Why do zebras have stripes, is the hippo hairless and do almost all birds fly except for the chicken? To find an answer you don’t have to consult the internet or the National Geographic, but need only to turn towards the ceramic works of Dagmar de Kok-Ngobese (1977).
Because laying at the foundation of her newest series ‘Fabelachtig’ [Fable-like] is the oral tradition of South-African fairytales. In these stories the animals native to Africa are the main characters. Just as in the Caribbean Anansi stories, each story contains life lessons. Both oral traditions have many similarities. Quite logical, because they share the same roots.
The need to express herself artistically and her passion for Africa, a continent which she has explored during two artist residencies, are palpable. De Kok does not literally translate the African fairy tales in clay, but always gives them her own twist. This results in new images, with new iconographic interpretations.
Even more so, it is the humor and playfulness that link the work of De Kok with the original African stories. Just like the images in clay, the stories speak to the imagination and bring a smile to your face. Take for instance the story about why the chicken and the dog are animals for in the yard. According to traditional African lore, the chicken and the dog originally lived in the sky, just like the birds. Until on one ill fated day all the food in the sky had run out. The dog was sent to the earth to look for food. He did not return. What was going on? The birds decided to send the chicken down to investigate. But they never returned either. What happened: the chicken and the dog found everything they needed in the yards of the humans and thus permanently exchanged the skies for the earth. This is why the chicken no longer flies, the dog is ‘man’s best friend’ and the skies are rife with ‘hungry’ birds.
De Kok, has executed this story in two separate sculpture groups. The part with the dog on a richly ornamental base, suggesting abundance. Attached to the ceiling above that, a cloud that is inhabited by the birds. Through the use of material, color, mass and not in the least the connecting story, a synergy is unearthed. However, both parts in and of themselves posses sufficient expressiveness and iconographical value, which is why they can also be displayed separately. Stronger yet, De Kok aims to continue the artistic investigation into ‘fable-like’, to increasingly experiment with disconnecting parts of fables, and thus tell never existing fables ‘all over again’ in ceramic sculpture groups.
In the artistic application of glazed and unglazed material, a cross-pollination seems to occur between flora and fauna. The skin of the animals for example, is often reminiscent of a grassy plain, a lunar landscape, or a rock formation eroded by a river. The landscape elements of her sculpture, on the other hand, often have animal-like characteristics and look like coral reefs where things are quite beastly and the law of the fittest applies.
Her most recent work is in front of the Ouder- en Kindcentrum [Parent- and Child center] (OKC) Gaasperdam in Amsterdam Zuidoost. This is where her first outdoor sculpture was unveiled on February 19th 2014. Here she also found inspiration in African storytelling tradition. As inspiration for this sculpture group ‘Stoet’ De Kok choose the story of the discarded dog. While looking for a better future, the dog playfully found new animal friends. The moral of the story being, that through friendship and cooperation, even the largest of obstacles can be successfully overcome. Growing up and making friends naturally also has everything to do with the task of the OKC as supporter in raising children.
With outdoor art there are however several aspects involved, that ‘studio artists’ are never faced with. The sculpture-group had to, for instance, consist of multiple sculptures, be climbable, safe and it had to be developed in collaboration with the users of the OKC, according to the client Stadsdeel Zuidoost. Through a series of workshops, the students from two elementary schools near the OKC, shared their ideas with De Kok. The students also came up with various inspiring ideas for the skin in their works.
De Kok however, is used to working small. That has everything to do with clay, the medium that she works with. The oven in which she fires her pieces, is also a restricting factor. The choice was made to have the models blown up in polyutherane foam and subsequently have them coated in polyester by Blowups Reclameobjecten B.V. In this partnership De Kok got the opportunity to, while in the process of enlargement, put the finishing touches to the animals in the studio of Blowups.
They have become a kind of contemporary, three-dimensional totem poles, that also bring to mind the European folk tale ‘De Bremer straatmuzikanten’. Just as in her smaller work, she went in search of an artistic interpretation for the animals. She once again found this in the finishing of the skin.
To increase the ability to climb it, De Kok decided to stack the animals in three separate sculptures. By positioning the animals in one walking direction towards the entrance of the building, not only is the entrance emphasized, but a cohesion is achieved between the sculpture-group, the plaza and the building. This cohesion is further underlined by the safety surfacing (to prevent playing children from getting hurt) which frames the whole like an oasis complete with shadows.
The above analysis was written in response to the unveiling of ‘Stoet’ on February 19, 2014, and the exhibition Nieuw! Buitenkunst in Zuidoost, in CBK Zuidoost, Amsterdam Zuidoost. This was on display until March 22, 2014.
TEXT Bart Krieger
TRANSLATION Cassandra Gummels-Relyveld
Bart Krieger (1970) writes about art and culture for among other things, the digital magazine SAX and newsmagazine Parbode. After his education in art history at the ‘Vrije Universiteit’, he started as a journalist for Het Parool (art- and city editor). For the past six years he was employed as a policy officer at the art councils of Rotterdam and Amsterdam.