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Sub: Essay Spirits of the Soil

Partners: Raquel van Haver, Azu Nwagbogu

Disciplines: Graphic Design

Year: 2018


Azu Nwagbogu
chief curator | Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa

"The best way to approach the monumental paintings featured in Spirits of the Soil, Raquel van Haver’s first solo exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum, is to submit without trepidation to what is an overwhelming sensory experience."

The best way to approach the monumental paintings featured in Spirits of the Soil, Raquel van Haver’s first solo exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum, is to submit without trepidation to what is an overwhelming sensory experience. There must be none of that most banal of constraints to the quickening communion of the viewer with the artist and the art object—the fear of appearing gauche and unsophisticated. For this series is a bravura display of virtuosity, depth, scope, and scale, the proper appreciation of which requires not only a certain immaterial empathy with its marginalized subjects and subject matter but also the intrepidity of the fearless explorer. And there is plenty, if not to fear, but rather to lend a heightened sense of awareness, a foreboding in the narrative with the paintings in this series. 

The technical means by which the artist achieves these effects must first be noted. Expansive jute sack supports are prepared with a tar and glue base, upon which underdrawings are made in charcoal and chalk. This surface is then textured in a collage of plaster, oil paint, spray paint, plastics, paper, hair, and even ashes to create the high-relief images inherent with menace and foreboding featured in this exhibition. The technique of sculpting with paint that Van Haver has adopted for these compositions is enhanced by the expressive texturing, in particular the use of collage in pasting hair, plastic, and other materials, to achieve a sculptural post-expressionism that is appropriate for the clamorous vitality of the urban scenes portrayed in these works. The jumbled material complexity also evokes not merely sound but noise, and many varieties of it: the ferocious barking of squat, muscular pit bulls; the bass-heavy rhythms of rap music being recorded in a studio; the raucous laughter of drinkers at a bar; the whispered threats of neighborhood toughs. The deliberate texturing, layering, and material complexity of these paintings also initiate sensory associations aside from sound. The architectural elevation-style exposition of the sculptural image surfaces imparts the appearance not so much of stage sets that, stripped of the actors who are paid to bring them to life, retain little power to frighten or thrill, but of tableaux vivants inspired by art photography, constructed and designed for the walls as cross sections of slum existence with tangible, visual, olfactory, and auditory leitmotifs for each subject depicted. The synesthetic effects thus provoked place viewers in the teeming heart of these dwellings not as voyeurs or thrill seekers, but as beneficiaries of the power of art to inspire awe. Van Haver would declare inner interaction: “I am happiest when painting and the smell of oils and materials are soothing.” There can be no “consuming” this work; rather, the all-encompassing nature of the “living” image surfaces places spectators in a vital and confrontational relationship with scenes and subjects which, for many viewers, would be the stuff of real-life nightmares.


In Van Haver’s work, the rappers, street toughs, boozers, and flaneurs of Amsterdam’s Bijlmer neighborhood blend with the denizens of the favelas, barrios, and slums of Port of Spain, Paramaribo, Harare, London, Accra, Lagos, Cape Town, Havana, and any number of European, Latin American, Caribbean, and African cities to form a single urban mélange. This composite vision should be a dystopia, yet somehow the artist’s meticulous treatment uncovers life-affirming qualities that the viewer is invited to draw out. How is it possible for Van Haver to create art, beauty, and feeling from such subject matter?


The first clue lies in the creative and transformational dynamic underpinning the concept of “beauty.” Objectively, these paintings capture scenes not of beauty, but of decided revulsion. Yet, in the very act of depicting the life-and-death struggles of the types captured in their various scenes and interactions in all their squalidness, Van Haver clothes ugliness with immortality, making it beautiful in a way that recalls a certain English poet:

Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all

Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

John Keats, Ode on a Grecian Urn, 1819


Viewers may prefer not having to confront the ugliness and grimness of life in these marginalized districts, which is portrayed in such overwhelming scale and scope on these massive jute sacks, but by engaging all their senses, Van Haver compels viewers to acknowledge that this gritty, contemporary subject matter is as deserving of being transported by an artist’s inspiration and craft from the world of transience to that of permanence as the elegant figures carved on Keats’s Grecian urn. In turn, viewers obtain the same taste of eternity in the deviation from classical forms of beauty enshrined in these works of art as that which the English poet derived from the Attic vessel.


