With the spotlight on this unsung corner of the Netherlands, it’s time for this European Capital of Culture for 2018 to show off. And it’s doing so with a powerful theme: Celebrating the diverse community that makes this Dutch city what it is.
In many ways, Leeuwarden is a typical Dutch city. The hub of the region of Friesland—home to those pretty black-and-white Friesian cows—it has the usual vast number of monuments (over 600, if we’re counting), street after street of artisanal shops, and an impressive Jacobean church. Cobbled streets wind between rows of architectural masterpieces in the medieval city center, with only narrow canals to separate them, and historic sailing vessels—former Dutch commercial ships—are a reminder of Leeuwarden’s Golden Age of trade.
But as one of this year’s two European Capitals of Culture, Leeuwarden is shaking off its dusty, traditional image. Up to now, it may only have been known only for those Friesian cows and large cattle market, but the city is flexing its metaphorical muscles, reaching out across its borders, and going for something a little more cutting-edge. In fact, its 16th-century Oldehove—a tower that leans more than Pisa—has become a symbol of the city and its people: Quirky and somewhat unconventional, but definitely upright.
Of course, it’s got all the usual events one expects of anywhere that’s awarded a cultural accolade. There’s a focus on art galleries, museum collections, street parades (with giant puppets, no less), plus theater and music events throughout the year. Kicking off Leeuwarden’s year was the Mata Hari exhibition, which brought to life the city’s most renowned femme fatale, accused of working as a German spy, in an interactive display at the Fries Museum. Another famous 20th-century Frisian, graphic artist Maurits Cornelis Escher, gets his turn later in the year.
But while this past is important, it’s the identity of the citycit’s current community which speaks more powerfully for many Frisians. And that’s why Iepen Mienskip or ‘open community’ is at the heart of 2018’s events, a program which aims to bring in the voices of people, young and old, from across the province, by way of debates, literature and installations. In doing so, Leeuwarden wants to address some of the controversial issues facing the western world—from refugees to climate change, racism to inequality—and tackle them.
One person who’s taken on the idea of Mienskip is Jurgens Redczus. Known as ‘Cash Man’, he became something of a local celebrity after he closed his bank account to live purely on a cash basis—although this means he has no way to pay his household bills.
Like many, Redczus objects to the increasing global power wielded by banking institutions. Now sharing a space with other artists in the vaults of an old bank (of all places), he’s set up a pilot project to replace Euros and old florins with a digital currency that belongs to the people—his HQ is in a building which also provides shelter for the homeless.
This MienskipGeld or ‘community money’ can be traded between community members, and he already has several local shop owners signed up. It’s his way of protesting at the debt he feels we are all born into; Redczus believes we should all enter the world in credit so as soon as we take our first breath, we have a certain amount of digital currency in our name.
This spirit of protest and strength of opinion has a rich legacy in Friesland. After World War II, a fierce battle for the use of the local language ensued in 1951 when farmers were refused the right to defend themselves in court in the Frisian language. The ban sparked a street riot and marked the beginning of a struggle to protect the language. This fight, known as Kneppelfreed or ‘Cudgel Friday’ (after the short sticks used to beat protesters) eventually led to the country’s parliament in The Hague assigning the language official status. Now, the entire province teaches local history and language to every child.
“It feels like we’re flinging ourselves into an open European arena, rather than reading poems to each other in our own language in small rooms.”
Bert Looper, director, Tresoar
It’s no surprise then that 2018’s events include a language program, Lan Fan Taal. In the square opposite the Oldehove ‘leaning tower’ is an exhibit that explores every language on the planet through multi-lingual visual projections, audio soundscapes, and poetry, while a space between here and the outer edge of the city park has been designated an open forum; a sign-language restaurant is scheduled to open, swearing loudly in the language of your choice is encouraged, as is protesting into a large microphone—and it’s all recorded for others to listen to. It’s surprisingly liberating to let rip with a few choice expletives, even in a tranquil park—though you may end up scanning your surroundings for any genteel-looking dog walkers first.
But alongside this pride in being Frisian, there’s also a dichotomy of sorts, as explained by a group of millennials I meet by the canal near the old prison, now the Blokhuispoort arts and culinary center. “Friesland is built around Leeuwarden,” 18-year-old Brian Kats tells me, “but to an extent, Leeuwarden citizens are not all that Frisian.”
In fact, three of the four young people I talk to consider themselves Dutch first, as opposed to Frisian, and have big plans to see the world. One is training to be an army Red Beret, another has plans to become an air steward, and another dreams of working as a travel photographer. They’re outward-looking, and many people speak English, Dutch, Russian, Frisian and German. According to Bert Looper, director of Frisian history center Tresoar, “It feels like we’re flinging ourselves into an open European arena, rather than reading poems to each other in our own language in small rooms.” It certainly explains the choice of Iepen Mienskip or ‘open community’ as the European Capital of Culture’s theme of choice.
Heritage in Leeuwarden doesn’t just come UNESCO-rated either. In a former no-go red-light district along the Haniasteeg thoroughfare, the VHDG Collective Art Project has taken art out onto the streets—it’s fitting that the surrounding roads are graffiti-ed within an inch of their lives and that the adjacent Neushoorn music venue was built with bricks from now-demolished buildings from the red-light zone.
Whether they consider themselves Dutch, Frisian or other, they are all immensely proud of their community.
With visiting and local artists featured throughout the year, the theme of protest is at the heart of many of 2018’s exhibits. Several sculptures catch the eye: Busts of faces covered by gas masks, plaster casts of hoodies, and paintings drawn in camouflage-combat colors offer an alternative interpretation of the street protests around the world since the Arab Spring, images we’ve been used to seeing through photography and video reports.
This sense of connecting with others is deeply ingrained in local culture. In winter, when the air is cold enough to create ice thick enough to walk on (at least 15 centimeters thick, to be exact), Leeuwarden and the other ‘Eleven Cities’ (historic Frisian cities) are linked by the Elfstedentocht, an almost 200-kilometer (124-mile) ‘ice-skating marathon’. This long-distance skating tour is so entrenched in Frisian legend that even the locals talk about it with awe. And when it happens, the entire province shuts for business, and every house becomes a hotel.
What’s clear is whether they consider themselves Dutch, Frisian or other, they’re all immensely proud of their community. Leeuwarden in 2018 is certainly something of a revelation—this is a city that is able to celebrate all that’s best from centuries past, celebrate its changing community, and look ahead—all at the same time.
Here’s what’s going on in Leeuwarden during its year as European Capital of Culture.
Find out more about the Elfstedentocht ‘Eleven Cities’ skating tour.