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Alaska Quarterly Review

Excerpted from "Liberty and Justice (For All): A Global Photo Mosaic"

Jan Banning

Jan Banning 
Nissrine, an immigrant to the Netherlands from Morocco, reads an application form for a citizenship course in Utrecht in 2007. This portrait is a re-imagining of Dutch painter Jan Vermeer’s “Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window.” ©

Xenophobia, especially Islamophobia, is rising in many European countries. In my native Netherlands, as in Italy, France, Denmark and elsewhere, ultra-nationalist political parties have made anti-immigration policies central to their platform. They have found electoral success in this strategy and are now part of many national governments and parliaments. They tap into underlying economic uncertainties, play on rising domestic inequalities and stoke nativist fears of the “other.”

I feel it is necessary to mobilize against such intolerance. My “National Identities” series gives immigrants the main role, using them as models in my photographic variations on classic paintings. I use national cultural symbols to question European countries’ concept of homogeneous “national identity.”

Here in the Netherlands, the Party for Freedom demands strict measures against immigrants, calling them a safety risk for “ordinary Dutch citizens.” Foreigners, they say, especially “non-white,” should assimilate to Dutch culture at breakneck speed, or else pack up and leave.

But who is Dutch? What is this supposedly monolithic culture, in Holland or elsewhere?

Migration is not new. During Holland’s economic and cultural 17th-century “Golden Age,” the percentage of immigrants was about the same as it is now. Many prominent national figures here would not qualify as “ordinary Dutch” under such a definition, because they had immigrant roots: philosophers Descartes (from France) and Spinoza (Portugal); writer Joost van den Vondel (Germany); painters Frans Hals (Flanders) and Caspar Netscher (Germany).

Many of those most concerned with the cultural assimilation of immigrants are themselves descendants of immigrants. Culture is not static, and we need to take a stand against this narrow-mindedness.

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Page Updated: 3/22/12  By:  Jeffery Oliver