Why did you become an artist? Do you remember the exact moment of your decision?
My mother would take me to museums now and then as a child and I liked the cartoons in the weekly magazines, although I didn’t understand the jokes. But I always kind of knew I would end up doing something artistic. There were a few shifts leading up to my decision while I grew up, until my graduation.
I have always been a daydreamer, and I was good at drawing (and secretly in dancing). So, when I was a kid I thought of becoming a comic book artist and later on this shifted into music in my teenage years. I wanted to make my own visuals to accompany the music. That’s why I decided to study design in university. Slowly I got more pulled into fine arts because of the art history courses. I made stuff that didn’t really function from a design perspective. I think the teachers were very confused by this sometimes. It was fun. During my masters in design I started making crappy satirical drawings which got me some recognition in school. Humour became my thing, and after that I tried to make a living as a cartoonist for a year. I didn’t succeed. And so, from then on, I decided to really go for the visual arts and started exhibiting. And I have never regretted it since.
Judging by the paintings and caricatures you are making, which are so ironic and uncanny, it looks like you are a very sensitive person. Is that so?
I have not really thought of myself as a sensitive person in relation to my work. I actually have always been a bit wary that I might be too senseless at times. There have been moments of doubt about specific works I created. But at those times I think I might have taken public opinion too seriously and worried too much about possible consequences. I try to be distant, in order to deconstruct stuff that others consider as normalities or taboos. I really think subjects that somehow affect my discourse are important, and I hope my work opens up debate and speaks to people. So maybe yes, maybe I am sensitive, or just easily agitated.
What is weirdly amazing, however, is that during this corona crisis I find romanticism relevant. Romanticism was always like a taboo within my practice. But now everything feels like a very slow cinematic experience, with no foreseeable end.
And it seems to me that the subjects and questions that ruled the arts before the crisis are less important at the moment. Not that the issues went away, they are definitely still present. But the focus in art has shifted somewhere else.
It’s a refreshing reboot… or just a short-lived illusion.
Your paintings present social relationships, hypertrophy of cultural differences, show that somehow there is a place for myths and what impact they have. What is the intended outcome or target of this reflection?
Yes, well, it’s all about generating stories. I like to look at my work as a theatre where a narrative is to be told to an audience, just not necessarily in the conventional way. I try to look for connections with elements of the real world and then I direct them into my artificial world. I create these anecdotes that the viewer might feel culturally or historically associated with, and then I turn it upside down or inside out. A scene might look attractive at first but there is something uncomfortable going on.
In your practice, there is a place for other medium, for example, in ‘Minister of popular culture, guns and social affairs’ and other installations. Why? Is it an experiment? Are you in the process of broadening the horizons of your practice by using other medium?
Yes, very much so. At the time I felt especially acutely that I couldn’t say what I wanted through only drawing and painting. Medium can be an important ingredient to create a certain effect or scenario. I needed to experiment as well with different media, and I was also very much influenced by artists such as Mike Kelley, Erik van Lieshout, Laure Provoust, Harald Thys & Jos the Gruyter etc., at the time. It was a struggle, but I learned a lot out of it. And these experiences will probably influence my work in my future projects.
Now I want to be more focused on more simple settings for a time. I am working a lot on painting again, and this process is going better than ever.
You’ve mentioned becoming interested in romanticism as a result of your artistic feelings during the time of the pandemic. Do you think that it will have an impact on the topics of your future projects? Have you already made some sketches?
It could be a periodical thing, but it might stay in my work after this crisis.
Things are different now, and we can’t really foresee how it will be afterwards. The recession will definitely have an impact for a time. This might change daily life, possibly for longer than the virus itself has. We’ll see.
I have gotten an interest in how the stock market functions recently. It shows a distorted view of the global economy and our daily realities. The language, charts and images used in it intrigue me. Although they are almost like the opposite of Romanticism, I feel that there is an association between them, a contrast. This will probably result in an upcoming project, but it’s too early to speak of what that will look like; I’ve just started making sketches.
I am also still working on a bigger project that I was developing before the crisis started. It’s like I’m suddenly working on the past. They are two narratives based in the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Korea. I think the project will have to shift somehow and include this period, a third narrative, so that these stories reflect on one another.
In your last works (the ‘Nude’ series on your site) there are glasses of wine, naked women, a pizza… Is that about daily-routine? The spirit of the time? Or is it the kind of romanticism that you were talking about?
Yes, these are new romantics in a sense, but they are just the first, unintentionally. There are more recent ones that I haven’t published yet. They started as nude studies, because I felt that I needed some more practice within my new painting methods. Just to understand and master my technique a bit more, before I finish my bigger and more project-based works (I work on multiple paintings at the same time, so that they can grow together). But these nudes eventually became more relevant as romantic works, inside the quarantined home.
Your other works, through different means, have representations of the topics of sexuality, authority, power (e.g. by the symbols of phallus and vagina, scenes of sex, sometimes of brute force). Can you comment on it?
