Shifting Colours, Ferdinand van Dieten


Shifting Colours

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.


A history for the future


A history for the future

Positions of Iris Kensmil

TEXT Ferdinand van Dieten / TRANSLATION Sranan Art Xposed/Cassandra Gummels-Relyveld

As mentioned earlier on in this SAX, the artwork Granmans Oso by Iris Kensmil was unveiled in Moengo on Sunday the 28th of July. For the weeks preceding that, Iris Kensmil stayed in Moengo as artist in residence at Tembe Art Studio (TAS). The art of Iris Kensmil (Amsterdam, 1970) is about black self-awareness and the struggle for emancipation. In 2009 she participated in the Wakaman – Drawing Lines, Connecting Dots project in Suriname. During her residency, on June the 27th, the artist gave a presentation at the Nola Hatterman Art Academy together with her husband Ferdinand van Dieten. Regrettably, the turnout was very poor. Fortunately though, Sranan Art Xposed (SAX) has found Ferdinand van Dieten willing to put his presentation in writing. Below is a abrivated version. 

1 – Iris Kensmil is a Black European

Since 2000 the work of Iris Kensmil is represented by Galerie Ferdinand van Dieten and it is regularly on display. The early works with the non-figurative personal “stories” was especially appreciated for its painterly qualities and sold well to private artbuyers. Various museum curators—also Rudi Fuchs—started to follow the work. In 2004 Iris Kensmil started to make work about black self-awareness and the struggle for emancipation. At the same time her work became figurative. When the results of those choices were coming to light, the interest from museums gradually was growing. For exhibitions and purchases of her work, they are currently the most important group. Dutch individuals prefer to leave being interested in “exotics” to the professionals, they themselves rarely are.

Iris Kensmil was raised in Suriname from the age of one until nine, but as an artist she was formed in the Netherlands, thus in Europe. And she is (mostly) black. The problem however, is that “Black Europeans” do not exist. There is no place where, as a Black European, you will encounter an image from your history. The Europeans—and especially the Dutch—have no interest for it. In Europe, the United Kingdom is the only place where there has been a discussion about Black Art. In the USA, unlike Europe, being black and the relationship of black people to America is an urgent theme indeed. And there have been many debates about Black Art there as well. But Black Europeans are not recognized in America and they place Iris Kensmil in the category of the Caribbeans (and make no mistake, there this means: a significant step lower on the social ladder compared to African-Americans and African-Africans, somewhere close to Latinos).

2 – Iris Kensmil and Black Art

What position has Iris Kensmil actually taken on Black Art? Her work in the past ten years has been inspired by a question about identity as a black person. Due to this question, her work is part of the Black Art movement. But for her identity, she is not searching for roots. Her focus is on the present and the recent history. Not the origin, but the future is her criteria to know where she herself stands. The future, as it has been influenced also by the struggle for emancipation, the struggle of black people. For the sake of that question about such active historical role, slavery isn’t—just as roots are not—a theme in the work of Iris Kensmil. For her, this future-oriented identity takes shape by making images of the black emancipation, which will become part of the historical canon. 

3 – Iris Kensmil as an artist

The content of a work of art is determined not only by the theme, but mainly by the choices for forms, choices which influence the way one experiences the image regardless of what it represents. Iris Kensmil has always had the ambition to be an artist who with her own style, aiming to differentiate herself from all familiar images, aiming for a unique position compared to other art, through which the work permanently retains its significance in the collective memory, also outside of the original context. She has always fought to find forms that are exactly right for her themes, and are not already, in another way known, and thus already loaden with associations. The style of herown, gives her a position in art history.
Iris Kensmil paints and draws in a European way. This can be seen in her emphasis on use of lighti, on the unity of foreground and background, on touch and on materiality. In the forms of her imagery—just as with her themes—, Iris Kensmil does not chose African origins (or what is considered as such by people who express their identity by working in a style, which everybody deems to recognize as African). Though, I must emphasize here, that not every use of ‘Africanisms’ refers to a roots-idea. Conceptual artists such as Chris Ofili, Yinka Shonibare and Meschac Gaba use excessive African visual language with irony. They consciously do that to challenge that origin-based way of thinking and to compel people to free the content of their work from it. See Contemporary African Art in the times of Intense Proximity at the Triennale 2012.
For Iris Kensmil her own style, with European drawing and painting techniques, has the effect that her images of black heroes become a part of the historical canon within the culture in which she lives and works.

