“Make an effort and be creative if you want to show diversity”

Interview teacher and researcher Pauline Phoa

Giel Heeringa, Pauline Phoa en en Marc Hanna voor de muurschildering over de Grondwet. Foto: Ivar Pel.
Giel Heeringa, Pauline Phoa and Marc Hanna in front of the mural. Photo: Ivar Pel.

Not a stately, white scholarly man, but a modern design that people can identify with. The mural about the Dutch Constitution, which was completed last year at the initiative of law students in Utrecht, is not a portrait of Thorbecke. What can we learn about using more “inclusive” images in this diversity month at Utrecht University? Teacher and researcher Pauline Phoa, who in addition to her scientific work is also an illustrator and visual artist, shares experiences and practical tips.

What happened in the conception phase?

It was not easy. We wanted people to feel something about the Constitution when they saw the work of art. How do you achieve that? The design process starts with brainstorming. The students' original idea was to give Thorbecke a role, perhaps combined with other Dutch historical elements, for example from 17th century art. The artists of the De Strakke Hand had experience with classic portraits and paintings, turning them into street art. They too, thought it was logical that founder Thorbecke would be given a place. But I immediately had reservations: a white, stately man, while you are looking to connect with a young audience, in a multicultural neighborhood? Moreover, Thorbecke's role in the history of slavery is not without controversy and in the mural we wanted to highlight Article 1, the article about equal treatment of people.

It was not easy. People did not see the problem at first, it was a blind spot.

How did you convince the others?

It took me some effort to persuade the others at the table to adopt a more “inclusive” design. They just didn't see the problem at first, it was a blind spot. Maybe also because I was the only non-white person at the table, I thought afterwards. Quite painful. But by having an open conversation about this together, more understanding was created. I had created a Pinterest board with other images for inspiration, so that I could immediately come up with concrete alternatives for a more inclusive visual language. I then suggested doing something with hands that made different symbols and the Strakke Hand then continued with that, developing it into a design for the wall.

Muurschildering 175 jaar Grondwet Foto: Ivar Pel)
Photo: Ivar Pel

Why the hands?

Hands are universal and very symbolic. The gestures refer to various rights that the Constitution protects: a fist for freedom of expression and demonstration, a heart (with two hands) that of course stands for the prohibition of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, a thumbs up and down for the right to vote and democracy, a stop sign: this far and no further. You also see hands that shake each other and that carry the law together, hands that offer protection, because the Constitution is both strong and vulnerable and the hands also stand for 'action', for active participation in society and the rights under fundamental law together. make it happen. In the end, everyone fully supported the design and we are all very happy with it. It turned out beautiful.

The hands on the mural also represent the Dutch word 'handelen', taking action, active participation in society.

Why would you like to tell us how it went?

I think we will be stronger as an educational institution if we pay attention to the learning process. Things often don't go right the first time, not even at university, and being open about this is also educational for others. Especially when it comes to diversity and inclusion. You sometimes hear people sigh 'You're not allowed to say anything these days' and that is of course not the case, but on the other hand: yes, times have changed. Insights change. Talk about it together! At Leiden University last year there was a lot of discussion about a painting with only white men smoking on the wall, that painting had to go and was returned after much discussion. What you see in public spaces naturally sends a signal. How does that signal arrive at the receiver?

Beeldmerk Festival Europa

The same applies to events, for example: who do you put on stage? At Festival Europa, which I helped devise five years ago and now organise again, we also concluded in an earlier phase: there are still too few speakers with a diverse background in the programme.
One of the speakers pointed it out to us as well. Justifiably. We now have a good balance in the programme.

Do you have advice for anyone working with images and diversity?

Make an effort, be creative. The first image that comes to mind may not be the best. Or it's a stereotype. Involve people with diverse backgrounds in your project. Ask them what image they would like on a poster or on an invitation, and check how they like your idea. Ask for advice more often!

Kunst van Pauline Phoa (wereldbol)
Art by Pauline Phoa.

But also do your own homework: first consciously look for content created by people of color or with a different background. And quite a lot has been written about inclusive public imagery. And more generally, it is good to have an eye for diversity. When I have students in a new working group who have a non-Dutch name, I always ask how to pronounce it. Better that than messing it up. Then people often say 'it's no big deal' and we laugh about it, but of course it's not fun. Put in some extra effort! Minorities have to adapt so often to the majority, it can also be the other way around.

First, consciously look for content created by people of color or with a different background.

We live in a visual culture anyway... what do you think about that?

It is good that we pay attention to forms of expression other than text. You also see this in study assignments and test formats, there is more creativity than before. On the other hand, we must also be careful not to reduce a subject to one image.

Cover van proefschrift Pauline Phoa.
Cover of dissertation of Pauline Phoa.

My dissertation was also partly about that: images of humanity in (EU) law. When you talk about “welfare mother”, “benefits victim”, “migrant” you probably immediately have images of it. And therefore assumptions, prejudices. This also leads to policy and certain - biased - decisions. It is good to be aware of this and to apply critical (self) reflection.
And certainly in Law, text will always be important. I sometimes hear students grumble about having to read so much. Can't I put the subject into a knowledge clip for them? I don't think we should want to consume too quickly and easily. The willingness to read is key at a university, especially in law school.

Tekening van twee dassen die yin yang symbool vormen (Pauline Phoa)
Art by Pauline Phoa.

How do you think we are doing at Utrecht University in terms of inclusive images and inclusive behaviour?

We have come a long way, but there has been much more attention to this in recent years and I welcome that. You see it, for example, in research and education projects surrounding the slavery history of the Netherlands and of the UU in particular, or discussions about the paintings in the Academy Building that mainly depict men. More attention is now also paid to diversity when recruiting new students or new colleagues. But it remains a point of attention. And rightfully so.