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We can no longer look at the world as ‘the West and the rest’

Art historian and professor Kitty Zijlmans is on a mission: she wants to get rid of the notion that the West dominates the art world. To no longer put 'the West and the rest', but the exchange between ideas and cultures at the centre of art history. ‘You will see that there has been so much exchange, that something can never have originated in just one place.’

‘A passionate contemporary art lover’

In the extensive career of Zijlmans, who has been Professor of Contemporary Art History and Theory since 2000, her need to bring worlds together stands out. In addition to her university work, the former academic director of the Leiden University Centre for the Arts in Society was also co-compiler of exhibitions in museums De Lakenhal and Beelden aan Zee in The Hague. She also spends her time on art prizes and art funds.

Zijlmans describes herself as a ‘passionate contemporary art lover’, emphasizing theories about art. ‘My aim over the past 25 years has been to take the Western view away from art history and to give it a global perspective.’ In other words: ‘Art belongs to all people and to all time periods. Art did not originate in the western world to then be transported. It has been a rich process of an exchange of ideas between people and groups.’

Kitty Zijlmans

Where are the (non-)Western cultures?

But according to Zijlmans it is not always presented in this way. ‘In museums of anthropology, Western cultures are lacking, and in art museums, so-called “non-Western” cultures are lacking. Why is that? I think that if you were to connect them, you would get a deeper perspective of art production here and in other places. But then you will have to stop using the West as a yardstick. Strange, because this never applies to other cultures, the other way around.’

She finds it ‘terribly important’ that we are able to get to know ‘the other’ through art. She’s talking about your neighbour or someone from a completely different culture. The world has become too compartmentalized, she thinks. ‘In ethnicities as well, while there is so much wealth of culture. We can no longer look at the world as “the West and the rest”.’

A vision on Dutch heritage

Recently, Zijlmans has been able to add another social project to her mission to connect. Since September 2020 she has been a member of the Commissie Collectie Nederland (Netherlands Collection Committee), established by the Council of Culture. Together with the other members, she tries to develop a vision on Dutch heritage (housed in collections). What she takes into account in her deliberations, completes the circle of her argument about the merging of cultures. ‘The Netherlands should be seen as a place where many cultures have come together and from which our own culture has originated.’

The exchange of cultures should also be central in art education, she believes. Among secondary school teachers, she now notices a growing need to adapt art education to this idea. Zijlmans is developing a training programme together with the teacher training programmes for art teachers and the Vereniging Onderwijs en Cultuur (Association for Education and Culture), which she wants to develop further in the coming year. ‘We live in a different time. Which means there is also a need for a new way of understanding art.’

The interaction between research and art

The humanities also have to be more aware of the interaction between research and the art that is on display in museums, she believes. The current COVID-19 pandemic is a good example of this. ‘We can see in what incredible ways people have to rely on themselves and have begun to use all kinds of forms of expression. That made me think: the situation we are currently in can be reconsidered from scratch. What, for instance, is the meaning of public space and how we move around in it. That is very different now because of the virus. In the future, a lot of research into this will have to be done.’

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