Dutch windmill facing the flood of 1926

Outsiders Looking In

Since my move to Amsterdam, I have been calling my father nearly every other day, giving him updates about all my endeavours, in particular my ideas and trajectories in art. Ever since we collaborated on Birds, he seems to have become hooked onto the idea of art-making – a radical shift from my younger days, when he resented me for wasting my time and life for it (art). 

I recently turned to the topic of Water-Workers around Amsterdam and in one of our recent conversations my father told me that at school, sometime in the 70s, he remembers reading a passage in a textbook called The Little Dutch Boy. The young boy turns out to be a national hero after saving the country from flooding by blocking a leak in the dam with his finger, staying there for days and nights before he was found and the dam was fixed. My father says this story is imprinted in his mind and this is how he sees Holland. I said that it’s known as the Netherlands now, and that the boy is a character by the American author Mary Mapes Dodge, who never visited the Netherlands until after the novel was published. So the boy is not really Dutch (more of an American) and the story is not based on any actual Dutch folk heroes. He was puzzled about this information. He replied, “Are you sure?”

It is only recently that I’ve started to realise that there is actually a connection between these two locations I find myself in. One lies on the periphery of Europe in the south, bordering Africa and surrounded by the Mediterranean Sea- Malta, and the other sits in the North facing the North Sea,- the Netherlands. It’s also interesting to note how ignorant they (the people) are of each other. Whenever I say I am in Amsterdam, the immediate response does not mention the strong cultural scene (the reason I moved here) but refers to the red light district and weed, and how the Netherlands is all about tulips and windmills. On the other hand, the Dutch think that Malta is a Greek, Spanish, or Italian island, unless they think hard enough: “Ah sure, the Knights of Malta”. 

This year, I am working on the topic of explosions in Malta, and Prof Mark Anthony Falzon (a sparring conversation partner in my endeavours)  assumed that I have read Saints and Fireworks. I had not, so I got the book and looked up the author, Jeremy Boissevain only to realise he was Dutch and had been looking inside Malta along his whole career. Why? I couldn’t understand. Perhaps there was something about the sun or the climate. Or could it be that the Island is a great case study of how religion and power interplay? Maybe a combination of these two reasons. It was extremely intriguing to see how a foreigner came up with some of the greatest insights into such an insular and closely-knit community mentality. 

Last year I researched and attempted to create work about man-made earthquakes. My starting point was the liquefied gas tanker that sits in the south harbour of Malta. Malta has no domestic production of oil or gas and no gas distribution network. In 2017, Malta became Europe’s latest importer of LNG. I was impressed by this phenomenon (that humans produce earthquakes in the process of extracting natural resources from the inside of the earth) and what has been happening to the people of Groningen (the largest natural gas field in Europe) during this past century. When I presented my work in progress, I was criticised by some local programmers for not being sensitive enough, ignoring (or being ignorant) and avoiding the form of documentary, and not involving the people of Groningen in my research. In fact, I went for a poetic take on the topic and created a new myth on Capitalism and the history of extractivism and fossil fuels. Locals tend to dictate to foreigners what they  should and not should do with their local stories.  

So here I am, an outsider looking inside. In no way am I comparing myself to this skillful master of the science of anthropology. I just became very inspired and intrigued by how a foreign gaze and its perspective can shed light on local blind spots or aspects which are taken for granted by locals. I am very wary about the ignorance of the foreigner and how locals, especially in peripheries and remote communities, can view outsiders with hostility, since I come from such a context and can relate to it. Islanders are notorious for this behaviour. Hostility comes from fear. I grew up with the notion that whenever a foreigner complained about something, one would simply reply to them “If you don’t like it, go back to your country!”. In fact, in Malta, we use the term ‘barrani’ meaning outsider; in the past, even if you were Maltese but born outside of the village, you would be an outsider.  

However, the human-made dimensions and the strive of economic growth, and how both themes are intertwined with Nature in the Netherlands, keep fascinating me in an exquisite way and I intend to indulge further and deeper. 

This year, I started researching the idea of Water Workers and how Amsterdammers have taken over water (the IJ) over the years to make sure it commodifies and enriches the economy rather than hinders it. How this happened in the past, is happening at present and might continue in the future. In my preliminary research, I encountered a rich history of workers that throughout the centuries have laboured in this matter yet were not always the ones who finally gained the most out of their hard work. I think that this warrants further reflection. 

I still worry about stepping on the toes of locals or offending them with my ignorance (unknowingly), so I am now searching for locals to join in my research to alleviate this worry. I learnt a lot over the recent years in collaborating and actively involving foreigners (outsiders) in my Maltese-specific works, I feel I have benefited immensely from their perspective. So I hope that my outsider view on such themes and topics, which are so intertwined and have become normalised in the context I now inhabit (the Netherlands), will bring forth interesting reflections to the local population. 

Language is key to delving beneath the surface. Boissevain learned Maltese and I am trying to learn Dutch. I want to conduct the fieldwork in the local language.  This will allow me to dig deeper and provide an opportunity for me to give something back to the people I interview and harvest knowledge from.

I would have never expected that such an important anthropologist (Boissevain) in the European field would dedicate most of his career to studying the Island. Also, the Island is now almost totally dependent on the liquified gas that is produced in Groningen, and Maltese potatoes have been and still are a novelty (since they are the first of the season) to the second most important agricultural producer of the world. These connections, which keep popping up as I continue to live in these two places, make me want to invest more time looking for connections between the two, and to find or establish stronger interactions. 

I believe that it could be of great benefit for both cultures to intertwine and intermingle, and to allow outsiders to have a look inside without shying away or becoming overprotective. When these windows are opened, the wind that manages to seep through is often a refreshing one which locals often end up benefiting from.