The Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art in Rotterdam, Netherlands, will be renamed the Kunstinstituut Melly on January 27, 2021, as part of a larger effort to create a “decolonial” institution. The new name refers to Ken Lum’s artwork Melly Shum Hates Her Job (1990), which since its exhibition and subsequent permanent installation in 1990 has become a celebrated fixture on the institution’s facade.
According to a release, the institution has chosen the new name “based upon its capacity to maintain accountability, vulnerability, responsiveness, and to ensure that we continue to become a more welcoming and daring cultural institution into the future.” The work that the gallery will be named for features an image of a woman smiling from her office desk accompanied by its titular message in bold lettering, with the word “hates” displayed in bright red.
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The Witte de With’s renaming process began in 2018 and involved over 280 participants, and its announcement of the news states that the official change in January “will be the occasion of the launch of a new program and policy vision dedicated to keeping our institution’s risk-taking and experimental nature at the forefront.”
The name change had been spurred on by Wendelien von Oldenborgh, whose Dutch Pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale focused on how the Netherlands could take accountability for its role in histories of colonialism abroad. One figure in the work shown there was the Dutch naval officer Witte Corneliszoon de With, the Rotterdam art center’s namesake. De With’s activities included the burning of thousands of clove trees in Indonesia belonging to the people who lived there, the establishment of Jakarta as a trade city, and a failed expedition in Brazil that ultimately led to the Dutch giving control of the country to Portugal.
The art center’s new namesake is not a real person but a character in Lum’s artwork. Shown at the space when it opened in 1990, the work resembles a poster, and features a woman at her desk, along with the titular phrase.
Sofía Hernández Chong Cuy, director of the institution, said in a statement that the renaming “responds to the claims raised by the larger decolonial movement in such a way that the new name, even by evocation, cannot disregard this moment. In this sense, our ongoing project Melly has come to stand for a work culture that fosters public engagement, deep listening, and collective learning.”
Lum added in a release, “Melly came to Rotterdam as a visitor. Instead, the people of Rotterdam asked her to stay as a symbol for all those who have no choice but to work.”