Play on art, insects, and slavery in Suriname

This music and art video says about itself:

Georg Friedrich Händel or George Frideric Handel (1685-1759), Concerto Grosso in B-flat Major, Op. 3, no. 2, New Leipzig Bach Collegium Musicum, Max Pommer, conductor.

Works by Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717).

On Saturday 25 September, there was a theatre play in the orangery of the botanical garden in Leiden, the Netherlands. This building, being from the eighteenth century, was a fitting place, as the play is set in the beginning of that century. Many people had come to see it.

The play, Wilde Wespen en Verboden Vruchten (literally: Wild wasps and forbidden fruit) is by Karen Eve Johnson. The Dutch translation is by Matin van Veldhuizen.

This video says about itself:

Wild Wasps & Nipple Fruit (Trailer); Maria Sybilla Merian in Suriname

12 Sep 2011

CLICK ON THE CAPTIONS BUTTON IN THE BOTTOM ROW FOR ENGLISH SUBTITLES (the 6th button from the left of the ‘full screen’ button)


‘Wilde Wespen & Verboden Vruchten’ / ‘Wild Wasps & Nipple Fruit’

Two women, two lives, two worlds

A play about Maria Sibylla Merian in Suriname

Trailer for the Netherlands theatre production of ‘Wilde Wespen & Verboden Vruchten’ (English title: ‘Wild Wasps & Nipple Fruit’), a play inspired by the life of Maria Sibylla Merian, the 17th century artist and naturalist, and her book ‘The Metamorphosis of the Suriname Insects’. The play was performed in Suriname in 2008 and in the Netherlands in 2010.

For more information see:

Concept, text and direction: Karen Eve Johnson

Actors: Netherlands: Katrien van Beurden & Esther Drenthe. Suriname: Nettie Blanken & Helen Kamperveen

Dutch translation: Matin van Veldhuizen

Animations by Mayura Subhedar with additional material by Germaine Colajanni

Sound: Thomas Myrmel

Costumes: Margot Koudstaal

Trailer: Hans Hijmerling

The play is based on the life and works of German artist Maria Sibylla Merian, who went first to the Netherlands, then, in 1699, to Suriname to study and depict local plants and insects.

In 1701, she became ill and had to go back to the Netherlands. According to the passenger list of the ship which took her back from Suriname, “an American Indian woman” accompanied the artist and entomologist. Probably, this unnamed woman had been Ms Merian’s guide to the nature of Suriname, and went with her to the Netherlands to help her write her book, Metamorphosis of the Insects of Surinam; published in 1705. That Merian used Native American names for the plants in her book points in this direction as well.

In the play by Karen Eve Johnson, Maria Sybilla Merian’s assistant does have a name: Jacoba. She is depicted, not as a Native American, but as a slave, born in Africa, and brought to Suriname by a slave ship. The play does mention that an American Indian woman (unnamed, not a role in the play) helps Maria Sybilla. The artist and Jacoba are the only two roles in the play. Katrien van Beurden plays Merian, Esther van Drenthe plays Jacoba.

The announcement of Johnson’s play on the botanical garden site says (translated):

Jacoba, a slave, taken away from Africa and knowledgeable about the secrets of the jungle.

I have some problems with this sentence as a stand alone sentence. Many African slaves were originally from cities. The seventeenth century Dutch author about Africa, Olfert Dapper, writes that there were then cities in Africa as big as Haarlem in the Netherlands. Even if Jacoba would not have been taken to become a slave from a city, but from a village: not all African villages then were close to jungle. And even if Jacoba would have been knowledgeable about an African jungle, then that would not have made her automatically knowledgeable about the different animals and plants of Surinamese jungles. The Maroons who ran away from the plantations did learn much about the nature of Suriname; because they had opportunities for it which plantation slaves and house slaves with their long working hours under bad conditions mostly did not have. However, even for Maroons it was initially difficult to really know the plants of Suriname. And the Jacoba in the play is not a Maroon.

Any way, it would have been not so easy for the literary character Jacoba to learn as much about flora and fauna of Suriname as Ms Merian’s real American Indian helper.

