On a warm September evening in 2021, we joined a group of residents, researchers, and activists at the centre for contemporary art Kunsthal, which is part of the 13th century Caermersklooster, the old Carmelite convent in Ghent’s historic city centre. On the trail of plundering iconoclasts, poor working class families, young artists and the monks once shuffling through these corridors, we attended a “therapeutic Townhall Meeting”, convened by artist Grace Ndiritu. The meeting concerned the fate of the neighbouring building, the second monastery courtyard dubbed het Pand. Since the mid-19th century, the galleries of het Pand were reorganized into tiny houses for poor families. When the Province of East Flanders acquired the property in the late 1970s, residents were threatened with eviction to make way for real estate developers. However, the Province dropped its plans in the face of the Pandinisten, an activist collective successfully advocating social housing. 2020 saw a renewed push for privatisation, with the Province and the social housing company WoninGent announcing their intention to sell part of the building complex. This once again triggered fierce opposition from activists and squatters, this time going by ‘Pandemisten’ in reference to their predecessors and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Participating in the Townhall Meeting made us reflect on the global dimensions of the ongoing dispute over het Pand. Our enquiry was framed and nurtured by Ndiritu’s A Season of Truth and Reconciliation, which ran from September to December 2021 as part of her art project Ghent: How to Live Together (Ndiritu, 2021a). Informed by the site’s rich history and contested sites elsewhere, particularly involving indigenous people, Ndiritu’s “season” included a movie night, a reading group, a public debate, sharing local knowledge and assembling a community archive (see below). An international ‘truth and reconciliation’ perspective on the conflict over het Pand guided all events, drawing as well on Ndiritu’s ongoing project Healing The Museum and her work on non-rational healing and radical pedagogical methodologies (Ndiritu, 2021b; 2021c). Collaborating with legal specialist Julie Van Elslande of the Brussels-based artists’ initiative Jubilee, A Season of Truth and Reconciliation is also one the art trajectories of Jubilee’s collective research project Emptor, which interrogates the concept of “property” in the quest for an ecology of practices on the field of visual arts (https://caveat.be/pages/about.html). A Season of Truth and Reconciliation deliberately goes beyond the Caermersklooster, examining what the situated dispute in this historical, European urban place can teach us on practices of “living together” in contested sites.
Ndiritu’s international lens on het Pand facilitated a framework for us in this blog series to critically reflect on our own research on indigenous people and their ongoing struggles to access and/or assert rights over heritage sites in South Africa (Rafael) and the Andes (Hanne): What happens to a place-related community’s identity and their way(s) of life, as well as the place itself and its identity, when that place is being (re)claimed as heritage? How do (re)claimed heritage sites become the object of community dispossession, displacement, and revitalization (Cottyn, 2022; Verbuyst, 2022)? Tackling cases that might at first sight have little in common, we identify topics, questions and challenges that can inform future research and policy regarding contested heritage. Broaching topics such as indigenous rights, property law, commoning and the role of ‘archives’, we are particularly interested in the relationship between heritage, belonging, and community and their relationship to what Laurajane Smith famously called the ‘Authorized Heritage Discourse’, i.e. Western/conventional management, assessment and conservation perspectives about ‘heritage’ (Smith, 2006). As Smith and others remind us, ‘heritage’ is always subject to ‘heritagization’: the process of defining, valorising and contesting something as ‘heritage’, which usually encompasses tangible and intangible features and involves various stakeholders (Harvey, 2001). With recent decades bringing heritage issues sharper into focus, resulting in new conceptual proposals including “heritage from below”, “heritage otherwise”, or “decolonial heritage”, many have argued that we need to think more outside the box and explore heritage’s relation to social struggles, local heritage knowledge, decolonial epistemologies, property regimes, and (a lack of) community participation (Arregui, Mackenthun & Wodianka, 2018; Ginzarly, Farah & Teller, 2019; Bigenho & Stobart, 2018; Robertson, 2016).