The second clue lies in the tension between the mortal subjects and scenes portrayed and their immortal depiction on these jute sack canvases—between the transience of life and the permanency of art—which is implicit in this artistic transformation. Van Haver’s texturally rich figures are outgrowths of impromptu sketches and photographs made while eating, drinking, conversing, and passing the time with the denizens of these marginal districts. Crucial to understanding the depths of her work is appreciating the material complexity—a constant in Van Haver’s work. The material origins of the jute sacks that serve as her canvas contain a loaded history of travel and trade, and the condensation of painting onto this surface through complex application and layering creates synesthetic associations that seduce the viewer into a communion with the protagonists of these everyday scenes, which are uncomfortably immersive in their immediacy. The viewer is instantly transported into these scenes. Yet this immediacy, this sense that real, living experiences have truthfully been captured in a moment of time in such tableaux, conceals the paradox that the creative metamorphosis wrought by the artist simultaneously places these scenes forever beyond the bounds of time. 


The figures portrayed by Van Haver could not present a greater contrast with the Homeric heroes immortalized on Keats’s vase. Yet the artistic transformation that places the static, unchanging demigods of the latter beyond the mortal human activities in which they are engaged in the real world also serves to release the ostensibly unheroic slum denizens of Van Haver’s paintings from the sovereignty of time. Van Haver discovers a permanence in the individuals and scenes portrayed that does not change or betray, and invites viewers to do the same. While these individuals and scenes may pass away, the universal element of chance or injustice in human affairs, which dictates that some will be born far from—and in fact may never come to know—the harsh realities of the ghetto existence depicted in these works, allied with the New Testament aphorism that “you will always have the poor with you” (Matthew 26:11), combine to give these individuals and scenes an enduring relevance.


Hence, in a world in which ghettos are unfortunately not only an ever-present reality, but living entities grinding ever greater numbers of humanity in their terrible maws, these works do not merely elevate and immortalize particular individuals and scenes, but bestow a veneer of eternity upon the universal human aspirations they represent. Van Haver transports spectators into this narrative in medias res, without preamble; not for exploitative purposes, but to better demonstrate that the struggle against the ugliness and grimness of the slum existence she unflinchingly portrays—and the persistent threat of violence arising from it—is every bit as heroic as the narratives of heroism in the art of the classical European tradition with which art lovers may be more familiar. 


This argument is pursued with rigor in a massive work – We do not sleep as we parade all through the night… – that makes compositional use of a masterpiece of the European visual arts canon, Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, as a backdrop for exploring issues of  race, identity, the African diaspora, and marginalized communities. This reinterpretation of a classic of the Western art historical canon distorts the original, but not in a traditional or conventional way. Francis Bacon’s Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X, for instance, transmogrifies the Spanish master’s Portrait of Innocent X into a grotesque, nightmarish study of a trapped man howling in terror inside a glass cage, which serves as an abstract representation of the cares associated with his papal office—but the desiccation and spiritual poverty of the subject is already present in the original work. 


Van Haver’s homage to Leonardo’s masterpiece can rather be seen as a form of postmodern ekphrasis, in which one kind of artwork (a collage painting on jute fabric that makes use of oil paint, plaster, spray paint, plastics, charcoal, tar, paper, ashes, and hair to create an almost molded, high-relief image surface) reimagines and makes a subversive commentary on another (an oil and tempera mural painting) by means of a visual narrative which, depending on viewer interpretation, either reinforces or subverts the spiritual message of the original. By intensifying and subtly altering both the essence and form of the original, Van Haver communicates an unsettling alternative narrative in which “liming” —a specifically Trinidadian term, referring to the pastime of doing nothing while sharing food, drink, conversation, and laughter, but which can be used for similarly carefree yet life-embracing communal activities found in African diaspora communities around the world—is equated with the last meal shared by Jesus and his apostles and, by analogy, with the weekly ritual of communion in commemoration of that event, by which Jesus is remembered by his followers around the world. 


The illuminative liveliness of Van Haver’s vision shines a light on Leonardo’s masterpiece by distilling from it an often overlooked didactic emphasis—that of the community relationship established by Jesus and his apostles in the act of eating and drinking. Yet, even as Van Haver distills the spirit of Leonardo’s painting, she proffers an alternative ideal of fellowship and communion, enhancing the artistic impact of the original work by means of synergy. Celebrating food and drink together is a universal—it binds communities together. The fellowship of Van Haver’s partygoers comes from the same universal impulse of seeking to reinforce spiritual ties by means of communion as that of Jesus and his apostles. In addition to highlighting this frequently obscured aspect of Leonardo’s narrative and accompanying message, Van Haver’s painting conveys its own story and message, by means of the dark palettes and dynamic figuration of its almost sculpted subjects. 


