Shifting Colours, Ferdinand van Dieten
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.
Text by Ferdinand van Dieten, March 16, 2014. Translation Annabel Howland.
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.