As the sentence stands in the play summary, it might confirm stereotypes automatically linking African people to jungles.

However, if one sees Johnson’s play, the objection is valid just for the play summary, not for the play itself. Authors have the right to change historical reality for literary reasons.

As the play begins, in the background there are pictures by Ms Merian of Surinamese nature. Animations sometimes makes the butterflies or other insects or other animals move. Leaves of botanical garden plants lie under the projection screen.

Jacoba’s first sentence in the play is “This was not my country. However, by now it is”; as she has learnt much about local plants and animals. Her master loans her to the newly arrived Maria Sibylla. Ms Merian is a kind-hearted person, but certainly in the beginning she does not understand how cruelly the slave system works. She tells Jacoba that she will go back later to the Netherlands “to write a book about your country”. Then, Jacoba reacts sharply: “This is not my country”. Still, she helps Ms Merian by showing her guava and other fruit in Suriname.

Later, a Dutch soldier rapes Jacoba. It is not the first time that happened to her. When Maria Sybilla realizes this, she proposes to complain to the governor. Jacoba, who knows better how unjust a slavery society is, tells her that would only make things worse. This reminded me about Surinamese history a few decades after Ms Merian, in the times of Elisabeth Samson.

A major theme in the play is women’s experiences of oppression. Maria Sibylla and Jacoba have both experienced this: Ms Merian from her husband, Jacoba from slavery. They discuss what they have in common and what is different between them.

Still later, Ms Merian gets an invitation to go to a plantation in the interior. Jacoba urgently asks her to join the journey, as her daughter has been sold to that plantation. Reluctantly, Maria Sybilla takes Jacoba along. There, the artist sees how horribly slave owners treat plantation slaves. Meanwhile, Jacoba finds out that her daughter has ran away to join the maroons. A hard life, but a free life. Maria Sybilla embraces Jacoba when she hears this news.

Ms Merian finds out about many Surinamese animals, including snakes, the Suriname toad, and the electric eel.

In the last part of the play. Maria Sibylla, being ill, will go back to Amsterdam. Her last sentence, and the final sentence of the play, is: “And how about you, Jacoba?”

Ms Merian played an important, though often underestimated, role in establishing entomology as a science. She played a role as well in starting a controversy about big Surinamese spiders.

Wikipedia writes about spiders in Merian’s work:

The German word Vogelspinne—a spider of the infraorder Mygalomorphae, translated literally as bird spider—probably has its origins in an engraving by Maria Sibylla Merian. The engraving, created from sketches drawn in Surinam, shows a large spider who had just captured a bird.

Maria Sibylla Merian, Spider eating bird

This engraving by Merian of a spider eating a bird also figures in the visual background of Johnson’s play. The Dutch web site Museumkennis says that Merian’s engraving was probably correct, but that mygalomorphae only rarely eat birds.

Digital Journal says about those big spiders:

As their name suggests, Goliath bird-eaters are certainly big enough to eat a bird, although they rarely do, preferring smaller insects and invertebrates.

The article, scheduled for online publication Feb. 28 [2019] in Amphibian & Reptile Conservation, details instances of arthropod predators — mostly large spiders along with a few centipedes and a giant water bug — preying on vertebrates such as frogs and tadpoles, lizards, snakes, and even a small opossum: here.

Surinamese film Wan pipel: here.


17 thoughts on “Play on art, insects, and slavery in Suriname

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  4. 200 vogelspinnen in koffer Schiphol

    Toegevoegd: woensdag 3 okt 2012, 15:11

    De douane heeft op Schiphol een koffer onderschept met daarin ruim 200 levende vogelspinnen. Een Duits stel had de giftige spinnen zelf gevangen in Peru. Ook hadden ze tientallen duizendpoten, krekels, kevers en sprinkhanen bij zich.

    De Duitsers hadden de beesten in plastic bakjes gedaan en die verstopt tussen hun kleding. Volgens de douane is een groot deel van de vogelspinnen van een zeldzame soort, die nog relatief onbekend is in de wetenschap.

    De dieren zijn in beslag genomen.


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