1 – Time, Trade & Travel was an exchange project between Ghana and the Netherlands. For this Kensmil created work about cultural exchange – but not Ghana-the Netherlands, but Ghana-Suriname and Ghana-USA – and about the shifting of meanings when exchanging forms. In the Netherlands the work was looked at as a type of ethnography, while in Ghana the play with various forms and cultures was seen and recognized. From left to right: the wax panels: Akan Chief and Saramacca Door and right the wall with screen prints about W.E.B. Du Bois.
| PHOTO G.J. van Rooij, 2012

2 – King Dead. The struggle of the African Americans most closely offers, for Black Europeans, an image of their own history. For Iris Kensmil, Suriname also belongs to her background. | PHOTO G.J. van Rooij, 2007

3 – In the Schuttersgalerij of the Amsterdam Museum http://hart.amsterdammuseum.nl/62426/en/out-of-history there are currently three (155 x 105 cm) oil portraits by Iris Kensmil on display, of Surinamese people who, against the colonial oppression, built up their own position and future. They are Elisabeth Samson (1715-1777), Wilhelmina Kelderman (1734-1836) and Fabi Labi Breyman. Elisabeth Samson was a freeborn black woman who managed to accumulate assets in excess of one million guilders. She was the first black woman to enter into a legally recognized marriage with a white man. Wilhelmina Kelderman bought her own freedom. She traveled to the Netherlands and later managed to also buy the freedom of her son. Fabi Labi Breyman was Granman [captain] of the Okanisi: the first Maroon group to sign a treaty with the colonial rulers in Suriname in 1760. | PHOTO Courtesy artist, 2013

Another version of this text appeared in de Ware Tijd on July 31, 2013.

Ferdinand van Dieten is agent for artists, amongst which Iris Kensmil https://www.iriskensmil.nl/, and he is artdealer. He continues to build on the 24 year gallery ownership of Galerie Ferdinand van Dieten – Galerie d’Eendt www.dieten.biz. He has published texts within the framework of themed exhibitions of the gallery, such as The painting and the memory of painting, and ‘Transnihilistische propositions’ and for projects and catalogues of his artists.
Eventueel nog een bijschrift:
Work by Chris Ofili, Yinka Shonibare and Meschac Gaba | PHOTOS Courtesy artists


The history of the Universal Negro


The history of the Universal Negro

Hendrik Folkerts, in Metropolis M, 29 November 2008.

Galerie Ferdinand van Dieten – D’Eendt
22/11/08 – 22/12/08

‘Yes, we can. Yes, we did.’ The famous slogan, issued from the presidential campaign of Barack Obama, marks the outset of the solo exhibition Get Up, Stand Up by Iris Kensmil in gallery Ferdinand van Dieten – d’Eendt in Amsterdam.

Kensmil displays her recent works in painting, drawing and installation, which seek to give an account of the emancipation history of black people, specifically in the United States. Her work emphasises on iconic figures and movements who helped to shape this history, such as the Black Panthers and Marcus Garvey (founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League). In choosing these particular examples Kensmil walks a fine line between historical documentation, or a consideration of history, and artistic engagement.

While the theme of the emancipation history of black people covers all works on display, they differ greatly in execution. Nevertheless, the intertwinement of word and image, always a characteristic element in Kensmil’s art, also remains evident here, for example in Our Battle Cry (2008).

Our Battle Cry
2008, 120 x 150 cm, oil on canvas

On the one hand there are paintings. In canvases as the before-mentioned Our Battle Cry and Universal Negro (2008) we see a painting style reminiscent of works from the beginning of Kensmil’s career in which the paint was applied equally thick in small brush strokes.

Universal Negro
2008, 160 x 240 cm, oil on canvas

However, there has been a change in atmosphere. Whereas the colours in earlier examples of the artist’s work such as Funky Funky (2003) were more warm, vibrant and exotic, the mood has now shifted to a darker, at times even obscure, and more serious tone.

