“Won’t you come to dinner?” read the posters pasted all over Amsterdam last October. Ramadan was coming to an end, and a Dutch organization called the Binding Together Foundation was promoting public iftar meals, in which Muslims and non-Muslims would break the fast together after sundown. The invitation presents a pictograph family: a man, two children, and a woman wearing a veil. The Dutch designer and critic Carel Kuitenbrouwer attended one such ceremony in Amsterdam’s central Dam Square, and gave an enthusiastic report to the national TV station that interviewed him. When he saw the segment that night, though, his views had barely been included. “It was biased and negative toward integration,” he says, and featured a representative of a Muslim organization warning that “Muslims had to beware of Ramadan, a religious thing, turning into a commercial circus.”
Nor did everyone like the poster (by Amsterdam studio Koeweiden Postma). In a letter to the daily newspaper Trouw, a man named Mohammed Nahhas complained that this was the second year that the Ramadan Festival had depicted a Muslim woman in a full burka: “My wife and many other Muslim women wear, in spite of heavy pressure from the Muslim community, no scarf or veil. There are at least as many Muslim women who wear an ordinary veil alone. Both of these groups are now, with taxpayers’ money, being pressured to cover themselves further.”
Assuming you want to promote tolerance, how do you do it? Europe’s borders are more porous, and contested, than ever, and the look of the Netherlands is changing fast. The number of non-Dutch immigrants has grown to about 19 percent of the population, totaling more than 3 million people, of which approximately 1 million are Muslims. Many emigrate from Morocco, Turkey, Surinam, Aruba, and the Netherlands Antilles; there are asylum seekers from Iran, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, as well as Western arrivals. Especially because of its reputation as a fiercely secular, inclusive culture, the country is fast becoming a testing ground for Europeans—and European designers—around immigration.
“My God Is Better Than Yours: On Believing and Not Believing,” created by DesignArbeid for a forum of the same name on religion and values.
A recent film made by the Dutch government to acclimate newcomers was, to some, a banner example of the country’s dangerous passivity in matters of representation. The film, To the Netherlands, includes scenes of topless women on a beach and a gay couple holding hands. When some Muslims protested the film, the government created a second version with the scenes deleted. Simultaneously, the government has been promoting the “& Campaign,” which uses photos and video of young Dutch people of various backgrounds to encourage further “binding.” Generally, says Kuitenbrouwer, “quite a lot is done, but it’s not really visible. Also, for many young people, soft stuff like pleas for harmony are not considered very cool, are they?”
Of course, all of this has been produced in the wake of events in recent Dutch history that seem constantly present in everyone’s minds. The murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh on November 2, 2004, by a radical Islamist, the 2002 murder of radical politician Pim Fortuyn, and the outrage erupting after both killings revealed serious unease with the Muslim influx. The Netherlands has been putting more explicit caps and caveats in its immigration policy, a burden Middle Eastern migrants have had to bear especially hard. In Kuitenbrouwer’s view, “The message of the Dutch government has been clear. It sounds like: Go away, we don’t like you, we don’t want you, we fear you, we want you to stay away. It has also been: Please come and do our menial work for us.”
Although daily life in the country is mostly calm, the constant veering from panic to panacea has resulted in a chaotic sociopolitical stance for everyone here. Ingrid Robeyns, a Belgian economist and political theorist who lives in Utrecht, observes that in the late ’90s, “there was still a taboo against talking about Muslim immigration; this taboo is now entirely gone.” Indeed, some public language on the issues can be shockingly blunt; she cites right-wing politician Geert Wilders’s use of the phrase “Muslim tsunami” to describe what the country will face if it does nothing about the immigration trend. Still, Kuitenbrouwer says, “while public opinion may be anti-immigrant, discriminatory, or xenophobic, expressing this in posters or graffiti doesn’t happen a lot, and it would be swiftly removed if it did.”
Wibren van der Burg, a legal philosopher and author of a book on multireligious societies, grew up seeing immigrants denied equal rights. “That they were Muslim was then irrelevant, because it was not very visible,” he says. “Now, some people on the right would prefer to see them as members of dangerous, antidemocratic groups.” He means, for one, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the filmmaker, former member of parliament, and tireless critic of Islam, who was once a Muslim and Somalian immigrant herself. (See sidebar.)
“I see little influence of ‘multiculti’ design in Dutch design,” says filmmaker Veysi Yildrim, who is of Kurdish descent. The son of a co-founder of a mosque in Rotterdam, he also no longer considers himself a Muslim. In Yildrim’s view, Dutch people don’t even necessarily share a visual context: “As far as television goes, most Turks and Moroccans watch ‘their own’ channels,” he says. In last November’s Black Magic Woman Festival, the painter Jet Nijkamp showed a series called “It’s All Just Politically Correct Crap,” in which he painted veils onto newspaper photos of various men (for instance soccer star Marco van Basten) to provocative effect.
“Holland Loves You,” a poster by Max Kisman commemorating the 2005 Schiphol Airport fire.
Some designers are addressing these issues with more starkly political images. Kuitenbrouwer observes that the Dutch NGO Vertrokken Gezichten (“Distorted Faces”/“Faces That Left”), which is critical of Dutch immigration policy, would like to see political posters make a comeback. For a recent competition sponsored by the NGO, Amsterdam designer Max Kisman entered a poster whose text, “Holland Loves You,” is somberly undercut by symbolic references to the notorious fire that killed 11 asylum seekers locked in the Schiphol Airport detention center in 2005. That tragedy, which led to a lengthy investigation and a political crisis, symbolized historically shameful oppression.
The Amsterdam firm DesignArbeid created a poster—for “My God Is Better Than Yours: On Believing and Not Believing,” a lively public forum on religious difference held in December 2005—in which every religion is a villain.
On the whole, though, the Dutch design world seems mute on such subjects, joining the larger national retreat from discourse after the wave of outrage over Van Gogh’s murder. Perhaps “most graphic designers are white middle-class and are not particularly political,” as Kuitenbrouwer suggests. Of course, the paradigm itself may be to blame. “The misery of the world has nothing to do with the concept of ‘multicultural,’ and nothing at all to do with graphic design,” contends Max Kisman. “That is a political invention to wash dirty hands clean.” Dutch designers have always had a “pragmatic, positivist, optimistic—and therefore somewhat simplistic—approach to their work and its impact,” says Kuitenbrouwer, and that practicality can ignore the context in which design operates.
Now that Dutch Minister for Immigration and Integration Rita Verdonk has made quota allowances for migrants who are “independent professionals” and artists, the population will begin to include enough emigrant designers that they will no doubt begin to influence the debate. In any case, as van der Burg suggests, “I think the debate is also suffering from a too-positive view of the ‘Dutch identity’ and too grim a view of Muslim groups.” While immigrants are judged for not being modern enough, he says, there are sexist and anti-gay Dutch people, too.
The official symbols created thus far for a “unified” Europe—logos for the World Cup, the E.U.’s 50th anniversary, the euro itself—are dissonant and sterile, designed by committee. Will the ways in which the Dutch represent their changing nation be a model or a cautionary tale? Designers may not feel responsible for advancing that understanding, but whatever their choices of image, word, and deed, their work will bear witness.