Black School 2014

168 C-prints, washi tape, wood, 500cm x 500cm

Black School is a photo installation that shows 84 child portraits in a circle, seen at eye level. On the outside you can see the back of the 84 children’s heads and on the inside their faces. The photos are arranged based on hair and skin color. The spectator can move all the way around the circle and stand in the middle of the circle, then all children look directly at the spectator. Roos van Geffen photographed the students of a primary school in Lelystad. With Black School, Van Geffen provocatively questions the very problematic term ‘black school’ * and racism in the Netherlands.

* Wikipedia: A black school in the Netherlands refers to a primary or secondary school, of which a large proportion of students (more than 60%) have a migration background.(…) In the Netherlands, the concepts of ethnic minority and black school are becoming swear words. This is often linked to language deficiencies, behavioral problems and crime.

Roos van Geffen: “Black School  will not be shown again in the way it was displayed at Fotodok, because I want to acknowledge the pain of the people who felt hurt by the work;  During the exhibition at Fotodok (outside the description of the work) Black School  had no context, the very problematic term black school was not rejected, nor was the action of sorting children by color questioned, nor were the references and associations with eugenic photography and racial profiling not explained. In retrospect, that was a bad choice, and I (nor curator Lisanne van Happen, nor Fotodok) would never exhibit it that way again.

In the search for a school for my daughter, (in 2011-2012 ) it struck me how naturally the term black school was used, by school principals, parents and in the media alike, with the direct meaning; school with many children of color and school with poor results. Contrasted with the white school as the “superior” school.

With this photo installation I wanted to question the term black school in a provocative way and thereby raise the issue of how racism is deeply rooted in the Dutch language and contributes to institutional racism. In addition, I deliberately performed an operation that is bad; sorting people by skin color. As with the use of the term white school and the term black school, children are sorted by color. Implicitly a lot of  people do that in their head and I make that explicit. I make that unconscious process visible. I am (and was at the time of the proces of making the work) aware of my own uncomfortable role and position.

This provocative work was an invitation to the viewer to examine their own way of looking and acting and to provoke discussion.

At the exhibition in Fotodok, the work provoked much discussion. People were touched, sometimes moved and there were people who felt hurt or even furious. The work raised questions such as: are you allowed to use children, who do not (yet) fully understand the term black school and the mechanism of this artwork as a means to tell this story?

The critics wondered if I am aware of the (according to them) racist nature of the work and if I am aware of all the debatable references it contains. And can I (Roos)  raise a problem of which I am not a victim?

All the portrayed children, their parents and the school have explicitly given permission to create and participate in the artwork, whereby they were aware of my intention and intention of the work from the start of the creation process. Parallel to the creation process and photography, I had conversations with the (older) children about the term black school, racism and how they experienced being sorted by color, both for the artwork and in real life.

Free assignment of Corrosia theater expo and film, Almere. Thanks to Marga Rotteveel. On display in Lelystad City Hall from May 23 to August 31, 2014. New version of Black School on display at Fotodok, Utrecht at the exhibition ‘Beyond Us and Them’ 1 September -20 October 2017


Recensie De Volkskrant: Roos van Geffen’s work also touches such a sensitive chord. She contributes two installations to Beyond Us and Them . One is Black School, in which Van Geffen sorted 84 portraits of children from a “black school” in Lelystad by hair and skin color, from light to dark and vice versa. Reality check: children with raven black hair sometimes appear to have surprisingly light faces. (…) Fotodok, invite the entire House of Representatives, or better: rebuild the exhibition there.

Recensie CJP: … ‘For example, it is quite uncomfortable that Roos van Geffen portrayed children in’ black ‘and’ white ‘schools and then sorted them by color. On the other hand, she does question the definition of “a black school” and the cogs in our head go a little further than usual. ”

De Volkskrant V-Vlog 28 september 2017, Lisa Koetsenruijter: (…) “Black School by Roos van Geffen, who photographed all the children from the front and the back and then first arranged for hair color on one side and skin color on the other side. You can see here that art can also be a trigger for reflection. Or at least to dwell on “where do I belong?, How do I see other people? And how can I change that?” Watch the whole vlog here:

Exhibition photography: Sanne van den Elzen