Funky, Funky
2003, oil on canvas, 200 x 180 cm, collection Museum Het Valkhof, Nijmegen

The exhibition also presents drawings, executed on paper with casein, ink, tempera and pastel. The three key works in this section Then They Marched (2008), The True Meaning (2008) and Their Spirits (2008) (in image left-middle-right) form an installation, in which portrait mug shots of Black Panther activists are shown overlaying and accompanying textual battle cries that relate to this African-American movement. All the drawings, even the enigmatic If the Negro is Inferior (2007), have an exceptional persuasive quality about them. They literally draw up a history of suffering and struggling. Yet simultaneously, in the gaze of the portraits/mug shots and the stature of the standing figures, these images bear witness to a dignified but imperative call for black people (or in this case, African-Americans) to be participants in world history.

They Marched, 2008; The True Meaning, 2008; Their Spirits, 2008

Get Up, Stand Up is first and foremost an exhibition that is concerned with a history of emancipation. Kensmil’s work describes that history by foregrounding some of its greatest protagonists. Although the texts in or guiding the images often embrace the activism that goes with the black emancipation history, the images never directly call for this kind of engagement. They reveal the activists, showing their combative, vulnerable or disheartened side. Somewhere in between the image and the text, in the middle of history and activism, the spectator can decide for him/herself.

Universal Negro
2008, 160 x 240 cm, oil on canvas

Kensmil’s approach of history is however not necessarily a critical one. For instance, looking at Universal Negro or the artist’s Surinam background in comparison to her depiction of the African-American history, the question rises if this claim of universality is legitimate. Is there such a thing as the negro and an universal black emancipation or should this struggle be defined in more specific cultural, national or even regional terms? Maybe a history of emancipation should be differentiated further, but Kensmil’s art proves—as did the world-wide responses to the campaign and election of Barack Obama—that the sentiment is in fact universal. Mr. President together with “Yes, we can. Yes, we did” does in this sense not only mark the beginning of this exhibition but also a next stage in the history that Kensmil is elucidating. It is a new icon, a new point of departure, stemming from a long line of predecessors, as if the artist were to say: “Yes, we always have.”


Get Up, Stand Up


Get Up, Stand Up

Ferdinand van Dieten in conversation with Iris Kensmil, in Negroes [are oké], artist monograph, Amsterdam 2008.

Ferdinand van Dieten: I have followed your work since the year 2000. At that time, you made paintings which depicted only text, for example, Negroes (are oké), and Thinking and since 2003, your work has for the most part been figurative. In both periods you have always said in explanatory remarks that you paint a ‘memory’. What do you mean by that?
Iris Kensmil: First of all I must explain how I start working on a painting. I collect images and texts, via the Internet, out of books and newspapers, pictures of other paintings. These images lie around my studio. At a certain point a particular image will return to my mind. Then I seek it out and make a painting of it.

So it is important that an image pops back into your mind.
Yes, I work out what makes the image important in a drawing, and then I start the painting.

In your mind, the memory is already a meaningful image, which you then embody in the drawing. What is the importance of painting it after that?
It’s a certain necessity, the drawing is not enough. A drawing can be just as interesting as a painting, but in a different way. The painting is a struggle between the material and the image, and there is the tension of how can I work the oil paint in order to turn dimensions, texture, colour and form into an image. I have to consider the relations between the colours, between the forms etc., to judge them and then adjust them.
The drawing goes faster, it is a gathering together of ideas that you almost jot down on paper. The painting must be built up, which takes more time. And then you achieve a result that no longer has a beginning or end, there is a cohesion between all parts that is meaningful as a whole. It transcends the time in which you have been working on it. 1

This idea contradicts a commonly held view that the peculiarity of the arts lies precisely in the process of its making, as abstract expressionism showed in extremis, yet wouldn’t you say that there is not so very much difference between drawing and painting, as for example is evidenced by the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat?
Basquiat’s paintings are more heavily charged than his drawings. With him, a drawing is more of a written picture; he goes deeper into things with painting. You do see a handwriting, but the whole also has no beginning or end. For that matter, it is also true for Jackson Pollock that the whole cannot be reduced to the process of the making.