In this vein, our three cases demonstrate diverse questions of legal ownership (this blog), colonial legacies (the Castle of Good Hope in Cape Town, blog 2), and environmental change (Lake Poopó in Bolivia, blog 3). In each blog, we situate the contested land, and the historical trajectory of the property or use rights over it. We sketch a brief history of “belonging” and community formation at the site, survey the contemporary problems, and discuss the tensions and protagonists, as well as the strategies and potential creative solutions that have been put forward, with an emphasis on the theme of ‘truth and reconciliation’. In the remainder of this post, we engage in this exercise by expanding on the case of het Pand and Ndiritu’s A Season of Truth and Reconciliation.
A history of belonging
Throughout history, the Caermersklooster complex has been drawn intimately into the rhythms of diverse projects of community making, religious worshipping, housing, artistic creation, and capital production. This history of belonging starts with the Carmelites procuring the property in 1287 (see Vandamme, 2021). An strong bond emerged between the monks and the wider neighbourhood as they built more structures on the site from the 14th century onwards. The monastery was plundered during the Reformation in the second half of the 16th century, but Catholics eventually regained control of the city. A long process of recovery and expansion of both the building and monastic life ensued. However, the Order of the Carmelites was abolished in the wake of the 1789 French Revolution and the monastery was declared private property. The “kerkfabriek”, the institution overseeing the Church’s assets and property, eventually assumed ownership in 1841. In 1881, the City of Ghent acquired the church and restored the site in neogothic style. Thecomplex hosted an archaeological museum, later the Museum of Folklore and it was eventually used for storage. The church was declared a protected monument in 1943, encompassing the entire complex by 1980. In 1977, the Province of East Flanders assumed ownership of the rest of the monastery complex.
Impoverished labourers had meanwhile settled in the former monastery hoping to find employment in Ghent’s booming textile industry. The galleries surrounding het Pand were restructured into tiny houses in the mid-19th century. While participating in Ndiritu’s ‘Local Knowledge’ event, Norbert, a former resident, described a fairly closed community with strict rules and strong social and religious traditions in the first half of the 20th century. Apart from his family, only unmarried women lived between the walls of the building, whose concierge reportedly locked the outside doors every night by 10 pm: “It was something between a prison and a beguinage [housing for lay religious women who lived in community]”. The space opened up in the 1970s, when mostly poor students from the nearby art school began occupying rooms on the top floor of het Pand. While het Pand had been repurposed for social housing to support the neighbourhood’s poor residents, it became an eyesore to politicians and investors. In the late 1970s, the Province revealed plans to sell its stake of the complex on the private market, dismissing pleas by tenants to maintain the housing function of the site. While these kinds of evictions were later declared unlawful, various people, such as the parents of Norbert, were forced out in the 1980s.
Others stayed behind and resisted. A coalition of poor residents, students and artists, mainly youngsters without domicile, formed an organization, mischievously called Pandinistisch Verblijvingsfront [Pandinist Residence Front], after the Nicaraguan Liberation Front. The Pandinisten sought to safeguard the right to housing, juxtaposing “erfgoed” (heritage/patrimony) with “vastgoed” (real estate/property). The group had their own pirate radio and newspaper and received support from locally renowned artists. Luc recalls how their often radical tactics were infused with playful and artistic elements, which helped win over the public opinion in Ghent. Authorities eventually opted for a “revaluation” of the site as well as an overall gentrification of the neighbourhood into a picturesque, touristy district. Now in the hands of the municipality, het Pand retained its social housing function and restoration works followed in the 1990s. The Province meanwhile restored the church hall.
Het Pand between community and market
As het Pand entered the 21st century, it continued to be occupied by people looking for social housing, and a tree, which had been planted by the Pandinisten. Since 2018, most of the Caermersklooster is owned by the City of Ghent, which includes the Kunsthal in the church hall since 2019, but a large portion of the complex remains under control of the Province. Towards the end of 2020, the City, Province and the social housing company managing the site, WoninGent, announced their plans to sell their property on the private market, arguing that there are no possibilities to use the building for public purposes. A group of (non-)squatting activists swiftly joined the sole family remaining at het Pand in response to this announcement. Inspired by their predecessors and the COVID-19 pandemic, the arguments, demands and tactics of the ‘Pandemists’ resonated strongly with those of the 1970s and 1980s. Advocating for social housing, the constitutional right to a dignified life and greater participation in decision-making, the activists claim the municipal government disregards its (in)tangible heritage by selling off historical buildings and forgetting about ‘people’ in its ‘development’ agenda (De Pandemisten, 2021; see also https://hetpand.noblogs.org/english/). These sentiments grew even more prominent when a judge ordered the evacuation of the site in December 2021.
