Dries Lyna en Kathryn Smith
Dries Lyna en Kathryn Smith

Forensic artist gives face to Nijmegen enslaved boy

Historian Dries Lyna of Radboud University has partnered with South African forensic artist Kathryn Smith. Together they are creating a portrait of an Indonesian 'former serf' who lived in Nijmegen 200 years ago. The portrait will be constructed from portrait photographs of contemporary Nijmegen citizens with Indonesian roots. The portrait will be officially unveiled during the Keti Koti commemoration on 30 June.

In 1814, a nineteen-year-old boy from Indonesia died in Nijmegen. Historian Dries Lyna was intrigued by his death certificate and had question marks around the life story of this boy, whose name in the archives was 'Manille'. "The death certificate states that he was enslaved from Makassar by a Dutch soldier from Amsterdam. When that soldier returned from Indonesia and became captain of a battalion in Nijmegen, Manille ended up in Nijmegen with him. However, we do not know how he came to die here," says Lyna. 

Shadows of history

Lyna points out the sore spot when it comes to archival research: "As always with slavery histories, we know much more about the life of the owner than of the enslaved," Lyna sighs. "We only know the name given to Manille by an owner; we don't even know what name his parents gave him."

It is time for us to give these people like Manille a face and a chance to step out of the shadows, which led Lyna to ask South African Forensic Artist and Professor Kathryn Smith, to create a portrait of Manille. Smith has previously made portraits of enslaved people in the former Cape Colony for the exhibition Fugitive, which is now on display at Radboud University's Erasmus Building.

Kathryn Smith

Underexposed past

By giving Manille a face, Smith and Lyna, in collaboration with the Besiendershuis and Stemmen Uit Nijmegen, also hope to provide an opening to the bigger story of the unexposed slavery past of the Netherlands and Indonesia. Lyna: "There has been increasing attention to the Netherlands' colonial past in recent years, but the focus has been mainly on the Caribbean. There has not been as much attention to the Indonesian diaspora."

Forensic challenge

Human remains, such as a skull, are often the starting point for forensic artists to create facial reconstructions of the unknown deceased or to recreate the appearance of people from the past for historical research or museum display. But Smith sees an art in challenging herself in that area. For the Fugitive project, for instance, she based her portraits purely on textual descriptions taken from notices posted in newspapers by the owners of runaway enslaved people in the early nineteenth century. 

With the Manille project, the artist now raises the bar a little higher, as there is no indication of what he may have looked like in real life. According to Smith, the biggest challenge is to find the right way to depict Manille, taking into account how complicated it is and works with the idea that 'accuracy' will be impossible to achieve. Smith: "Above all, you don't want to fall into the trap of creating a stereotype of someone from Indonesia."

Community involvement

Smith chose not to refer to prints or photographs from the colonial past in order to guess what Manille would have looked like but rather to build the portrait from the faces of people with Indonesian roots who now live in Nijmegen. During her 'artist in residence' week at the Besiendershuis in Nijmegen, she worked with a group of volunteers from the community who posed for a portrait photo so that she could merge elements of their faces into the final portrait. "The end result should really be a co-creation with this community of Nijmegen people with Indonesian roots," Smith explains. 'I am aware that this is not my own history, but I am putting my skills at the service of their story."

Power of a face

Smith believes asking people to donate their faces is quite a favour. "Due to all kinds of technological developments, we are very aware of the power of a face these days. After all, technologies like facial recognition and deepfakes have a big impact on our privacy, politics, and sense of what is true and what is not. You have to be very careful." 

However, as a forensic artist, she also knows precisely the positive impact a constructed face can have. "I get brought in when forensics are at a dead end. Without 'scientific' methods of human identification, such as fingerprints, DNA or dental records, the only option left is to make a facial reconstruction and send it out to the public, hoping the image will look familiar to someone and they will inform the authorities. It feels like a needle in a haystack that might never be found. But it does work: someone recognises something of a loved one in the portrait. It's that human connection of people recognising another."

Human connection is central

Thanks to her experience, Smith knows how to give the past a recognisable and powerful face. Above all, the human connection will be central to Manille's portrait. "The idea is to create a portrait that is not only believable but also evokes that sense of connection and a kind of recognition of personality. I have seen in my previous work that that is incredibly powerful." Lyna also believes that Manille's personal story can speak to a wide audience: "I see a lot of opportunities to engage and commemorate his story." For instance, plans are already underway for an exhibition this autumn at the Besiendershuis.

Manille's portrait will be unveiled at the Keti Koti commemoration ceremony on 30 June 2024 in the council chamber of the Nijmegen city hall. The project around Manille is part of a collaboration between culture maker Besiendershuis and Radboud University's Faculty of Arts, in which pressing social issues are given attention in various art-meets-science projects. The (Nijmegen) history of slavery and its repercussions in the present is the first theme within this collaboration. In 2024, Coen van Galen and Joris van den Tol, both Radboud University, are also conducting research into the extent to which the municipality of Nijmegen was involved in slavery.

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Diversity, History, Art & Culture