Your parents come from Surinam and you yourself lived there from the age of one until you were nine. That is reflected in your work in personal impressions. Recently you made a wall painting, Who Speaks (December 82), about the December murders in Surinam in 1982 by the regime of Desi Bouterse, which in terms of style is reminiscent of some of your works on the Black Panthers. How should I interpret such work?
I think this manner of working is fitting for the historical topic, but it is also personal. In 1982, I went back to Surinam with my parents and my sister, Natasja. That was the first time since I had left. The situation in the country was tense; it was a short time after the coup d’état and there was a curfew and the air was buzzing with talk about what was going on. People were afraid, wondering who was going to be a victim; you could not speak out. In our family a cousin by marriage, a lawyer, was killed.

How do you look back at that experience now?
Because I had known a totally different Surinam, it was strange to experience all that tension, to see how the country was going downhill. Independence actually should have been a celebration but there was a tragedy going on, and it still is.
The other Surinam paintings, like Busstop and Hope To See You Soon, have an entirely different character.
Yes, that is much more what I inherited from my youth, the colours, the odours, which are different, the light. In 2003, I went there again. By that time I was already an artist and could see much better what I had missed in the Netherlands. The trip enabled me to figure it all out and when I was back in my studio I could use that in my work. I was already busy with black consciousness. But after I had been back in Surinam, it became even clearer to me that I wanted to go deeper into that in my work.

When I look at your early work, I discern personal memories that gain deeper meaning, visual strength, in a painting. But with your recent work I see historical images of black people and black emancipation movements in America. In what way is this theme so important for you that these works become ‘memories’?
Those images fascinate me. Being black is an emotionally charged issue for me, and black emancipation even more so. The emancipation movement was before my time, but when I think about myself as a black person, I end up at emancipation.

You recognize yourself in a movement you did not participate in.
Yes, emancipation is a part of history for me, just like for everyone else, but I have a connection with it. It is a beautiful history, including its awful aspects, which fascinates me.

I see two different sides in those movements. You have the non-violent movement for an independent life or even a separate country for blacks, with Marcus Garvey and the integration movement with Martin Luther King on the one side, and the struggle against the violent white-dominated society by Malcolm X, and later the Black Panthers, on the other side. How do you see that element of struggle adding to the way Garvey and King envisioned emancipation?
Malcolm X is a fascinating hero. He was a street criminal. In prison he started thinking about why he straightened his hair, read the Koran and joined the Black Muslims. He was a terrific speaker, who offered large groups of blacks an alternative for their inferior position in so-called ‘Christian’ America.
The pictures of Malcolm X and the Black Panthers emanate an aura of power; they show they are not afraid. They appear in public openly, they defend themselves against the local police. They show that you can stand up for yourself, react against the violence you are subjected to – if you know the law the way Huey Newton, one of the leaders of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, used his knowledge of the law.
Having an aura of power is also part of emancipation. The return to Africa and the ‘black industry’ that Marcus Garvey wanted never happened but he is impressive as the initiator of a movement and a symbol of black self-confidence. The way I personally see it, there is no difference between King, who successfully fought for equal civil rights and integration, and Garvey and Malcom X, whose movements were undermined and defeated. 2

Your explanation about the specific overtones you are looking for in these historic images is clear. But isn’t it true that one should leave an historic picture in its original state as much as possible in order to remain as close as possible to the original story? What significance does it have for you to take such a picture and rework it?
An historic photograph represents a particular part of an earlier story. That story is important, but I don’t want to tell the whole thing all over again. So each of these parts is now separate, an image in itself. I use black-and-white pictures. I don’t want to be distracted by colours, because colours as they relate to one another are a personal experience. But neither do I use the whole of the black-and-white image, as it is not coherent due to the lack of a visual relationship between the forms. That’s why I can cut up a black-and-white image and then put the pieces back together again, not by means of a new story, but by means of a coherent image, which I achieve by making the painting into a whole through colour contrasts, surface structure, relative size and such means.

