Empire: Legacy of the World's First Corporation

An ongoing new media and educational outreach project created by a Dutch-American film-making team
KHOJ Studios, New Delhi
Friday, 6 May 2011
Eline Jongsma and Kel O’neill

Put together by Eline Jongsma and Kel O’Neill, Empire is a project that examines the architectural, cultural and spiritual traces left behind by the Dutch East India Company (VOC) traders and colonists in five former VOC trading posts and colonies: Sri Lanka, Indonesia, India, Ghana and South Africa.

The five multi-channel, non-fiction video works that make up the core of the project are intimate, first-person portraits of people and communities whose lives are still in various ways defined by the Dutch colonial endeavor. But while the project confronts large themes, it does so by telling personal stories. The focus is on building a compelling set of human characters, each one a personification of a different aspect of the post-colonial experience.

The contemporary and personal stories that make up the Empire project investigate the unintended consequences of early corporatism on colonized populations, while also examining the waning influence of Western power in the East. Empire was conceived as a way to look at the present through the lens of the past. Since the Dutch East India Company's (VOC) ground-breaking colonial-capitalist adventure, multinational corporations have become the unofficial governing bodies of our time, who determine prices and dispense employment, guide our culture and pollute our backyards. They are so integral to our existence that it is difficult to imagine how we would organize our lives without them. Empire is, above all else, an examination of the continuing repercussions of European intervention abroad.

All works in the Empire project are created and exhibited in collaboration with local artists and arts organizations.

The video installation of the Empire project on India, titled Empire: 22º00' N, 77º00' E will be viewed for the first time at KHOJ Studios, with two other previously completed Empire installations - Empire: 5º00' N, 120º00'E (Indonesia) and Empire: 7º00' N, 81º00'E (Sri Lanka).

Artists’ Talk is scheduled for Friday, 6th of May at 6:00 pm to be followed by the Opening at 7.00 pm at the KHOJ Studios, Khirki. Works will be on view at the KHOJ Studios for the 6th of May from 10.00 am to 10.00 pm.

ABOUT EMPIRE: 7º00' N, 81º00' E (Sri Lanka)

Empire’s first video installation, Empire: 7º00' N, 81º00'E, was filmed on location in Sri Lanka. The piece
blends the stories of two initiatives for the elderly: The Netherlands Welcome Village in Badalgama, and The St. Nikolaas Home For Burgher Ladies in Colombo.

The Netherlands Welcome Village is the brainchild of Herman Steur, a wealthy Dutch businessman. The village houses almost a hundred formerly homeless, elderly Sri Lankans. The village is built in the style of Monnickendam, an archetypical Dutch village. Steur has a simple explanation for his architectural choice: “I like it Dutch style,” he says.

The St. Nikolaas Home For Burgher Ladies, by contrast, houses the descendents of Dutch colonials. Since Sri Lanka gained its independence, these women have been shuttered away from the rest of society. They do not mix with local people, and have become inconvenient reminders of the country that Sri Lanka used to be.

Empire: 7º00' N, 8º00'E cuts between these stories until they become nearly indistinguishable. Is Herman Steur the master of the Burgher Ladies? Do elderly Dutch women inhabit the Netherlands Welcome Village? In the end, the two stories merge to create an emotionally accessible investigation of post-colonial loneliness and guilt.

ABOUT EMPIRE: 22º00' N,77º00'E

The piece, entitled Empire: 22º00' N, 77º00' E, tells two stories, of death and international trade. In Tamil Nadu, workers at the Heritage Granites factory custom make tombstones for Dutch customers. These highly personal monuments are ground from locally quarried granite, and shipped at great expense to buyers in the Netherlands. We watch the process from start to finish, as a piece of granite is pulled from the ground, sliced and molded into a tombstone, and engraved with the name of a recently deceased Dutch.

Meanwhile in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, a decaying 17th century graveyard holds the remains of long-gone Dutch traders who never made it back to their home country. While Dutch interests strive to maintain the site, young local couples have found a new purpose for the graveyard’s arched enclosures and hiding places.

For one night only, Empire: 22º00' N, 77º00' E will be on view with two other completed Empire installations: Empire: 5º00' N, 120º00'E and Empire: 7º00' N, 81º00'E. Visitors from India are invited to celebrate the conclusion of Jongsma and O’Neill’s work in Asia before the installations
go on to show in Europe this summer.


Directed & produced by Eline Jongsma & Kel O’Neill

Title design & graphics by Kramer O’Neill

Local Sri Lanka partner: Theertha International Artists’
Association, Colombo

Local Indonesia partner: House of Natural Fiber, Yogyakarta

Local India partner: KHOJ International Artists’
Association, Delhi

(Sri Lanka)
Excerpt of Empire: 7º00'N, 81º00'E
Excerpt of Empire: 5°00'N,120°00'E
Excerpt of Empire: 22º00'N, 77º00'E