgoed (Bittersweet Heritage), one of the museum’s latest initiatives, corresponding to the P of Program, is the 2022 exhibition Zwart in Groningen (Black in Groningen). It contains several paintings with enslaved Africans that are accompanied by literary and artistic works of Vamba Sherif and Faisel Saro respectively. In addition, it informs the public about which objects of the general collection as well as their own buildings are connected to the trans-Atlantic ‘slave’ trade. For instance, a venue of the museum in the province of Groningen, Menkemaborg, was home to three families that ruled the local department of the Dutch West-Indian Company until 1791.
But what about the P of Partners, Groninger Museum?
While the museum moves towards the recognition of the Groninger history and legacy of slavery, their continued relationship with the colonial, fossil fuel empire makes its position most bitter. As stated, this relationship is not merely about financing exhibitions. In return for the euros (that they don’t even need!), the museum allows the gas companies to hide their colonial practices through the artwashing of their image. So, when the museum director lightheartedly shares his view that they are essential players in the energy transition, he is paying lip service to the destructive farce of bright green futurism portrayed by these same colonial companies.
Instead of trying to make everything more ‘green’ or ‘inclusive’, a decolonial perspective is about overcoming the colonial difference. It involves doing justice, healing the colonial wounds it caused, mourning what is lost and repairing the damage done and suffering inflicted. It’s undoing the erasure of the colonized by delinking from our modern, extraction-based ways of living. Listening to Vazquez, we should critically question ourselves: Can we live an ethical life without consuming the suffering of others and the exploitation of Earth?
Taking Vazquez’s words, it should reflect on how it reproduces the colonial difference in order to find ways to delink from the identities, affirmations, desires and pleasures that are complicit with the suffering of others and the wasting away of Earth. As long as the Groninger Museum accepts Gasunie and GasTerra as partners, their response to the question above is inadequate. Decolonization is not just about seeing and acknowledging the (previously) unseen. Owing greatly to Tuck and Yang, FFC NL wants to stress: Decolonization is not a metaphor!
What can the GM do to live ethically?
FFC NL urges the Groninger Museum to break-up with Gasunie and GasTerra once and for all.
Colonial Gift is an artistic work by FFC NL. Both the cards and this article are created through a collective process of researching, learning and producing together. If you would like to respond, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org