And as an extra visual element you use text. In your figurative works you placed the texts on top of the image; in your recent paintings the texts form a thick base under the image, one that is often no longer legible.
Experimenting with different placements of text in relation to the image always produces new ways to make a painting good, and it gives you the freedom to rediscover image and text. Most of those texts come from the black emancipation movement, or from the writers like Ben Okri.
Before, the texts completed the image. Now the figurative image is elevated above the text – although the text is still very important, because it is a kind of history, a history that you can feel, as it were, but can’t quite manage to decipher. It has become fainter, while still very obviously being present, sometimes legible, other times not. On another level, in terms of making the painting, this base is important, for it feels as if you are painting against the grain.

  1. This description of what makes a painting successful provokes further questions. Besides transcending the process of creating it, does an artwork also rise above the ‘horizon’ of the artist? Can a visual image ‘write history’, not as a chronicle, but as an image of inner coherency, of by-itself-ness, that amidst continuous change remains itself? Is there such a thing as transcending time within time? People used to see art in the light of a faith that also implied transcendence. With the loss of this faith, a negation of transcendence has taken its place. Since then, art criticism has referred to mystery or to the artist as the originator of a new design of the world – two barely credible ways of transcending the maelstrom of events. Would it not be better – just like people can secularize the concepts of faith and hope from which Martin Luther King Jr. conceived his idea of history – to again consider transcendence – in this case, art’s capacity to transcend time by fulfilling its meaning not only in its own time, but also throughout time – a part of today’s world? ↩︎
  2. The American theologist James H. Cone argues in ‘Martin & Malcolm & America, a Dream or a Nightmare’ that the Christian churches should take inspiration from both King and Malcolm X. They are each necessary as complement and criticism of each other. Integration and segregation are both old traditions in ‘The Great Tradition of Black Protest’ (Vincent Harding). Malcolm X formulated the synthesis in his ‘The Ballot or the Bullet’ speech: ‘No, I’m not for separation and you’re not for integration. What you and I are for is Freedom. … We’ve just got different ways of getting it.’ (ibid, p. 247). This book is also recommended reading for those who want to understand later developments, for example, the speeches of Jeremiah Wright, the minister whose name is connected with Barack Obama. ↩︎


Reminders of the black struggle for emancipation


Reminders of the black struggle for emancipation

By Roel Arkesteijn, in: Respect! Forms of community. Contemporary art from the Netherlands. Catalogue, Amsterdam, 2006 pp. 134-141.

Iris Kensmil creates rocking paintings with postcolonial themes. She was born in Amsterdam but spent part of her youth in Paramaribo, the capital of Surinam, a country that be came independent in 1975 after centuries of Dutch colonization. In her work Kensmil draws on personal memories as well as a range of historical textual and visual material documenting struggles for black emancipation and independence, as well black consciousness. Kensmil is interested in the motives and personal histories of those involved in these struggles. In the absence of societal reflection in the Netherlands on the history of black emancipation, she creates a personal visual chronicle.

At first Kensmil produced fairly formal paintings with some what subversive texts that sounded like they came from rap songs—‘distress signals in oil paint’, as one reviewer characterized them. The texts broke through the rigid grid of her paintings, like pent-up cries from the heart which had to be released in an eruption. ‘Nigers (are OK)’, reads the title of one of the works from this period. Beginning in 2003, Kensmil introduced figures into her paintings: people on the street, family members, and freedom fighters, often based on photos. Her vitriolic palette of the syncopated Rasta-colours canary yellow, apple green, bright blue, and blazing red, remained, along with the raw, pock-marked skin tones that she achieves by mixing resin with her paint. The combination of provocative texts, tumbling perspectives, and wrenching oppositions between flat and textured elements produces edgy paintings that act as the visual equivalent of rap or ragga. The paintings seem to have as least as much to do with Afro-culture as with the art-historical examples to which Kensmil refers. Despite the charged subject matter she touches upon, her work remains subversive and cheerful thanks to her style, and it never preaches.