Instead of the figures of Jesus and the apostles, Van Haver captures an assortment of people eating and drinking together. The tableaux vivant of these ordinary people—who are seemingly reenacting the iconic image of Jesus and his apostles as captured by Leonardo, merely by happenstance—that Van Haver has recreated in this relief painting highlights the critical importance of celebrating life through simple, everyday rituals. By coming together to eat and drink, communities have always strengthened the bonds uniting them in a performance which is as old as humanity itself. 


A common feature of the communities depicted by Van Haver is communion. The figures captured in these paintings in sculpture are witnesses to community-conditioned human aspiration, whether through spirituality or reveling. For these individuals, conditions are not determinant of outlook; outlook is determinant of conditions. 


To capture the essence of these energies, Van Haver spent time with key groups in the community. She even funded and threw a party in Lagos, just to capture the energy she encountered at a previous celebration. “I really needed to see them in exaggerated poses again, and the only way was to throw them a party. They come alive when they have occasion to share.” The act of fellowship and joint participation, or the communion that groups of Christians observe weekly after the pattern immortalized in Leonardo’s painting, declares and manifests their unity. The “liming” captured in Van Haver’s painting represents the coming together in fellowship through the performance of communal eating that people in marginalized communities throughout the world engage in to reaffirm their unity and hope, despite the everyday struggles they must overcome as a function of living in overcrowded and stressful circumstances. “Liming” can take place anywhere, as can worship. The restaurants, street corners, music studios, and other settings featured in these works can all therefore be seen as theaters in which a particular type of universal celebration is taking place, one in which the differentness of neighbors living next to one another in crowded, uncomfortable, and often ugly environments is brought to life by Van Haver’s post-expressionism. 


Van Haver’s depiction does more than just bring to life the celebration of this practice amid the daily struggle for existence in the shanty towns, favelas, and barrios that are the only urban reality for tens of millions in African diaspora communities around the world. Rather, by means of layer upon layer of textured oil paint, spray paint, plastics, paper, and found objects, such as synthetic hair extensions, on charcoal and chalk sketches on jute sacks prepared with tar and glue, she has created cityscapes in lifelike relief sculptures that offer a social, cultural, economic, and political commentary on the abandonment of so many to such a fate. Each suffering face in the expressive style and dynamic figuration of these paintings is a living witness to thwarted ambition; each contorted figure captured in Van Haver’s moody palette of deep blues and blacks and purples is a monument to wasted human potential. 


The theme of time appears in this painting in a different guise, in the form of the ghoulish, indistinct figures with hollows for eyes—types rather than identifiable characters—sitting at the table. These forms have a faint echo of the grave about them. It is as if their boisterous reveling, their too-feverish embrace of the momentary pleasures of food and drink and companionship, are a frenzied attempt to outrun the shadows of mortality. The scene recalls two couplets from a poem by another master of English poetry:


The grave’s a fine and private place,

But none, I think, do there embrace


Thus, though we cannot make our sun 

Stand still, yet we will make him run

Andrew Marvell, To His Coy Mistress, 1681


Van Haver’s figures seek to outrun not only the sun, and the passing of time and the physical decay it represents, but also poverty itself. They do so not by means of the outward revelry captured in these scenes, but the inward faith which strengthens them and enables them to enjoy the everyday and companionship, despite the pervasive realities of life on the edge. Even if they are not explicitly observing the instructions given by Jesus to his followers to “do this in remembrance of me” in their “liming,” their ability to take part in the universal values of fellowship through sharing ensures that they paradoxically retain a sense of community and togetherness that is largely absent in the more upscale districts that are reputed to be the Heavens to their respective Hells.

The other works in this exhibition display the same thematic concerns: tableaux vivant, a forensic examination of the aftermath of a celebration, a gathering. The image is compelling and the viewer is transfixed and intoxicated by merely looking. 

A multifaceted understanding of isolation, displacement, and deprivation leads us to observe the less obvious devolution of power. These outsiders are not disempowered; they find strength in community. Do not pity them. Do not look away. The violence meted to communities of outsiders is through lack of engagement. Van Haver makes us look, and perhaps now, through engagement, we may begin to empathize. 

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