Iris Kensmil @ Club Solo
Solo exhibition in the artist run space Club Solo, Breda, Netherlands 2015.
Concept and design Iris Kensmil
catalogue text by Jelle Bouwhuis and Paul Goodwin
A conversation on the work of Iris Kensmil
Currently much attention in the Netherlands is drawn to the acquisition, by the Rijksmuseum and the Louvre jointly, of two Rembrandt portraits: a husband and wife, for the astronomical sum of 160 million euros. It triggered me to start our conversation on the work of Iris Kensmil. After all, the body of work she presents in her exhibition in Club Solo is centred on the portrait. The Rembrandt case proofs that portraiture is typical painter’s genre with a long standing in art history affected by a firm touch of national history. I think that Iris with her portraits of black people in the first place wants to insert the possibility of an alternative portrait tradition that is largely absent in the Western history of art. More than just offering a marginal addition to or adjustment of that history she signals an hiatus or rather, the monocultural bias in this history as it misrepresents humanity yet claims some sort of universalism. I hope you agree with me that this is a topic we should discuss alongside the works themselves that Iris presents in this exhibition.
Thank you for your initial commentary on Iris’s project. You have made a strong and passionate argument about the exclusions of the Western art historical canon and questions of nationalism. While I agree with you that it is impossible to disentangle art history from nationalism and related questions about universalism and representation, I also think we need to think really carefully about how this argument plays out in the case of black artists and the way their works are framed. Let me explain. I am developing a research programme on Black Artists and Modernism here in London at University of the Arts with the artist and professor Sonia Boyce. This project seeks to identity core works of art by Black and Asian diaspora artists in public collections in the UK and re-contextualise their work in relation to modernism (and contemporary art). The ‘blackness’ of modernism – or the mutual entanglements and relations of modernism and black artists’ practices – is a subject that has never really been adequately addressed by art history. The actual work of black artists in terms of aesthetic and stylistic questions always tends to take second place to ‘external’ or contextual issues such as ‘race’, diversity and cultural policy or indeed questions of nationalism. As important and timely as these questions undoubtedly are, we try to develop a methodology of addressing works by black artists that start with the simple notion of addressing the work itself as a starting point before exploring the wider contextual issues that inevitably arise from the work. This can perhaps be thought of as a kind of ‘strategic formalism’ to borrow a phrase from art historian Darby English in his excellent text ‘How to See a Work of Art in Total Darkness’ (MIT Press, 2007). The analysis of works by black artists often suffers under the weight of what what theorist Kobena Mercer calls the ‘burden of representation’ – i.e. the need to represent the whole black ‘race’ – thus obscuring their relative aesthetic autonomy and potentially diminishing their value in market and art historical terms. I also recall the artist herself telling me that ‘it is important to avoid framing, so the concept shall be primarily aesthetic’. I fear that we are in danger of ‘framing’ her work with these other issues (as important as they are) before we actually discuss what she is doing in the work and what the work is actually about.
Indeed, the attractiveness of framing is strong. On the other hand, this might account much more for the British situation (among others) where one can speak of a historical ‘black movement’ and an art historical ‘black art tradition’, whereas in the Netherlands the issue of framing or discussing any issue at all is commonly concealed behind positivist, formalist approaches stemming from modernism and the progressive, emancipatory aims that it carries within. I think Iris plays out many of such issues on a stylistic level. Her historic portraits like those of Marcus Garvey, Angela Davis and James Brown are often done in a style akin to Gerhard Richter: based on historic photographs, painted or drawn with subdued colour. The subject matter is historically loaded – many of the portrayed stand out in a historical framework around black activism and emancipation — and in that sense she shows affinity with Tuymans and Marlene Dumas. Iris’s ‘live’ portraits differ from that: they are more coloristic and literally come alive. But all of them are flattened out, she uses colour as light without using classical highlight, in tandem with the history of early modern art beginning with Manet and Degas onwards. And the people portrayed have a fair share in beating colonial residues that are still around today, such as Gloria Wekker and of course Quinsy Gario who triggered the nation-wide Black Pete debate. So, the changes in style seem related to phases in what could be called a history of black emancipation; a continuous project, altered daily. I think she also finds that continuity in the black music scene that suddenly, and finally I should say, has become very present in the Netherlands as well, with Kenny B., Akwasi (also portrayed here) and many others. I guess that is a form of progress and thus positivism, don’t you think?
