The Measurement of Presence, Venice Biennale 2019, The New Utopia Begins Here #1
STUDY IN BLACK MODERNITY, 2015 – 2017, 300 x 600 cm. collection Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven (on photos the wall presentation 300 x 2300 cm)
Exhibition : 11/04/2017 – 12/06/2017, Curator: Annie Fletcher
“Dutch artist Iris Kensmil has made a new work for the Van Abbemuseum’s collection. Kensmil combines abstract patterns, classical portraiture and references from politics and literature that resonate with her position as a Black artist.
The installation includes a series of publications from key figures within what Kensmil calls Black Modernity. All of these books are available to read in our Library. In the installation, these books are accompanied by a series of drawings, large and small, which reflect on the historic position of the back subject within emancipatory politics, art history, hiphop and the anti racist and Black Lives Matter protests which have recently gained increasing visibility and traction. For Kensmil her style of painting and use of portraiture has a specific function. By bringing them into the European art museum she gives Black individuals, who have had a formative historic role, their place in art history.
Study in Black Modernity was commissioned as part of Becoming More, a ten-day caucus event comprising lectures, performances, screenings, commissions, discussions and food hosted by the Van Abbemuseum. Kensmil has been invited along with other artists to develop and co-author the caucus. Drawing on previously neglected histories and generating new work with promising artists in the Netherlands stimulates the Van Abbe to take part in a broader dialogue as a catalyst for change. In this context Iris Kensmil has convened the programme of the opening on Thursday 18 May (lecture by Gloria Wekker) an the programme On experiences and Choices on Friday 19 May.”
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.
Iris Kensmil, Willem de Rooij, Shifting Colours, 13 March – 4 May 2014, curated by Anke Bangma within the framework of the exhibition Black & White in the Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam.
By Ferdinand van Dieten, March 16, 2014. Translation Annabel Howland.
The exhibition Black & White examines questions of colour in Dutch society today. Who is black and who is white? Who decides? How does the legacy of slavery affect the present? A multitude of questions and facts are presented alongside each exhibit on show. Off to one side, in a small gallery, a white octagonal space has been constructed which detaches the room from the decorative, fin-du-siecle architecture of the museum. This is is the first thing that strikes you when you enter the space and see the large colour panels on the wall.
Three works by Willem de Rooij – two large and one slightly smaller – hang evenly distributed on the walls; woven fabrics on stretchers bearing an abundance of tonal pinks. The gaze is then drawn to the wealth of detail in the painted portraits by Iris Kensmil hanging in between; two large paintings of seated women and two smaller male portraits.
These abstract and figurative paintings go remarkably well together. In this context, the coloured surfaces of de Rooij’s bespoke woven fabrics become more painterly, revealing all the subtly and vibrance of the colours. In front of Kensmil’s paintings, one is immediately drawn to the hues of the skin tones and the dynamic pattern of the dress worn by one of the women. Each individual work and the presentation as a whole is emphatically aesthetic, with all the elements exuding meticulous care.
Iris Kensmil invited Willem de Rooij to partner her in this exhibition. Together they have made an installation that breaks free of the immediate context. But we know from earlier work by Willem de Rooij that there is more at play here than initially meets the eye. Essential to de Rooij’s work is the way in which he pushes to an extreme the decontextualising force of the modernist white cube by using a highly precise aesthetic. This radical expulsion of referentiality is significant. Marcel Duchamp thematised decontextualisation and transformed it into one of the ways art is made. In the reclamation of Duchamp’s work at the end of the last century, we see that, at a certain point, there was a moment of choice: What do we want decontextualisation to do? Irony is possible, as is aestheticisation, and symbolism too – all strategies Duchamp himself deployed. But this way of working also gives rise to the freedom to present new relations and contexts; the opportunity to freely create meaning, released from references to that which is already known. The artist is able to generate this freedom by taking up Duchamp’s gesture and pushing it further into recontextualisation.
Pink never occurs in the Suprematist works of Malevich or in Mondriaan. There was no place for pink in the art of the new era, which they chose to communicate in pure forms and colours. Here, in de Rooij’s abstract works, pink is woven into the fabric in numerous gradations and hues. In the text accompanying the exhibition, curator Anke Bangma writes, ‘The dialogue with Kensmil’s portraits strengthens the associations evoked by the shades of pink. Is pink – used in painting to render the skin tones of white people – a better counterpart to black than seemingly neutral “white”? Or does pink conjure up associations with another, equally unresolved emancipation struggle?’
Iris Kensmil’s portraits in this exhibition are of migrants in former Dutch colonies: Ghanians who were recruited for the Royal Dutch East-Indian Army (KNIL) and called Belanda hitam – black Dutch – by the inhabitants of the Netherlands East Indies; and boeroes, descendants of poor Dutch peasants, who were the first white people in Suriname to carry out physical labour. She has called this series Displaced Persons. By choosing these subjects, she expands the common, all too selective perception of colonial migrants.
Iris Kensmil made her name with paintings of black people who made history. These were often activists of the Black emancipation struggle, such as Marcus Garvey or Gazon Matodja. By portraying them in a style derived from ‘Western’ painting traditions, Kensmil locates them firmly within the canon of European history. But she also consistently places her paintings within the context of autonomy in painting, resisting any linking of her themes to africanism or other quasi-authentic forms. Her stand on the style of painting relates thus analogous to the play between decontextualisation / recontextualisation that this exhibition highlights.
Iris Kensmil and Willem de Rooij’s installation is sited in a very special context, is delightfully harmonious, but, more importantly and in many different ways, it is a compelling statement about how to make art.
SMBA, Amsterdam (cat) and Nubuku Foundation, Accra Ghana, 2012 curator: Jelle Bouwhuis, Kofi Setordji
Solo @ Jan Cunen Museum, Oss, 2008, curated by René Pingen
Galerie Ferdinand van Dieten, Amsterdam, 2008