Tucson Museum of Contemporary Art : Folkert de Jong

Tucson Museum of Contemporary Art : Folkert de Jong

Selfportrait by Folkert de Jong
Selfportrait by Folkert de Jong, 2016 @ Tucson Museum of Contemporary Art exhibition. polyurethane, spray paint, wig, concrete.

The Museum of Contemporary Art recently hosted  a midlife retrospective of Folkert de Jong.  Like most modern art, the art is not about the aesthetics, it’s about the narrative.  Simply looking is not enough to understand it.  Luckily, the exhibit also showed a documentary about de Jong which I found very interesting as it delves into the thought process and how he creates his lifesize figures.

He starts off, whispering, while he is being lathered with latex, the beginning of making a full body mold:

We humans are vulnerable and mortal.
This also makes us feel lonely sometimes.
We surround ourselves with people, family.
But in the end we all die alone.
That’s a scary thought.
By researching and acknowledging it, you take the edge off it.
Perhaps we can draw hope from that.
By surrendering to decay.


The Trader’s Deal, by Folkert de Jong, 2010 @ Tucson Museum of Contemporary Art, styroform, pigmented polyurethane

His work didn’t just deal with personal mortality, but also with the effects of colonization, war, greed and power. Margaret Regan wrote in “Saints and Sinners”, an article for the Tucson Weekly, linking his dancing statues to the joyous celebration of Dutch traders as they traded beads for Manhattan in 1624. de Jong used Rembrandt’s painting “Night Watch” as the model for his figurine, paying homage to the great artist but also acknowledging that the new Dutch wealth fueled by colonization in turn spurred the art renaissance back home as people commissioned works by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Judith Leyster and Franz Hals.

A quick aside on the bead sale: most people have heard the Native Americans sold Manhattan for glass beads worth $24. That $24 valuation was computed by a historian in 1846. With inflation, that $24 in 1846 is considerably more now. Plus Manhattan was a granite-ridden rock that the Native Americans didn’t even want to live on. The Lenape called it Manahachta­nienk, roughly translating to “place where we all got drunk.” They went there to fish and gather oysters. They had no problem with someone setting up a fur trading post.  The Lenapes lived by bartering so a new bartering partner, especially one who traded rare goods like glass beads was a good thing.

At the time, only a few European countries had the technology to create glass beads. Most other places worldwide did not have glass beads and didn’t know how to make them. Back then, glass beads were extremely rare in the Americas and coveted among the Native Americans just like Chinese coins were. (Chinese coins with their centered holes could be sewn onto vests along with the usual wooden beads-making a kind of armored vest) There were not many colonists yet to import glass beads. Tribes people could only get them by trading with Europeans and as a highly prized but lightweight commodity, the beads were ideal for bartering to people who would walk days to trade with other tribes.

Imagine aliens landing in your backyard and trading a necklace made of an unknown otherworldly substance for the use of your backyard as a landing pad. What do you think that necklace would fetch at auction? What if it turns out it’s iron made into glass — we just don’t have that technology. And if it turns out a hundred years later, we finally get the technology to turn iron into glass and start pumping it out in huge quantities so it’s cheap, the person who traded their backyard as a landing pad still would have become rich because in that person’s time no one else had it. Ok, ok, you and I have both watched some science-fiction movies where none of this ends well so maybe we wouldn’t sell the backyard. We both know the aliens would take over the world with time.

de Jong doesn’t just finger Dutch colonialism.  Upon entering the exhibit, ten huge figures tower over you in Totemism.  I had this feeling that I had shrunk to Alice in Wonderland proportions. Looking up, I recognized George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Fidel Castro. Some I did not know like Bernie Madoff indicted for investment fraud and once chairman of NASDAQ. While Madoff is easily a testament to greed, I was puzzled by Lincoln in this company until I read de Jong had been inspired by a real Lincoln totem by the Tlingit in 1867. Being slavetraders too, Tlingit’s lost an important source of income when slavery was abolished.  They erected the totem originally to shame Lincoln, not celebrate him.  Over time, the meaning of the totem shifted.

Similar ambiguity color the other totems.  George Washington fought for the colonies freedom from Britain and yet owned slaves.  Snoop Dog and Andy Warhol stand there but who is that guy with the cross?  And is that Napoleon?  Darn, I forgot to take a picture of the plaque and don’t remember who everyone is any more.

