Speech by HRH Prince Constantijn on the occasion of the 2018 Prince Claus Awards at the Royal Palace, Amsterdam

Your majesties, highnesses, excellencies, friends,

Let me start by expressing how grateful we all are that the Fund’s long standing  partner Shahidul Alam has been released from jail in Bangladesh. However charges have not been dropped yet. So we will continue to follow his case with very close scrutiny. 

Some of you might know this story, but during a brainstorm on the future of the Prince Claus Fund, Shahidul Alam challenged the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ idea that ‘poverty relief’ should be the dominant criteria for development support and also as a guiding principle for the Prince Claus Fund: which means access to food, sanitation, dwelling.  He noted that life in prison would also fulfil these criteria. Obviously the irony is that he did actually go to jail. This makes his plea for investing in civil society and culture as an essential part of development even more pertinent. If the love for your people and country; and if your life-long work to empower young people to develop their potential and shape their world are grounds for persecution, then we still have a lot to fight for. 

I am acutely aware that many of our friends and partners have suffered similar ordeals: 2008 Prince Claus Laureate Tania Bruguera was arrested in Cuba this week; and there are questions about 2013 Prince Claus Laureate Lu Guang who has gone missing.

Cultural expression is not just nice and innocent: free minds are perceived as threats to governments that use repression as a tool.  You provide the oxygen that they'd like to choke out of their societies. We cannot allow that hope is put behind bars and civil society is being criminalised. 

The Prince Claus Fund exists to allow more people like Shahidul, Lu Guang and Tania Bruguera to prosper and to stop the clamp down on freedom of cultural expression. We believe in the power of culture, and of people and organisations that help enrich our world in so many unimaginable ways.

To be clear, the Fund is not an activist organisation. It does however, stand by those who pay a heavy price for holding up a mirror to society through their creativity, compassion, and engagement. Sadly the trend seems to be against the celebration of cultural expression and free speech. Creeping anti-intellectualism is becoming a global issue and poses a serious threat to open society. Clamping down on culture, as a force of identity; of progress and social awareness, means threatening civilisation itself. Not only are cultural practitioners being threatened, their impact seems to decrease in the overload of information, content and social media. 

I’m also the patron of World Press Photo, during the awards I shared an important story on my social media account and it got one like. (Whatever like means in this context). I shared a picture of my labrador and it got 50 likes. What media can we use and languages can we speak to still move people? 

Photo journalists give their lives to report human suffering, injustice, and abuse, but people have grown numb and indifferent. If art doesn’t shock, critique and inspire anymore; how else can dissent be heard? how else can we dissent and how else can we be heard Is it just a matter of screaming harder? We should fear the day that remarkable individuals and organisations like our laureates today decide not to engage. 

Still – as is proven in our Next Generation programme – the culture sector is booming and continues to attract young people. Festivals, cultural exchanges are growing. 

Culture is civilisation and civilisation is deeply human, which is why it will prevail against the forces that try to contain, restrict and destroy it. Each generation has a new cause and comes at society with new energy. Each generation finds new forms to express itself.

This is why ultimately I am hopeful. Our laureates are proof of this creativity in seeking new ways to communicate like Eka Kurniawan’s humorous novels about terrible historic facts, and the platform O Menelick 2 ̊ Ato provides for Afro-Brazilian culture. The reason why I get up on this stage each year not because I like to give these speeches, but is because of the amazing people that I have the privilege of offering an award. I am humbled in the presence of people that do such remarkable things under hard circumstances: like Adong Judith’s confronting plays about war and gender; or Kidlat Tahimik’s whimsical art centre, bringing respect for the lives of indigenous tribes; or Marwa al-Sabouni who turned her war experience into a book on the role of architecture in building peace.  I truly hope that these awards continue to have a broader impact. That the work of laureates inspires us all to invest more in people and their ability to express themselves and shape their societies for the good. 

The Principal Prince Claus Laureate this year is an organisation set up in South Africa in 1989 to address the absence of visual representation of the real lives of black South Africans.The vision and values of the late David Goldblatt are still alive after 30 years, in post-apartheid South Africa: giving black South Africans tools for self-expression. His legacy continues to reach out and empower South Africans from disadvantaged neighbourhoods and instruct them in the art and craft of excellent photography and entrepreneurship. The quality of his work attracts people from throughout Africa, of all races, including the laureate from 2013, Zanele Muholi. The Market Photo Workshop provides an inspiring model of quality, and sensitivity to shifting realities –   adapting and staying relevant, without losing ideals. These are qualities Prince Claus Fund strives to embrace. It is because of these qualities that we honour the Market Photo Workshop with the Principal Prince Claus Award.