Since 2005 Kensmil has been making, along with paintings, complex installations in which she combines canvases with ‘objets trouvés’ she has painted or drawn on. For instance, for Respect! Kensmil created House of Day Dreams (2005). The work represents a homage to African, African American and Caribbean writers who are important to her. Against the back ground of a schematically drawn house she displays a gallery featuring portraits of Ben Okri, Ken Saro-Wiwa, Maryse Condé, James Baldwin, and Ellen Kuzwayo, amongst others. In the Installation Free, Free at Last (2005), Kensmil sets up a fictional pantheon of fighters for black emancipation — people who left their mark on the black struggle for independence and freedom over the last two centuries. She presents portraits of Marcus Garvey, Patrice Lumumba, Angela Davis, and Nelson Mandela, amongst others, against the background of a map of American slave states. The installation also includes swings made of wooden benches. Similar benches were carved by Maroons in Suriname—descendants of escaped slaves who fled to the jungle. The canvas and benches are painted with texts by Martin Luther King Jr. 


Van Truth – Bruce – Truce naar Divine Words


Van Truth – Bruce – Truce naar Divine Words

Moniek Peters, in Catalogus van het Wim Izaks stipendium, 2004.

Hoewel Iris Kensmil (1970) geboren werd in Amsterdam, groeide ze op in Suriname. Ze is zo iemand die altijd al wist dat ze later kunstenaar zou worden. Ze zette van kindsbeen af aan haar verhalen en mijmeringen om in tekeningen. Nadat ze op haar negende opnieuw naar Nederland verhuisde, pakte ze de draad weer op door ook hier nieuwe indrukken al tekenend vast te leggen. In dit land kon ze vervolgens ook naar de kunstacademie. Het werd Academie Minerva in Groningen omdat ze het spannend vond om geïsoleerd van Amsterdam, ver van familie en vrienden, hard te werken aan de schilderkunst. In 1996 deed ze eindexamen, terwijl ze al sinds 1995 met haar werk naar buiten treedt. 

In de hooguit acht jaar dat Kensmil haar werk laat zien, is de ontwikkeling die het doormaakt verrassend. Vóór 2003 gaat het haar puur om het schilderen. Ze verkent in die jaren vele schilderkunstige mogelijkheden. Wat doet een felle kleur tegen een donkere achtergrond? Wat brengt een zware contour om een vorm teweeg? En welk effect heeft het wanneer een vorm in de ruimte wordt geschilderd? Het opbouwen van de kleuren gebeurt, laag over laag, op het doek zelf en zint er haar iets niet dan schildert ze daar weer vrij overheen.
Om al deze schildereffecten te kunnen uitbuiten, neemt ze in die jaren een ogenschijnlijk neutraal onderwerp, namelijk letters die ze in kleurvlakken uitwerkt. Zelf ziet ze het als abstract werken. In het schilderij Zonder titel, uit 1999, is het doek als vlak verdeeld in letters die als kleurcompartimenten het compositieraster aangeven. De werkwijze mag dan door haarzelf als abstract worden gezien, het werk oogt naast dat het suggestief is vooral duister en geheimzinnig. Dat komt niet alleen door de in het oog springende letters, waaruit (quasi)woorden gevormd kunnen worden als EAT, ART, BACON, CINERY. Ook de kleurkeuze (rood tegen legergroen met een zwarte contour, of blauw tegen wit) en de spontane intuïtieve manier van schilderen, (tegen de rijen ‘eigen’ verzonnen onorthodoxe letters schildert ze een licht roze wolk) roepen deze indruk op. Het is van sfeer een optimistisch en tegelijk gevoelig doek. Het schilderij The Truce uit 2001 bestaat eveneens uit verdraaide letters. Het is naar haar zeggen, ontstaan onder invloed van de letterschilderijen van Bruce Naumann, waarin letters, woorden en hun betekenis zijn verbasterd. The truth, de waarheid, wordt truce (wapenstilstand, vrede), waarschijnlijk letterlijk als gevolg van een associatie met Bruce. Het niet precies kloppen en niet meteen leesbaar zijn in zo’n tekstschilderij is bewust iedere keer gekozen. De toevallige associatie is eigenlijk een mooie toevoeging. De woorden komen voort uit herinneringen, vaak aan Suriname of ook wel doordat ze in haar naaste omgeving iets leest of ziet dat in haar hoofd blijft hangen. Door er tekeningen van te maken, komt het vervolgens los van die betekenis die het als herinnering had. Van de meest interessante tekening wordt een schilderij gemaakt dat dan meer over kleur en techniek gaat. Heel aangrijpend is bijvoorbeeld het tweeluik Nigers (are OK), 2000. Met de pasteus aangebrachte verf zijn de woorden NIGER – NEGOS als een kreet groot op het vlak geschilderd. Het ziet er naar uit dat de letters na lang aarzelen deze woorden gaan vormen en dat nog één van de letters de gebruikelijke positie niet heeft ingenomen en is omgekeerd. Het is haast figuratief te noemen wat hier is geschilderd. De beginletters zijn in ongemengd roze. Bij de rest van de woorden NIGER – NEGOS lijkt het alsof de roze letters hardnekkig door de zwarte ondergrond heen proberen te komen. Dit emotionele beeld wordt teruggedrongen door een constructief raster, een verbeelding van een stenen muur waar NEGOS op staat.

