The Memory, the Consolation and the Hope. A Reflection on Beauty

I would not want to give them even a bite to eat, art promoters who censure the written word and visual image in order to avoid offending the public and sponsors. Every image, every word that does not fit within the general consensus of what is considered socially acceptable, is excluded, deleted, literally removed from sight. The result? Cultural flatness: Productions, exhibitions,   that are easily digestible, to the taste of a wider public and described by the majority as being ‘beautiful’.

Is this true beauty? No. But it does teach us something about the general view on ‘beauty’. It thus could have something to do with being proper, acceptable,…This is where the relation between ‘the good’ and ‘the beautiful’ comes into play. It also clearly ascertains that there are standards, generally accepted amongst the majority of people, for what is considered ‘beautiful’. Even though it is true that this only applies when these people have also been brought up with the same rules about what beauty is. Because beauty is of course culturally and socially determined. A Chinese person has other ideas about a beautiful vase as does one from African descent. Kitsch is beautiful to the art lover as long as it’s from Jeff Koons or one of his followers. For a “similar” statuette on the mantel of the retired laborer he shows only disdain.

The entire history of art is suffused with images that have gained the stature of beauty ideal. One of the most familiar being Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. It is indeed exactly because of this that the image has been redone hundreds, if not thousands of times already (the Mona Lisa with bared breasts, Lisa Simpson as Mona Lisa, …). One of the best known adaptations from the western art world is perhaps this one from the artist to whom Jan Fabre -this “servant of beauty”- referred during one of his early performances as ‘marchand du sel’. Indeed, it was Marcel Duchamp who provided Mona Lisa with a moustache and added to the bottom of the painting, the 5 on first sight apparently innocent letters ‘L.H.O.O.Q.’.

Why then had I become so fascinated with a simple collage in an art gallery above a souvenir shop in Paramaribo? Why was that which I saw there, not just another silly, noncommittal parody on a familiar theme?

In the midst of a series of about ten Works from the Surinamese artist Kurt Nahar -all referring to Dadaism- I was moved by a copy of the Mona Lisa to which at a glance several random clippings had been added.

Kurt Nahar's take on Mona Lisa / Photo: Courtesy: Wim de Pauw

In the bottom right, a blue flower shaped clipping. On the left an upside down attached picture displaying several attributes, hanging on a hat stand. Those who decipher the words in the photograph, read: ‘An illusion of depth’. On top of the face of the Mona Lisa a black and white image of a black woman -or is it a man?- is superimposed. The countenance is drawn. The eyes hesitate between downcast sadness and hopeful recovery.

More than that it is not. And still … The more I look at it, all the more I am fascinated by the beauty of it. In the meantime the artwork hangs on a spot where I walk past it countless times every day. Each time it conjures up questions, it confronts, it moves, puts one to thinking, brings up emotions, … Why?

The answer lies perhaps in the fact that this image -although not shocking or offensive- for me conjures up the history of hundreds of thousands of innocent blacks who were uprooted and transported to be misused as slaves, to be abused, humiliated, tortured and murdered in degrading circumstances. Ever so slowly, but more and more intense and insistent, this powerful work of art lays open wounds that should never be forgotten. Here the beauty ideal is unearthed in order to tell us something about the tragedy of a nation, a tragedy that is still relevant in Surinamese society today. This is where the strength of art comes to the surface. This artwork after all, summons up emotions, poses questions as no documentary on the same phenomenon ever could.

The figure harbors two worlds within, two opposing worlds with each one in turn, consisting of countless contradictions. Perhaps it is this same double stratification that causes the image to affect so deeply.

The world of the photograph refers to the whites. From attributes which hang peacefully from a hat stand -a hat, a bag, a coat, but also a revolver and a whip- I imagine that they were worn by officers when they ventured into the jungles to hunt down runaway slaves, to kill them and chop off their hands to take home as a trophy of a “successful” jungle trip. The photograph hangs upside down here, which in effect causes the attributes to fall down. The white “heroes” of olden days are falling down from their pedestal. Wealth and possessions are not worth a human life. The text alludes to this as well: it was just an illusion.

Opposite the cruelty to which the photograph refers, the artist places a flower as a symbol for peace and hope, not coincidentally on the left breast, close to the heart. At the same time she reminds me of Matisse, one of the fathers of Fauvism. This trend in art derives its name from an art critic who labeled the followers of this movement as ‘Les Fauves’. ‘Wild beasts’, this is indeed also what the blacks were called by their owners. A slave was not human in their eyes. But the referral to wild beasts can also be interpreted in a positive way. Despite their technical ingenuity and weapons the whites hardly ever succeeded in intercepting the runaway slaves. The blacks were so strong that they were apparently capable of adapting to the abominable living conditions of the jungle with ease. As cunning and strong as wild animals, they usually outsmarted the whites.

