Birth of Zwarte Piet exhibit hits Rijksmuseum

Zwarte Piet Jan Schenkman
Zwarte Piet with Sinterklaas from Jan Schenkman's work. (Zwarte Piet with Sinterklaas from Jan Schenkman's work)

Stepping into the fray of an oftentimes volatile debate on racism in the Netherlands, the Rijksmuseum national gallery in Amsterdam will open a new exhibit detailing the “Birth of Zwarte Piet.” The character, beloved by many Dutch people and reviled by many ethnic minorities, is said to be the Moorish slave assistant to Christmas-time legend Sinterklaas, and is often portrayed by a white person in blackface.

The museum will show off four books on the origin of the character from the mid 19th century, and several prints detailing the evolution of Zwarte Piet over two hundred years.

Amsterdam school headmaster Jan Schenkman is credited with creating the icon with his 1850 book, St. Nicholas and his Servant. “With that, he caused a radical change in the life of the Sint,” a museum spokesperson told the Volkskrant.

Prior to that, Sinterklas did everything buy himself in Dutch folklore, and had no helpers with him when handing out gifts to children.

The museum notes that the character’s complexion has repeatedly changed over the years, as has his attitude. “At one time he was friendly, but now and then he was unfriendly and even aggressive, traits that were sometimes also given to Sint.”

The exhibit will be open through January 6.