A review of What a Genderful World!

For feminist magazine Lover, this “museummuis” (my nickname) wrote a review of “What a Genderful World!”, the latest exhibition in the Amsterdam Tropenmuseum, as well as an interview with its curator, the inspiring scholar Wonu Veys.

On a sunny Friday afternoon, my friend Linsey and I walked along the Linnaeusstraat in the east of Amsterdam. We enjoyed the rustling green of the Oosterpark and recognized the Burgerziekenhuis – this is the route the horse tram once rode, towards the depot, in which after the Wibra now a high class yoga studio houses: “Equal”. A word that resonated through in various conversations Linsey and I were about to have today, as we were on our way to the Tropenmuseum (Museum of the Tropics), for their latest expo “What a Genderful World”. One week after my own visit, I had the honour of video-meeting Wonu Veys, curator of the Oceania collection and one of the people behind this expo. 

The impressive museum building confirms my bitter taste when thinking about the word “equal”, as  it is decorated with statues that show our colonial crimes. But that too is our history and it’s important not to sweep it under the carpet. Inside the beautiful building we are immediately warmly welcomed by the employees, and climb the stairs to the top floor. Equality is hard to find in the heartbreaking stories we encounter along the way. Of the many indigenous communities and peoples, who have to fight to stop companies, government bodies and other dominant groups from infringing on their rights and taking or destroying their lands. And of the black men in the entertainment industry at the beginning of the 20th century.  Embedded in the museum on diversity in the broader sense of the word we find the specific exhibition on gender diversity. 

Gender Terminology 101 by Courtney Act

To make it immediately clear through which lens you could see the objects and videos on display, the exhibition starts with this MTV Life! video by Courtney Act, a contemporary artist who embodies the zeitgeist of an era and is more than the sum of her parts. In her “Gender Terminology 101”, the most important terms are explained by this gender-fluid person – quite thoroughly, in an easy to grasp way and funny. Not mind-blowing or radically new, but to be frank, Linsey and I are probably not the target audience. Which leads us to the question: who is? 

“Actually, our target group was ‘everyone’…” Wonu smiles, “initially, we wanted an exhibition that would be for all people”. This was also because of the reactions she sometimes got when talking about this project. Comments along the lines of “Yes, but… I’m an ordinary man, aren’t I? That’s not about me, is it?” or “Gender, that’s something for women, isn’t it? Or for people who have identity problems? Not for the average person?”. But such a broad category is not useful for marketing; in order to promote something well, it is good to have a very specific target group in mind. In this case there were two: “Young Urban” – people aged 20-40, mainly from the Randstad, who attend concerts and read books – and “Culture Lover” – the 50+ people who often go to museums anyway. 

Exhibition makers often think that you need a very different tone to address different groups, but personally Wonu doesn’t think so. And the idea of “an exhibition for everyone” remained in the background of the plans. Wonu: “We also applied to the Blockbuster Fund, a fund that supports exhibitions that are expected to appeal to a large and diverse audience.” And Wonu of course hoped that this would be the case! Thinking back to my own visit, I can only conclude that this was certainly successful: the audience I saw around me was diverse and I noticed that from the first video. From giggling youngsters to astonished 50+ people, but also a group that looked like art students, and shouted “ha, nice, Courtney Act! Have you got her new record already?” 

Judging from the many selfies and other pictures taken, the different visitors all seemed to enjoy the  festive setting in which the Tropenmuseum playfully invites the public to think about gender and how we deal with it. The expo is fun, colourful and cheerful, like a festival, or the fairground. It is beautiful and I love it. “Yes, the Culture Lover may be more attracted by aesthetic elements and the Young Urban visitor may prefer to link up with current events, but they are easy to combine”, Wonu explains. “In any case, we wanted this exhibition to be as diverse as possible, not only in terms of regions, but also in terms of materials – videos, objects, text – because everyone is addressed in a different way. The interactives, for example, are often a way for a younger audience to delve into the subject, to literally experience what it’s all about. All these different angles can be found in this exhibition”. 

When I walked from one work of art to another, I was indeed surprised to encounter all these different angels, like the various “play-things”. Larger than life fruit emoticons that often represent genitalia on Whatsapp and other social media platforms. A chair by designer Anna Aagaard Jensen, especially designed for women, on which you can only sit wide legged. A ball pit of breasts that makes you think about what it means to be reduced to an object. And a photo shoot that invites you to try some of the “typically masculine or feminine” poses. Thus, with art, personal stories and interactive games presented as equally important, the museum challenges visitors to take a closer look at their own ideas about masculinity and femininity. The Tropenmuseum promises that this can result in surprising eye-openers!

But at the same time, the critic (or nag?) in me also worried about the associations with the history of the fair – including the freak shows. Sadly, this was confirmed when I saw a group of young people, a little further on in the museum, giggling at the pictures of women with moustaches and beards, and of men wearing skirts. “Such a faggot!” one young man chuckles. I cringe and think of Zoo (1961), the splendid film Bert Haanstra made in Artis. There, the monkeys look at the people. But in this exhibition the people I am looking at cannot look back. 

When I tell Wonu about my complicated voyeuristic “monkey watching” feeling, she tells me that this was one of the biggest challenges for the team. “It was especially difficult to divide as little as possible on the basis of gender identity. That was a tough process. The first design we had, for example, was very binary, with feminine on the one hand and masculine on the other, and then everything in between in the middle, or something like that. But that didn’t feel right at all, for we wanted to break that binary, not start from ‘the normal’ and then explain what is different or something. So we turned it all around and started thinking a lot more about the ways in which everyone is confronted with gender at some point in life. For example, through education, clothing, or by noticing that you can or cannot enter certain spaces.”