Collectively reflecting on these grievances during A Season of Truth and Reconciliation, international parallels surfaced alongside a strong emphasis on the relationship between (in)tangible heritage and belonging. Both tend to get lost in the more managerial and utilitarian discourse on heritage and its emphasis on the material and financial sustainability, which the City and the Province at times promulgates. As Emilie, the last resident of het Pand, argued during the ‘Local Knowledge’ event, the site has incredible historical value, but this value is intrinsically linked with its social, housing, and artistic role in Ghent. The Pandemisten indeed explicitly engage broader critiques on social crises around housing, gentrification and citizen participation across the Ghent region, Europe and beyond (Grazioli, 2021; Neven, 2021). Different generations of residents also expressed a strong sense of unrecognized belonging performed through communal or customary practices. During A Season of Truth and Reconciliation, (former) residents argued that practicing ‘property’ through ways of commoning was explicitly/implicitly constant across the history of the Caermersklooster: from the 13th century Carmelites to the social housing tenants today.
From the interweaving of materials and people, het Pand thus emerged as a “meshwork” of relationships of belonging in which knowledge and meaning is enmeshed (Lefebvre, 1991; Ingold, 2015). Articulating het Pand as a threatened fabric of intimate associations, residents argued during A Season of Truth and Reconciliation that you cannot subdivide the space of het Pand. It must be taken as a whole, as “inextricably” connected with the neighbourhood and its inhabitants. This form of life that sustains the meshwork that keeps het Pand together is what they want to safeguard and celebrate. As former Pandenist Luc put it, het Pand allows for “a form of dwelling (wonen), and in that sense a kind of heritage.” A kind of heritage that exceeds the definition and practices of heritage management currently proposed by public authorities and private investors, and whose revitalisation relies on interpersonal rather than monetary agreements.
As part of their response to the contestations over het Pand, Grace and Julie aimed to document this (conceptualization of) living and dwelling through the curation of a ‘community archive’, which was on display for several months. Informed by Jubilee’s research, the input from various community members and the public, and efforts to involve all stakeholders invested in the site and its future, the archive traces the many historical users of the building, its changing property status, and shifting institutional management of the place over time. In line with Ndiritu’s overarching project of Healing the Museum, the initiative demonstrates how collaborative artistic projects can generate productive spaces of dialogue with institutions around creative resistance and alternative practices of heritage (Serafini, 2022). This initiative in the spirit of truth and reconciliation is partially responsible for the fact that residents feel there is greater room for participation in the ongoing negotiations, even if tensions still regularly run high. A report looking into possible design for het Pand was ordered by the City in the meantime (Miss Miyagi, 2021), and venues for dialogue were facilitated by public institutions, activists and artists. While city officials and WoninGent usually did not respond to invitations to engage in dialogue, the municipality recently organised a series of “city debates” about the Caermersklooster in direct response to A Season of Truth and Reconciliation – the results of which will be presented in September 2022 (Personal communication Grace Ndiritu; see also https://stad.gent/nl/binnenstad/bouw-mee-aan-de-binnenstad/stadsdebat-caermersklooster). Meanwhile, the use and purpose of the site is everchanging, with the Province announcing plans to host refugees at the site in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and programmes for troubled youths being organized by youth organizations and networks (Schouppe, 2022; Van Waeyenberghe, 2022).
When the building’s ownership passed from the “kerkfabriek” to the Province, the former owner explicitly expressed its trust in the new owner’s intentions and capacities to maintain the building’s historical purpose. Whether the site of het Pand remains true to its history, if chequered, of community building is yet to be seen. While the possibility of a sell off on the private market remains, several innovative options have been identified to do this in coordination with public authorities, under certain heritage arrangements, and/or the community, so as to ensure their right to their own kind of heritage.
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