Behind the public face of diplomatic gifts

Polite Fictions was never meant to be the project that it turned out to be. A few years ago, when I was still working as a public affairs consultant in Brussels, I read an article about the ‘Ali Baba cave,’ the room where gifts to members of the European Commission are stored. It was only years later in art school that what I had read first started to resonate more profoundly. Questions arose regarding the meaning, intentions and significance of those objects merely sitting there, occupying a space deep below the headquarters of the EU’s executive body. I began to wonder, what do people in power decide to give each other as presents and why? How do those choices reflect on the relationship and power dynamics between the countries and institutions they represent? What messages do the gifts carry and what can this act of gifting tell us about the way international relations are managed?

I was perhaps naive to think that I could simply photograph the gifts without encountering much difficulty, as diplomatic gifts are often considered a symbol of friendship and respect. They are typically objects and artefacts that are meant to be displayed and seen, and as such are commonly exchanged publicly. There are a myriad of examples of leaders before the media, smiling towards the camera, and handing over or receiving gifts. However, gifts can also be complicated things. They are meant to be freely given, yet tend to create obligations and expectations. And, what might appear valuable or meaningful to one, might be perceived as trivial or hurtful by another. Gifts carry the possibility of mutual understandings and misunderstandings. They can can promote a relationship, or poison it.

When, following quite a number of emails, I was welcomed to the Berlaymont building in Brussels to take a look at ‘the cave,’ I quickly understood the paradoxical nature of diplomatic gifts. The cave is a sad place. Boxed, wrapped and uncovered objects sit on half-empty shelves or lean against the walls of the dimly lit room. Among the plethora of miscellaneous gifts that I saw were portraits and paintings, a lone BMW engine, a ceremonial axe, a tiny wooden egg holder, coins and other small memorabilia, and two identical busts of Gandhi. The Commission’s protocol officers literally took me behind the scenes; behind the press backdrop, twice pointing out recent fixes to the red carpet, ultimately taking me two floors down, through an abandoned hallway to a storage room that seemingly hardly anyone has ever entered. They were honest with me. The gifts are a nuisance. The Commission agrees to accept gifts and arranges one in return with taxpayers’ money only if it is important to the gift-giving nation and if it will lead to the avoidance of any diplomatic offence. It was right around that time too when I first learned of the expression ‘a polite fiction:’ a social scenario in which all participants are aware of a truth, yet pretend to believe in some alternative version of events in order to avoid conflict or embarrassment. Strict rules on gifts are meant to enhance transparency and to eliminate any potential conflict of interest. As such, the Commission publishes lists of all received gifts worth over €150. When I once more asked for permission to take photographs of those gifts, the response was simply “no, it is too sensitive.”

I decided to move my investigation closer to home and focus on Dutch diplomatic relations. Furthermore, when gifting is done properly, the gift-giver takes into account what their gift says about them, about their country and even their relationship with the recipient. If a state’s gift captures somewhat of the essence of a nation, perhaps it could shed further light on Dutch national identity. In response to a letter I sent to all of the ambassadors based in The Hague, I received a number of phone calls and emails, leading me to seemingly travel around the world in my home town over the course of the following few months. My request to photograph any gifts that the respective countries may have received from the Netherlands sparked intrigue. Overall, there was a general willingness to cooperate, were it not for the fact that typically gifts are not kept at embassies, instead usually being exchanged at the ministerial level or during official state visits, before then being taken back to their home countries. Right before the corona lockdown, I visited several embassies to discuss gift giving with the ambassadors and the staff of the embassies, and to photograph the occasional tulip vase or tulip certificate. I also noticed a careful curiosity about what gifts other embassies had received.

Similar to the European Commission, the Dutch government has strict rules regarding participation in gift exchanges. Restraint is the basic principle according to a regulation on protocol. Where the embassy responses were polite and welcoming, my request to the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs was met with nervousness. It was something that had to be discussed with both their legal department and PR. The request was considered, and quickly denied, being deemed impolite and imprudent for the dignitaries to photograph their gifts and exhibit those photographs. Above all, it could negatively impact bilateral relations.

The Dutch government is also required to register all gifts received with a value of over €50. However, it has not made this document public. When I failed to receive the list through a follow-up request, I opted for a more formal route. The more difficult it became to access the gifts, the more curious and adamant I was to find out what it is that Dutch dignitaries receive from their counterparts from abroad. A freedom of information request normally allows the government four weeks to respond with the possibility to extend this deadline by another four weeks. When covid-19 hit the Netherlands, the pandemic was used as an excuse to delay the request, although I was promised that it would become a priority as soon as possible.

I have always found it fascinating how the identity of an object transforms based on its context. A vase is a vase, but when exchanged between the hands of people in power, the status of the vase improves and the object comes to represent something. A silent symbol or sign, evidence of a meeting, a reflection of relations, a transaction of a particular kind; the ancient gesture of the gift is resilient. Diplomatic gifts today may seem to be nothing more than mere peripheral accessories to political action, but they continue to hold sway over the way in which nations interact. It remains a genuine gesture or a nuisance that has to be dealt with to advance, secure, protect or promote (often) national interests.

Polite Fictions consists of five parts starting with a visual definition of what is categorised as a diplomatic gift according to Wikipedia, one of the world’s most-visited websites and which is considered the closest thing there is to an online public square. The different chapters contrast that which is seen in the public eye and that which happens behind the scenes. Photography emerges as an enabler and as a threat. The still lifes that I created as a response to all of my encounters illustrate the system, but also aim to provide somewhat of a ‘stage’ for the diplomatic gifts that I was not allowed to photograph. They will remain concealed for the time being or indefinitely, at least until an answer from the Dutch government arrives.

Suzanne Schols

The Hague
July 2020