On my recent trip to Curacao, I stayed for a few nights at Kura Hulanda, a historical hotel with an unexpectedly enormous museum curated by owner, entrepreneur and traveler Jacob Gelt Dekker. Inside the labyrinth of exhibits, I came upon a shack filled with unsettling dolls by Dutch artist “Mrs. Zanoni.”
Mrs. Zanoni was born in Curacao and at one point lived on the property which has become Hotel Kura Hulanda. The exhibit’s literature refers to her doll-making as a “pleasant hobby” and “a reflection of the society of Curacao.” One look at these dolls will have you wondering what she really thinks of the place.
The Kura Hulanda Museum hosts a huge collection of artifacts and replicas from Dekker’s travels around the world, including the largest collection of African artifacts and anthropological exhibits in the Caribbean. What becomes clear almost immediately as you explore the galleries is the unspoken central subject: slavery. Curacao was once a major slave trade hub in the Caribbean, and this museum quietly, but prolifically, gives solemn recognition to that inescapable past. Mrs. Zanoni’s dolls are no exception, as illustrated by the spiders.
%Gallery-104440%According to my guide at the museum, slaves on Curacao would speak in code to avoid having their personal business, including plans of escape, overheard by their masters. They would refer to themselves as “spiders,” with the allegory being that they had “many works; many arms.” The master was called “The King,” and with these and a few other substitutions, they were able to carry on private conversations even when their masters were in the room. Mrs. Zanoni made these doll spiders to document that secret code, and to teach future generations.
All the dolls have a stylized, grotesque quality, but the spiders are heartbreakingly significant.
Also from the exhibit, as Mrs. Zanoni could not be reached for comment: “Making character dolls is a good way to explain to people who I am and where I come from.”
The other dolls reflect more run-of-the-mill aspects of life on Curacao — including an American tourist (see gallery above) — and have been used in The Netherlands to educate the Dutch about life in the Antilles. “I tried, with the help of the dolls, to put the Antilles with all her positive aspects in the center of attention,” Mrs. Zanoni has said.
[Photos by Annie Scott.]
My visit to the Kura Hulanda Museum was sponsored by Kura Hulanda, but the ideas and opinions expressed in this article are 100 percent my own.