Your point about the differences in the British and Dutch situations with regard to black artists is well made and very pertinent here. It is important not to conflate different artistic and art historical contexts and approaches. As you say the development of ‘black art’ as an art historical question has a longer history in the UK than in the Netherlands where perhaps this question has not really been raised. And yet I see in Iris’s works and the way you described them, a possible opening and bridge between these two seemingly very different cultural and historical art worlds. First, in stylistic terms her works engage art history and more particularly Dutch and European traditions of modernism in dynamic and complex ways. I’m struck for example by the sheer number and diversity of artistic strategies she deploys in order to insert ‘blackness’ into the canvas and wider art history: from word-text juxtapositions that allude to conjoined histories of conceptual art and black activism (Keith Piper’s early works come to mind here) in Then They Marched; to the Van Gogh type dense overlay of colour, brushstroke and painterly gesture in a work such as The Widow; to the hazy washes of funereal dark colours that explore states of mourning and the death of historical figures which is reflected through her appropriation of media and pop imagery in a dialogue with artists such as Wilhelm Sasnal and Luc Tuymans (James Brown is Dead), albeit with a more positivist intention. The second bridge relates to the transnational dialogue about blackness and art that is played out in her work. The work effectively stages a complex aesthetic conversation between traditions of black art and political activism; as well as art historical tropes and styles such as conceptualism, portraiture and drawing. So I agree with you: I see in her work both ‘progress and positivism’ and at the same time it speaks to opening up a conversation about many of the vexed issues in the conservative Dutch and UK art worlds.
I agree and I want to add one more stylistic feature of Iris’ work: seriality. It is present in works such as De ware geest van ‘t vrije, vrije Suriname (The true spirit of the free, free Surinam) which refers to a very black page of Surinam’s post-colonial history, and of course in the series of portraits of black musicians in We the People who are darker than Blue, which is still on-going. Again I’m thinking of Marlene Dumas or for that matter, Boltanski, as her impulse to archive and order things is consciously used to emphasize a specific itinerary in cultural history. A very poignant feature of the exhibition consists of the murals she has made, based on early abstract paintings of Mondrian from 1916-1918, which serve here as backdrops for some of the portraits of black persons. The murals refer to that phase of Dutch modernism that stands out with regard to progress and freedom both in art and society as a whole. With this conjunction I think Iris tells us that such positivism in our current era can only be sustained through taking the notion of a truly transcultural society at heart.
Let me finish with the most recent work in the show, Ferguson. In this pastel we see a couple among the riot fires, drawn after a photograph, in vivid colours. Iris added five ink drawings to it, for which she has chosen different cuts of the same photograph, trying to capture the woman’s fear. It is a way of storytelling and making drama inspired by comic books and graphic novels. One of the drawings the composition is mixed with the same Mondrianesque features as in one of the murals: it functions here as an expression of fear. I can’t prevent from reading this as a kind of warning: our institutions – not only the administrative and political but also our cultural institutions – are not yet into a transcultural mode of thinking in tandem with the changing demography in European and especially Dutch society today. Whereas the cultural institutions should fight for this in the frontline, hand in hand with artists like Mondrian. So again, I can’t prevent myself from allegorical reading. I do hope your work with Sonia will help us in finding a universal language that suits the transcultural future of art!
Jelle Bouwhuis is curator at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam / Stedelijk Museum Bureau Amsterdam.
Professor Paul Goodwin is curator based in London, he is UAL Chair of Black Art and Design Studies, Professor of Transnational Curating and Director of the Research Centre for Transnational Art, Identity and Nation (TrAIN) at University of the Arts, London.