I spent some time this weekend looking at the online digital archives of the New York Public Library, and the British Library. I love that more archives and collections are being uploaded, and available as public domain. I searched under the keyword of ‘Suriname’ and found some very interesting images in both collections, some of which I will use at a later date, but I found one this past weekend that I could not get out of my mind.
It is an image of two women walking down a path in light dresses, and holding a parasol. The woman closest to the camera looks a little affronted, or taken aback by having her picture taken, while the woman holding the parasol looks like she is smiling, or proud of being the focus of attention.
I could not stop thinking about the caption for this image: The Women Look Like Dutch Women Turned Black. The image is from a book called Isles of Spice and Palm, and it is written by Alpheus Hyatt Verrill, a zoologist, archeologist, and adventure writer of the late nineteenth to early twentieth century. Verrill traveled through the Americas (South, Central, and North) taking part in archeological excavations.
Maybe I was intrigued by this image because I have been reading and hearing the phrase ‘like a man’ so much the past week. Researching women in visual art will eventually lead to seeing the phrase ‘she paints like a man’, and it is meant to be a compliment (Heartney, 2013). I have also seen a lot of news articles about Olympic athletes who are women who ‘swim like men’, or ‘run like men'(here and here).
It is strange to see the comparison between the marginalized and the dominant over the course of a hundred years, and still have some people see it as a compliment. Even though Verrill describes the costumes of the women in Suriname as ‘bright and gaudy’ (Verrill, 1915: 219), he also illustrates the people and the place of Suriname as ‘quaint’, ‘enchanting’, and possibly the most interesting city in the world. He considers that he is writing about his experiences in a positive manner.
I have been thinking about these women, and how they would feel being compared to Dutch women, to be told that they are ‘enchanting’, but ‘gaudy’. I especially think of the woman who looks smiling, and proud. I think about the colonized people, the women artists, and the women athletes, and I wonder why we still consider a backhanded compliment, a compliment.
Heartney, Eleanor, et al. The Reckoning: Women Artists of the New Millennium. Munich: Prestel, 2013.
Verrill, Alpheus Hyatt. Isles of Spice and Palm. New York; London: D. Appleton and Co., 1915.
© Tanya Nielsen (firstname.lastname@example.org), 2016