Looking back, I realise that in my childhood, this binary has led to some awkward situations, as other children often considered it hilarious for a girl to like “boy-things,” like robots, computer games, and LEGO Technic. That’s why it was ironic for me to see LEGO at the exhibition, with the caption about the history of “girls LEGO”. Apparently, this confrontation with gender for me was more of a clash with the norms of the outside world? According to Wonu, that oftens happens to people. “That is why we divided the exhibition into themes such as ‘gender and education’, ‘gender and body’ and ‘gender and ideals’ and then added museum pieces to show how these themes work in different contexts. And that is where diversity came in. Because even if you stay within one theme, there are still countless ways of dealing with it, which in turn depend on time and location”.

While the boundaries between masculinity and femininity finally seem to be blurring a bit, here, the Tropenmuseum shows how notions of gender are viewed over time and in different places around the world. The exhibition is surprising, varied and inspiring. Personally, I loved the wonderful statue of a female pharaoh, depicted as a virago (from vir (man) and agere (doing, acting, leading) so: “acting as a man”) with symbols for male power, like beards. What I also really like about the exhibition is that it deliberately makes no difference between “high” and “low” art – the aforementioned pharaoh stands comfortably next to a screen on which a South American telenovela (melodramatic fictional series, mainly produced in Latin American countries) is played – a heavy emotional scene, in which a trans boy enters into a confrontation with his parents.

There is much recent art to see as well, such as a diptych by the Korean photographer Jeongmee Yoon (1969) that shows a boy in a superhero suit surrounded by blue toys and a girl in a princess dress amidst a deluge of pink toys. This work, entitled The Pink and Blue Project, shows a very clear picture of how many children are raised in Western culture. Boys are heroic and tough, girls are beautiful and sweet. But, as the museum’s captions quickly explain, the funny thing is that pink has only been a typical girl’s colour since the 1950s.

The exhibition further shows that the dichotomy between men and women is not so self-evident everywhere. In India, Samoa and Mexico, for example, there are three genders. Last year, when learning their language through Duolingo, I had already learned that the Navajo have words for non-binary genders. They are pronounced “nádleeh” (for a male-bodied person with feminine nature) and dilbaa (masculine woman). Both terms can mean something like “ambient being,” “one who changes” or “one who is transformed.” But I did not know that there are no less than five different genders recognized in various Native American communities!

As far as that is concerned, we in the Netherlands still lag behind quite a bit, in my opinion. Think of my niece, for example. She is a highly educated lady, a little older than me, who doesn’t want to go to ballet because she has to giggle at men in tights. No hard to guess what kind of “gendered” toys she’d give her children and how she would react to a penis sheath.

“It is interesting for me to update those old-fashioned ideas,” Wonu explains, “to talk about the interaction with colonial rulers, with the government, with the mission, etc., and to ask ourselves why the object is important and why its use is under pressure. I find objects that reveal stories like that particularly fascinating. The same goes for example for the Inuit boots, where there’s no giggling aspect, but people think ‘o nice, beautiful beads’ and they also know little else about it. But it’s precisely those aspects that I find interesting. Just like in the first room of the exhibition, where you see a community with muxe dressed in what many Westerners would call ‘women’s clothes’, but those are not women’s clothes, those are clothes for women and muxe. It’s not men who dress feminine, it’s really a different category, beyond our binary thinking. And these are the stories I like to tell!”

What Wonu liked best about the exhibition is that it allowed her to shed new light on objects from that collection, such as the “koteka” or penis gourd. “When people talk about this, it’s often giggly, as if it’s about who has the biggest, and I think it’s important to dispel such prejudices”. It is commonly assumed that there is a sexual display element to wearing the koteka; however, according to the locals, kotekas are worn only to cover themselves. And for some Papuans, wearing a penis gourd has become an expression of their own identity in the fight against what they feel is the domination of their country by Indonesia. But when considering all the interactions (with colonial rulers, with the government, with the mission), how can you be sure that the information presented is correct?

“Throughout the whole process, we have worked with an Advisory Group, consisting of eight to ten people from very different backgrounds. For example, youth workers or academics or non-binary people or theatre makers – all of them interested in gender, all of them working on gender, but all from vastly diverse angles. We were especially keen on not hurting anyone. And we thought that it was especially important that everyone – no matter what gender identity you have – could somehow feel at home in the exhibition.

Although I did feel at home in the museum, as it inspired me to continue creating my own gender-space, I sometimes felt that it was too broad and therefore lacking depth. “That is also the pitfall of this exhibition and the comments we sometimes get are like: everything is right in terms of content, even specialists in the field have found no flaws, but because it is so broad and so diverse, it is not always possible to go into detail about everything. And I totally agree with that. Now it’s a lot to offer and to point things out, but as a curator you always think ‘oh, but there’s a lot more to tell about it! But yes, that is also what we wanted, to start the dialogue. Not as a raised little finger – you have to know and think this, this is the good way and this is the bad way – but to challenge people to re-examine their own beliefs. Many people already have ideas about gender, those who are already well informed have many ideas, and with this exhibition we wanted to stimulate people to think again, question their ideas and show how much more there is to explore. For that is already in the title.”

As far as I am concerned, the latter has certainly been achieved. What a genderful world – what a celebration of diversity.

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One thought on “A review of What a Genderful World!

  1. I was happy to read this post. I have also worked on a few projects in the field of gender equality, and I like to follow activities on this topic from different angles.
    Friendly greeting,
    Nina

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