Belgian character created to add inclusivity to festive season dragged into row | Belgium #Belgian #character #created #add #inclusivity #festive #season #dragged #row #Belgium

The aim was to spread joy, hand out treats and carve out an inclusive celebration that could be added to the festive season’s roster.

But Queen Nikkolah – a black female character who offers children in Belgium a counterpoint to the festive figure of Sinterklaas and his controversial sidekick, Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete – has found herself in the eye of a cultural firestorm.

The row erupted after news broke that Queen Nikkolah was to visit Ghent town hall this week for an event that more than 200 people signed up to attend. Conservative and far-right politicians took aim, accusing the character of threatening tradition and seeking to use a children’s event to push a political agenda.

The city’s mayor reacted swiftly, announcing that the visit would be moved to another venue so as not to sow confusion between Queen Nikkolah and Sinterklaas, who had visited the town hall a few weeks earlier.

“There is nothing wrong with Sinterklaas as we know him,” Mathias de Clercq, Ghent’s mayor, told the Belga news agency. “We shouldn’t try to turn him into something else.” Neither the mayor nor the city replied to a request for comment from the Guardian.

Anneleen Van Bossuyt, a politician with the Flemish separatist party N-VA, said that the proposed event with Queen Nikkolah was “absolutely unacceptable” in a blog post titled “Woker than woke” on the party’s website.

“We should not let our traditions be taken away from us,” said Van Bossuyt, comparing it to a proposal to put warnings on Pippi Longstocking books in the city library amid accusations that the stories contained racial stereotypes.

A person in blackface at a parade
Zwarte Piete – or ‘Black Pete’ – is a controversial sidekick to Sinterklaas who appears in the Netherlands and Belgium during the festive season. Photograph: Peter Dejong/AP

The artist behind the character rebuffed the idea that Queen Nikkolah was in any way a rejection of tradition.

“People see Queen Nikkolah as a threat,” said Laura Nsengiyumva, the Belgium-born architect and artist of Rwandan descent. “But if I didn’t like this tradition, I wouldn’t have picked it up. It’s also a desire to be part of it.”

While she had faced opposition before, the decision to bar Queen Nikkolah from Ghent’s town hall seemed particularly “symbolic”, she said. “It’s really telling us that ‘you are not official, you are not part of this society’.”

Nsengiyumva created the character in 2017, looking for a salve to the traditional narrative of Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet, a figure widely seen as racist due to his portrayal by white people with blackened faces, curly wigs and bright red lips.

“It came from a need from the community, not only people of colour, but I think also white allies who needed an alternative to deconstruct the colonial myth around Sinterklaas,” she said.

Queen Nikkolah soon became the embodiment of this search, adding to the swelling protests in Belgium and the Netherlands against the presence of Zwarte Piet at parades to herald the feast of Saint Nicholas.

The character of Zwarte Piet was originally a devil and later depicted as a black person during the colonial era, said Nsengiyumva.

On top of its problematic history, the tradition continues to perpetuate racial biases against many in society, said Nsengiyumva. “At the root of it is that it is an Afro-descendent character who is at the service of Sinterklaas,” she said. “I think it’s part of many childhood traumas for black Belgians, for Afro-Belgians, because you’re called out as Zwarte Piet, you’re compared to him.”

She saw Queen Nikkolah as an antidote to all of this, offering children a powerful image of a strong, female black character who was also part of the celebrations. Minutes after the visits kick off, the impact is often already palpable, she said.

“It’s heaven, we have moments of joy, it’s really about joy and positivity.” Parents later share stories of their girls playing at being queen – rather than princesses – after the visits. “To me that’s the most precious thing, that they dream bigger.”

In 2019, as Belgium slid into campaigning for the hard-fought elections, Queen Nikkolah unwittingly became a gauge of the political climate. “It tells you a lot about their agenda, they need some targets and some distractions from real problems,” she said. “We had death threats, I had to perform with undercover police. It went really far.”

As hate messages began to pile up, she found herself fending off accusations of trying to erase European identity. “It’s revealing their own xenophobia,” she said. “Because I am European, I’m a black Afropean. We exist.

“And that’s the thing about Queen Nikkolah,” she continued. “We need Afropean identity also. If it’s threatening to them, they should ask themselves the question of what is threatening to them? Is it the fact that I’m black? Because there are black Europeans.”

Even as Queen Nikkolah had come under attack, requests to take part in the event in Ghent surged, with more than 300 people now expected. “I don’t like this kind of publicity but I would say that it has helped us to reach the families who really need it,” she said.

The exact location of the event, however, has been downplayed amid worries over public safety. Nsengiyumva said that organisers were doing everything they could to ensure that the families who took part would be protected. “I see more love than hate,” she said. “But what I’m witnessing is a lot of hate.”

It was what she described as the paradoxical status of the character; soaring demand for appearances had led Queen Nikkolah to multiply. Six people now crisscross the country to visit children, even as opposition swells.

“It’s not a reason for us to stop,” she said. “We will still do it – just the girls dreaming of being queens is enough reason to go on.”

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