“Do you think I can wash this in the washing machine?” These were the first words that Dutch artist and social scientist Jan van Esch spoke to me as I first met him in January 2017. He was standing in the middle of his studio, which smelled of freshly laundered clothes, at ZK/U Center for Art and Urbanistics, a cultural institution and artist residency in Berlin. In his hand something that looked like a fluffy white yeti suit…
He acquired this thrift shop treasure from the Kleiderkammer, the Red Cross department that collects, selects and distributes secondhand clothing. Jan was working here as part of his ‘Artist Dis-Placement’ at ZK/U, a residency programme that connects artists with various organizations in the public sector.
From the heaps of ‘unsellable’ garments at the Red Cross he collected the most interesting and eccentric items. In the frame of his project ‘Drawn.Clothes’, he started sketching and later drawing these pieces of clothing. This is where his fascination for secondhand clothing sprouted.
NipeNikupe: between Europe and Tanzania
In his artistic practice, Jan examines how the western world deals with used clothes. His focus mainly lies on the interplay between Europe and Tanzania, an important destination for European secondhand clothing.
Jan used to live in Tanzania’s capital city Dar es Salaam, where he ran Nafasi Art Space for six years. He still returns regularly for residencies and research.
With his continuing project ‘NipeNikupe’- which is a saying in Kiswahili that means ‘give and take’ – Jan investigates the principle of reciprocity in the gift. He does not believe in a singular action of giving. In line with Bourdieu, he approaches the gift as a form of communication that is defined by the countergift.
In Dar es Salaam, Jan bought an enormous amount of garments, mostly men’s dress shirts, often from well-known, expensive brands. These originally come from Europe, where they are discarded and sent to Africa as a form of generosity, only to end up on the market there. He brought them back to Europe, and explores what happens between giving and taking in various performances and installations.
Last year, I invited Jan to take part in an event that I was organizing on the 11th of July 2020 together with my collaborators from the Curatorial Collective for Public Art. ‘This is an Intervention!’ was a one-day decentralized festival with almost 30 art interventions in the public space of Kreuzberg, Berlin. Here, artists shared their imaginaries of a new ‘normality’ after the pandemic.
Together with Elsa Mulder, Jan showed a new performance entitled ‘If the solution to a complex problem is easy and simple then it is also wrong’. During the 10 hours of the event, they moved through the city dressed as ‘mitumba monsters’. Covered in many layers of clothes that Jan brought from Tanzania, they handed out secondhand garments to the audience and unsuspecting passersby.
Dead white men’s clothes
‘Mitumba’ is Kiswahili for secondhand clothing. “In the past, instead of mitumba people used to say ‘Nguo za wazungu waliokufa’, ‘dead white men’s clothes’,” Jan explains. “One assumed that the original owner must have died, otherwise why would they give away good clothes?”
Used garments are shipped from Europe to Africa in huge bundles. “When I asked a group of dancers that I was working with in Tanzania where these clothes come from, all they knew was that they come from the sea and from white people.”
The poison in the gift
The charity of donating secondhand clothing to African countries is fraught with many dilemmas. The market for used garments from Europe overshadows the local production and economy. “Secondhand clothes are donated by the West as a gift but as soon as they arrive in Tanzania, that is no longer what they are,” Jan puts it aptly. The gift turns into a poison.
“During the lockdown, many people were cleaning out their wardrobes,” Jan explains. “What they no longer wanted, they donated to charity organizations. These, however, could not handle the vast amount of donations. Our intervention asked people in Berlin if they understand what it means to donate clothes. We turned the principle around and started giving.” Elsa adds: “We wanted to see how people would respond when they are given a gift that they did not ask for. This is exactly what happens in Africa.”
One way traffic
The reactions were largely the same: most people did not accept the gift. “People were surprised or even suspicious. They seemed to understand that when they accept something they did not ask for, something is expected of them in return.”
Only a few passersby were not scared off by the remarkable appearance of the performers and took a garment. “They were mostly people who did not have extensive financial means or were even homeless,” Jan mentions. “They understood the principle of giving and taking. One woman then went and bought us a bottle of water.”
Jan’s performance reveals that charity organizations are based on a principle of one way traffic that is not directly related to the needs of the receiver. And the offer keeps growing. “People in Europe seem to think that if they are doing a good deed by donating their clothes, they are given a free pass to buy new garments. During the lockdown we were able to discover what we do and do not want to wear. What will we do with our empty wardrobes after the corona crisis? Will we start shopping and fill them up again? Or is there another way of dealing with this?”
Visit www.janvanesch.com to learn more about Jan’s work, or follow him on Instagram under @jplvanesch.
For more information about the festival ‘This is een Intervention!’, visit: www.thisisanintervention.info.
This blog was originally posted in Dutch on Modemuze.
Parts of this blog text are based on an interview with Jan van Esch and Elsa Mulder that was conducted by Judith Wajsgrus from Cashmere Radio during ‘This is an Intervention!’. Listen to the entire radio programme on Cashmere Radio’s website.