Queen Mary, by Folkert de Jong, 2013 @ Tucson Museum of Contemporary Art, bronze

Outdoors, a bronze Queen Mary, wife of King George V and Empress of India, holds aloft the RMS Queen Mary, named in her honor.  Ships allowed Europe to discover and colonize other continents but were also vehicles for pleasure trips.

The Spanish Gate, by Folkert de Jong, 2015 @ Tucson Museum of Contemporary Art, styroform, pigmented polyurethane
Weird Science-BMW by Folkert de Jong
Widowmakers, by Folkert de Jong, 2017 @ Tucson Museum of Contemporary Art, patinated bronze Territory Revolt (Fox), by Folkert de Jong, 2017 @ Tucson Museum of Contemporary Art, gilded bronze


From Amazon:

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De Stijl art movement protagonists (Theo von Doesburg, Nelly von Doesburg,Piet Mondrian) by Folkert de Jong, 2017 @ Tucson Museum of Contemporary Art, mixed media


Folkert de Jong | Last Nation

Studio Folkert de Jong, official website

Folkert de Jong
Featured works, biography and exhibitions

James Cohen

Folkert de Jong | Last Nation
Museum of Contemporary Art, Tucson

Studio Folkert de Jong, official website

Folkert de Jong
Featured works, biography and exhibitions
James Cohen

Folkert de Jong: the Power of Excess (pdf)
by Tanguy Eeckhout
Luis Adelantado

Saints and Sinners : Art history informs de Jong’s scathing works at MOCA about colonialism and capitalism
By Margaret Regan, Tucson Weekly, June 21, 2018

Keep the Change: The Beads that Bought Manhattan
By Aja Raden, The Huffington Post, November 22, 2015

Was Manhattan Really Bought for $24?
BY Matt Soniak, Mental Floss, October 2, 2012

Brief History of Social Problems: A Critical Thinking Approach
By Frank J. McVeigh, Loreen Therese Wolfer, 2004

by Folkert de Jong


18 Replies to “Tucson Museum of Contemporary Art : Folkert de Jong”

  1. So much to absorb, thank you especially for the revision of American History. There is not much on American History in school in Mexico (we only got cartoons, and Bugs Bunny was a very cynical teacher to his nephew, LOL)

      1. I just read your “China Poblana” story. Her outfit is my mom’s favourite of all of Mexico’s traditional clothing, and she had told me the story; I had been wanting to find out more, so thank you for doing all that research!

        1. I’m glad you enjoyed it and thank you for taking the time to read it. I think she’s a pretty amazing person.

            1. I didn’t use quotation marks because I didn’t quote you directly in my post. You should have read my article before making that comment and you would have seen that. I read several articles and paraphrased from different articles. I actually read more than the two articles I referenced at the bottom but those two articles covered or touched on information in the others so I felt listing all of them would be redundant. A lot of facts were repetitive. The only thing from your article that I did copy but also put quote marks on was “place where we all got drunk” which also appeared in a book Brief History of Social Problems: A Critical Thinking Approach By Frank J. McVeigh, Loreen Therese Wolfer published in 2004 so predated your article by 13 years. It probably appeared even earlier than that but I don’t have a source for that. I think “got drunk” though is fairly modern slang so I doubt that phrase appeared as is before 1960. In the future, you should read the posts referencing your article before commenting to see if quotation marks are warranted.

    1. lol, me either. I like the narratives behind the artwork more than a lot of the artwork themselves. Although I do like the ones I showed, most of it is harder to “like”.

        1. It took me a long time to get over the idea that art should primarily about aesthetics and that it could be about using visuals to create a strong emotional or intellectual response. But if it’s about an intellectual response, often you need more background information to “get it”. I found that with his work once I did research on the topics that his pieces were references especially the historical events, I liked it much better.

          1. aah that makes sense. I guess researching it ultimately helps you to appreciate it more and the more you learn the more you enjoy

            1. that is true. for me, that’s true for most things– learning the background enhances things. blogs are good that way — they often give you background when they share something

  2. An interesting one with the necklace, and good use of aliens for comparison. This place looks fascinating, I always enjoy museums like this that offer something totally different! x

    1. I agree that it was an interesting exhibit. I found I liked it much better after I wrote about it as doing bits of research on the history behind the events the pieces references made them more meaningful to me.

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