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Modern Pilgrims

In the context of the Pilgrim Year 2020, students of mboRijnland and Plymouth City College will take part in an exchange program. As an alumna of mboRijnland, I was asked to create a photo exhibition on the subject. My assignment was to capture modern pilgrims on camera.

Historical context


The year 2020 marks the 400th anniversary of the voyage of the Pilgrims from Plymouth to the United States on the Mayflower ship. Prior to this voyage, many of these ‘pilgrims’ had led to Leiden because of their religion, they were Calvinists. The Pilgrims chose to take refuge in Leiden due to the liberal nature of the city. Today, Leiden is still known as a liberal city. For this exhibition, I did not seek the literal meaning of the word pilgrim, rather, I focussed on who the pilgrims were. 

From this starting point, I ‘translated’ elements of the past to the present. This resulted in a comparison of the Pilgrims of the past, their quest for liberty in Leiden, and the modern pilgrims, many of whom have already found liberty here.

What is liberty?


The Pilgrims of the past were drawn to Leiden seeking freedom of religion. Leiden was a liberal, democratic city, and it still is today. At present, liberty is still the most essential value of our democracy. To me, a modern pilgrim is someone who has found his or her own liberty and lives in the spirit of it. Sometimes, this has a downside to it. My pilgrims are a reflection of society: in a sense, we are all searching for liberty. Yet, what does liberty actually mean? Everyone experiences liberty in a personal manner, though it is often ambiguous. Sometimes, gaining liberty comes at the cost of losing it in other aspects of life. Moreover, in our search for liberty, we must be careful not to restrict the liberty of others. Liberty is not an answer as such, and many questions remain.

The Exhibition


With this exhibition, I wish to illustrate that liberty is something we should cherish, and it sometimes requires sacrifices. While the Pilgrims of the past left their homes in search of liberty, today’s pilgrims choose liberty in their own fashion. Home to the Pilgrims of the past, the democratic city Leiden continues to appeal to the pilgrims of today.


Rien van der Nat

Rien van der Nat is retired. He was a principal/teacher at the Hogeschool voor de Kunsten Utrecht (HKU) and is currently an artist with a gallery at the Pieterskerk-Choorsteeg in Leiden. Rien is self-aware. His words are thoroughly assessed and considered. He and no one else determines his course.

“My grandfather also was an artist, a painter in Leiden. I am a graphic artist. As an artist, I have nothing to complain about. There is interest in my work. I have work in museums. I have my studios, here and in France. I sell from my gallery and to people I like. If you compare that to the word freedom, I enjoy great freedom.”

“I find it terrible that many artists spend so much time on publicity. That energy must be invested in good work. I have published a booklet. Buiten alles om, a book with nine stories. With titles like Black is no color, but the most beautiful. All contradictions, all impossibilities. I love those. It is written in a script you can not read. Well, that is to say, you might read something, but you do not know what you read. You can read it yourself, make up for yourself what it means. And maybe later, a device will be invented that can show you what I thought when I wrote it. I have written an introduction. Admittedly in readable language, but whether the reader understands it?

Leiden is an absurdly beautiful city. With great museums. A city where intellectuals and analphabets can live together very well. But, we have to be careful because I get the idea that Leiden is changing into a theme park. Now and then the city overflows with tourists who leave nothing good. And we are the monkeys they come to look at. Whether that is freedom?

Simon Nakze

Simon is a refugee from Syria. He studies mechanical engineering and is an artist. To meet Simon Nakse is like meeting a patriarch. His wisdom and charisma are biblically old. “Freedom is a decision that begins with your first breath. Everything else is building brainpower to become freer and freer. It is as if I have sent my mind forward. I have read everything, I could think about freedom and there was only one place in the world that I wanted to go to. Leiden. I told my parents: ‘I want to go to Leiden. I am going to flee; I am going to Leiden.’ And to my surprise, they said: ‘Then we will go with you. We all go to Leiden.’
“You have to put your mind against the brute force. The moment someone points a gun at you, even then, you have to know that your mind can handle that situation. Now I know that I can do it. We survived the misery there, we survived the traffickers, survived the Greek mafia, and now we are in Leiden. I’m in that city. Here is freedom of thought. We have fled because we are Christians. At least my parents. But I am not even religious, I only have the name of a Christian, and because of that, in Syria, I was in danger. Yes, we are free. I study, I talk, I think. I want to read everything, study everything. Gather knowledge without fear. That is why we are in Leiden. I want to live in the footsteps of that freedom. “

Anna Heethuis

Anna Heethuis is a product developer and traveler. When looking for Anna, you must look for an active woman who can suddenly stop in her place, stand, watch, and enjoy. “I have a connection with Plymouth as well as Leiden. My father has a holiday home in Plymouth, so I know the city well. I am always searching for the remnants, looking for the old buildings, the old ports. The place where the Pilgrim Fathers left on their way to Leiden and finally to the US. Too bad they did not find a way to really live together in their new homeland.
“I am often away, often traveling. Everywhere on the planet. I have just returned from a long trip to Thailand. Or better said from and back to Leiden. I am originally from Alkmaar. In terms of feel, that is the same kind of city as Leiden. Canals and bridges, about the same age. When I came to Leiden, it was not strange to me. If I travel, it’s just a backpack, no plan, just enjoying the beauty. That’s when I really have arrived. I am part of the paintings, the images I am looking for myself. For me, traveling is to enjoy a culture of antiquity. Or the beauty of nature.” “I am always looking for the perfect lines in my pictures. I took at least 4,000 photos from my last trip. Have not even picked them out yet. I print the most beautiful, they go on my wall. When traveling, I know that I can go back to Leiden.
When I am in Leiden, even with a trip coming up, I already know that I can come back again. Sometimes I walk through Leiden, without a plan. Sometimes running, sometimes cycling. I enjoy that… I stand and get caught by the beauty. Then I am traveling, traveling in Leiden.”

Tjebbe Borggreve

Tjebbe Borggreve has been a street musician in Leiden for over 26 years, co-owner of Popschool Leiden, and co-founder of the Band Sessions. He is ageless, with the voice of a young man. “In singing cooling down is as important as warming up. I studied at the Conservatory in Rotterdam but certainly did not want to live there. I already had friends in Leiden. They studied here. I still live here. With my wife and stepchildren, in the district of Meerburg. To make money with music you have to go out on the street. The adolescents of that time were not so happy with me, the teenagers of today grew up with me and love me. I always go out on the street on Saturday. Not with my own music, that doesn’t make any money, but with the golden repertoire. No woman no cry puts money in the till.” “Today I am pretty over it, but depressions have bothered me quite a bit in the past. Now with medication and my own therapy (singing, making music) I am fine. If you make music you are not depressed. I also work with psychiatric patients. We make music with therapy as a happy side-effect. You have to sing from the heart. The audience immediately hears when you are not there; then you get nothing. If you are into it, the money flows. Actually, I am a drummer playing guitar. I am not a guitarist, but I can express myself pretty well. To keep me fresh I also make a lot of music with others. You need input. It has to be a bit of a clash. Leiden has embraced me, and I admit liking it. Leiden knows me, and I know Leiden. By the way, they have to be careful; the city is running empty. Saturday is still good, but it’s getting to be quiet in Leiden. Too many stores are disappearing. The public is disappearing. A street musician must have a thick skin but singing together with a few girls at their bachelor party makes up for that. That’s what music is for.”

More photo’s and stories from the exhibition on request.