In 2003 ontstaan uitgesproken figuratieve schilderijen. Qua beeld en inspiratie herinneren deze werken allemaal aan Suriname. Op de vraag wat ze het eerst voor zich ziet wanneer ze aan Suriname denkt, is het antwoord van Kensmil dat ze aan een kleur denkt, de kleuren geel of geel-groen die ook veel in haar werk voorkomen. Zo zijn haar Surinaamse neefjes Jacob en Vladimir geschilderd tegen een achtergrond van deze rastakleuren. Het is een van de eerste figuratieve schilderijen zonder tekst. Welke picturale strategieën heeft Kensmil bij het maken van zo’n dubbelportret? Ze is uitgegaan van een basis van twee dicht op elkaar staande figuren en schept daar een ruimte omheen. De vorm van de twee lichamen is niet gedetailleerd en loopt kaal afgesneden in elkaar over. Geraffineerd geven de rode strepen van de trui van het ene figuur een plastische ronding tegen de plattere borstpartij van de ander. Dit zoeken naar evenwicht tussen plasticiteit en platheid keert in het figuratieve werk voortdurend terug. Achter de figuren wordt, deels door schuine horizontale en deels door verticale balken een ruimte gecreëerd met een diep naar achter getrokken perspectief.
In Bus Stop uit 2004 zijn meerdere figuren als losse individuen boven en onder elkaar geschilderd. Ze bevinden zich in de ruimte van de bus. De inhoud van het schilderij en de uitdrukking van de figuren zijn al vooraf vastgelegd in de tekening, maar door het schilderen en door het gebruik van kleur veranderen ze vervolgens weer enigszins. Ogen, mond en wenkbrauwen zijn heel bepalend en maken de levendigheid uit van de groep mensen, van wie de een ons recht aankijkt en de ander in profiel is geschilderd. Duidelijk is te zien dat Kensmil wél uitgebreid de kleuren uitwerkt, maar niet de stofuitdrukking. Wél een uitgewogen kleur van het gezicht en de handen, maar géén details als een pols of vingerkootje. Om de voor haar werk specifieke rauwe, glimmende en korrelige schilderhuid te verkrijgen gebruikt Kensmil een hars in de olieverf.

In 2004 is de tekst weer terug. In Divine Words is die tekst er echter vooral als titel van het werk en is het gebruik ervan vergeleken met de oude tekstschilderijen spaarzaam. Wat betreft het controle houden over het schilderij is het haast een klassiek expressionistisch werk uit de jaren ’30 van de vorige eeuw. Het bezit de kracht van een portret van Charlie Toorop, hoewel minder gekuist. De religieuze attributen waaraan het schilderij de titel ontleent, zijn er als platte details op het laatste moment, zonder kleur, in het wit aan toegevoegd. Het is in zoverre vergelijkbaar met Jacob & Vladimir dat de diagonale rastabalken van het ene schilderij naar het andere zijn overgebracht en ze vormen ook hier de achtergrond van de ruimte. De werkwijze van Iris Kensmil om woorden of rasters te gebruiken naast het figuratieve is gedurfd. De tekst manifesteert zich namelijk als een derde laag, complementair aan de eerste basislaag van de figuratie en de tweede laag van de ruimte om de figuur heen.