Also the referral to Dadaism is given a place. This movement which arose around the time of the First World War, holds just because of its anarchistic attitude regarding the art World and society, a message of peace and tolerance within itself as well.

But is it because of all this that I am spellbound by this “black Mona Lisa”? No. Or only partially. What makes the work so strong is that it transcends these and all other rational explanations that can be given for it:

it makes that which is unspeakable visible or tangible

(beauty is sublime)

it gives hope for a better future

(beauty is consolation)

it is just

(beauty is honorable)

it goes towards the core

(beauty is essence)

it is healing

(beauty is catharsis)

it speaks to our imagination

(beauty is poetry)

For these and other reasons I made reference to the work of Kurt Nahar in this case, to make a reflection of the concept of beauty. It is a reflection supported by one look at one specific work of art. Another look at this same piece or the same look at another piece will result in different insights.

Because of this maybe, one last reflection on beauty: she does not easily divulge herself, she is bathed in mystery. It is after all her famous mysterious gaze that makes of the Mona Lisa what she is: a paragon of beauty.

Text by Wim De Pauw, October 2009. Wim De Pauw works at de Vrije Universiteit Brussel as lecturer and as department head of the Department of Culture. Through a VLIR (Vlaamse Interuniversitaire Raad)-project, he contributes to the establishment of a master course in ‘Sustainable Development’ at de Anton De Kom Universiteit in Suriname.

Within the framework of an art publication which is named 17.912 dagen geboeid door schoonheid (17.912 days fascinated by beauty), he was asked by the association Beeldenstorm to write a reflection on the concept of beauty in 2009. For this he sought his inspiration in a work of art by Surinamese artist Kurt Nahar.

Translation from Dutch to English: Cassandra Gummels-Relyveld, 2011

From February 18th until the 12th of March, 2010, work by artist Kurt Nahar was on display at the exhibition 17.912 dagen, geboeid door schoonheid [17.912 days, enthralled by beauty], which was held in Brussels, Belgium.

Also, presently, Kurt Nahar returned to Belgium. By invitation of KultuurKaffee (Vrije Universiteit Brussels) Nahar is in residence at the KK Gallery’ in Brussels, Belgium, for a period of 6 weeks (February 15-March 31, 2011). During this time he will be working on an exhibition with the title Misschien, Maybe in which he obtains inspiration from current events in Belgium. His attention goes out especially to the scandals which recently came out with regards to the church. The residency project is set up as an open atelier. Anybody is free to drop in and start a conversation with the artist, during the entire period. Furthermore Nahar will also be presenting an overview of existing work.

Throughout his oeuvre Kurt Nahar has developed a personal style in which he expresses his thoughts on various aspects in the social sphere in his country. His mission as an artist is to keep the history of Suriname alive in the memory of its people, the focus being primarily on incidents and events in everyday life, which because of their sensitive nature, are generally unspoken of in the media and in politics. The December murders in particular are a recurrent theme in his poetry as well as his visual art.

Open ateliers: KK Gallery’ – February 15-March 31: Monday-Thursday, 10:00am-18:00pm

Overview exhibition (existing work): KK Gallery’ (on the First floor) – February 28-April 7: Monday-Thursday, 10:00am-18:00pm

Exhibition Misschien, Maybe (new work): KK Gallery’ (main floor) – vernissage on March 31 at 19:30pm (followed immediately by KK WORLD with Fra Fra Sound); exhibition from April 4-May 19: Monday-Thursday 10:00am-18:00pm

Peripheral program:

Wednesday March 23 / 18:00pm – KK Gallery’ / Lecture: Achteruitkijkspiegel [rearview mirror] by Kurt Nahar

Monday March 28 / Workshop: Sustainable Development: ‘Do Belgium and Suriname share the same challenges?’ / KK Gallery’ – 18:00pm-20:00pm / free (org. UCOS)

Thursday March 31 / Seminar: ‘How can art contribute to a sustainable and solidary world?’ / Hall STOA (next to VUB restaurant) – 17:00pm-19:30pm (org. UCOS)

Thursday March 31 / Vernissage Kurt Nahar / KK Gallery’ – 19:30 pm / free & KK WORLD with Fra Fra Sound (NL/Suriname) / KultuurKaffee – 21:00pm – free

CONTACT:

Trefcentrum Y’ vzw / Pleinlaan 2 / 1050 Brussels, Belgium / Wim De Pauw, professional and artistic direction / wwdepauw@vub.ac.be / ++32 (0)2 629 23 25

With the support of: Centrum Morele Dienstverlening Brussel

An article in Dutch by Benjamin Tollet in brussel nieuws.be can be found here.

For people who would like to read Wim de Pauws Reflection on Beauty in Dutch, please send us an e-mail at srananart@gmail.com

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