Challenging the Forces of Xenophobia with Art, one picture at a time


Jan Banning's 'National Identities' project includes his version of Manet's 'Olympia' Painting

With a new series of images called “National Identities,” Dutch photographer Jan Banning re-creates works by Old Masters with a multicultural twist as a means of challenging the rising forces of xenophobia in Europe. His version of Vermeer’s “Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window” (c. 1657) for instance, features a young Muslim woman wearing a headscarf, reading by a closed window. A proud Turkish laborer posed for his recreation of Rembrandt’s 1654 portrait of the artist’s friend and patron, Jan Six. And his homage to Manet’s “Olympia” (c. 1863) switches the black and white subjects of the original, so the nude woman is black and the lady-in-waiting is white.

“By doing this, I question the concept of homogeneous ‘national identities’ of European countries,” Banning writes in Newsweek International, which recently published the images. Banning, who is himself the son of immigrants to the Netherlands, explains to PDN that “[Anti-immigration parties] are stressing the importance of national culture all over Europe. The idea is that immigrants should adapt to [European] cultures, or they should get out.


On his Web site, Banning reminds readers that during the Dutch golden age of the 17th century, “the percentage of immigrants was about the same as it is now.” Not only were many proletarians from foreign countries, but so were various men of arts and letters, including Descartes and Spinoza.

Banning says he got the idea for his project five or six years ago when he was studying the work of various Enlightenment painters. Looking at the work of Vermeer in particular, he says, “It struck me that so many of the women in his paintings are wearing scarves.” He recalled how his mother, a Christian, wore a headscarf to church services when Banning was a boy. But now, he says, scarves are the lightning rod of debate and a symbol of “other” because Muslim women wear them. “People are making such a fuss,” he says.

Jan Banning's version of Vermeer’s “Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window” (c. 1657)

That led to his first piece in the series, showing a Muslim girl reading an application for a citizenship course by a window. The challenge was finding a location that matched the scene of the original Vermeer. After looking at 25 possibilities, Banning came upon a suitable room inside a museum for religious art near his home in Utrecht. The subject of the photograph is the daughter of his long-time housekeeper, who is Moroccan. “She is very modern, and a practicing Muslim,” Banning says. The image seems to dare Western viewers to deny her culture—and humanity—without casting a shadow over their own.

“His creative solution to addressing the hypocrisy in the right wing’s position on immigration in Europe is brilliant,” says Newsweek senior photo editor Jamie Wellford.

Jan Banning's Turkish Turkish laborer posed for his recreation of Rembrandt’s (c 1654)

Banning says he struggled for months over the symbols and meanings of the original paintings before recreating them. “I didn’t want to do this in a superficial way,” he says. “I really wanted to grasp the ideas of the original paintings.


The “Olympia” work presented several challenges, both technical and symbolic. Switching the black and white subjects was the easy part. But what, he wondered, was the importance of the expression of the original “Olympia”? What was the significance of the cat? And of the dog, in an earlier Titian painting that Manet’s painting referenced? Banning eventually figured out that the dog signified the naked subject’s loyalty, while the cat signified just the opposite. But, what animal to put in his own image as an international symbol? A hawk, he thought, “could be kind of absurd.” So he ended up choosing a mouse (look closely) to symbolize his subject’s vulnerability, in a political sense.

At first, he tried to imitate the lighting of the Manet painting. “I got pretty close, but once you transpose that [painting] to photography, it becomes very boring,” he says. (He ended up using lighting that was far less flat.) Banning also discovered that a barely noticeable opening in the curtain behind the servant in the Manet painting was not trivial. “I thought, let’s leave it out. But then I found it was hard to balance the composition without it.” (He included the opening, adding a reproduction of a small Rembrandt painting in the gap.)

Banning says the image still needs work. “I’m not happy with the mouse. I’m OK with the idea of the mouse, but I didn’t get the particular mouse that I wanted. I also have my doubts about the clothing of the white woman in the background, and maybe the expression could be better,” he says.

It’s a painstaking project, and because of the effort he has to put into each image, he expects to create only two or three more. Currently he’s planning an image of the Annunciation, for which he is now studying many different renditions. He also decided to release the first images before the series is complete, because xenophobia is a pressing issue right now. “My idea is to use it in a political context. I didn’t want to wait,” he says.

Asked about the danger that political messages pose to the integrity of artistic works, Banning says, “Of course I’ve been wondering: Is this simply propaganda? I don’t think it is. At least that is my hope. I have no problem putting messages in my work that are commenting about society, and raising questions. What I try to stay away from is suggesting a one-dimensional solution to things.”

By David Walker for Photo District News


Tags: , , , , , , ,

2 Responses to “Challenging the Forces of Xenophobia with Art, one picture at a time”

  1. maryduranteyoutt Says:

    Pushing the envelope, I wonder how his works will be received. Something to keep in the back of your mind and look for in the future.

  2. sophie Says:

    that’s really cool!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s