In the most cases it’s about self-humiliation and mockery. By visualizing it on a personal and universal level, I want the viewer to be able to relate to it. For instance, the urges of watching pornography or daily masturbation, smoking cigarettes; even when you are constantly reminded that it will cause you to get cancer, certain activities that are a sign of depression, and all that. Stuff that is usually very personal. The imagery might seem a bit macabre or bordering on the grotesque, but for me there is a lot of humour and irony in the situations that are private and that are not easy to discuss publicly. It’s rather about that, then about violence or, say, brute force. In the case of power or authority there is possibly sexuality related. I made a series of works involving propaganda material of Belgian Congo. This material depicts a man-dominated political world. Women are almost not involved, except, for example, the nuns that were on catholic missions or icons like the virgin Maria; there is also a candy that looks a lot like a phallus or a buttplug. This candy was popular back when I was a kid and would be served to me after the visits of Saint Nicolas, the guy that climbs through the chimneys with his white horse and Black Pete.
You have mentioned the Republic of Congo and South Korea. Why are you interested in these regions? Is there something special about them in terms their history or your personal attitude towards them?
Absolutely. The Democratic Republic of Congo had been a Belgian colony. A few of my ancestors were colonists as well until the independency. As an adolescent I came to understand that this past wasn’t at all as innocent as my schooling would have made me believe. In my mid-twenties I started to look deeper into propaganda material on Belgian Congo and would relate this to my childhood upbringing. In 2018 I had the chance to go to Congo, on a ‘mission’, ironically, with the MSF (Médecins Sans Frontières, Doctors Without Borders – Editor), to crisis regions. That experience changed everything. I honestly didn’t know what I was doing there, besides being curious about China’s activities in the region. It was a bit like a Don Quichotte adventure. I was privileged to go there, to experience a world different from mine, but I quickly realised that for a Congolese person to come to Belgium, with the same ease I went to Congo, would be almost impossible. What is interesting though, is that a lot of preconceptions I had before (mostly because of western institutions) just fell apart in Congo. I came back more confused, with less answers than new questions. It was truly one of the most intense and interesting experiences in my life, full of confrontations. It took me some time to process it afterwards, but I slowly dropped everything I was working on and adapted to the idea of formulating fictional narratives via my real experiences, instead of ‘playing’ with material of the past that is too complex and problematic to begin with. However, these ideas surely do influence the projects and are a basis. Historical research is a key factor and an honest interest of mine.
With regards to Korea, it started out of a curiosity in my partner, Che Go Eun. We met each other during our stay at HISK (Higher Institute for Fine Arts, – Editor) in Ghent, Belguim. I applied for the Nanji Residency in Seoul. My proposal involved refused Yemeni refugees stranded on Jeju Island, Korea, which was a controversial topic in the western media. I wanted to understand the Korean perspective on this. I got the opportunity to be very close to Korean family life and culture. There are two factors at play from my experience in Korea: a genuine love for their own cultural bubble (which is a weird thing for a Belgian) and their tradition of being very protective, due to historical events, such as being conquered by Japan, who they have never come to terms with, and its war with North Korea, with which they share their only land border. Korea started as one of the poorest countries in the UN and has managed to become one of the fastest growing economies and technologically advanced societies in the world. I was so overwhelmed by their rich culture and fell so deeply in love with it that I lost track of my proposal, but I did come to a better understanding and learned some new art techniques. I encountered many situations where I felt like a big foreign child, inapt at understanding the finer details of the complicated Korean culture, and being forgiven for not knowing them, because I’m a foreigner. These experiences are an endless source of fuel for my humorous work. To have the chance to connect to another society so closely is a real gift. These two experiences in Congo and Korea, including experimentation with different media, shaped my newer work a great deal, both in its theory and techniques.
Because of how the world and our conceptual views on history and social structure are changing, the topics of anecdotes and even our humour should and will undergo changes as well. What we were laughing about yesterday can today be interpreted as ignorance and impoliteness. What do you think about humour in art? Will it change its sense?
It’s very difficult to say where this will be going. I think comedy and taboos are like partners in crime, they will evolve together. And although I’m a fan of irony, I think it can be a dangerous thing in the wrong hands. Especially when you look at the right wing discourses these days. Humour itself is a spectrum in and of itself, it should not have limitations, and it should be universal. It’s still an imperfect human thing, but when I look at the cartoons of Ad Reinhardt, the performance works of Andy Kauffman, or the etches of Francisco De Goya, most of that stuff is timeless.
During the quarantine you have initiated and edited the special newspaper ‘Quarantine’. Why did you do that, what is its aim?
Yes, ‘Une Quarantaine’ is French for ‘about 40’ and refers to the medical term that originates from the mooring ships during the plague epidemic in Italy in the 14th Century. Because of our own quarantine, together with Kasper De Vos and Jeroen Los, we came up with the idea of making an exhibition in a form of a newspaper. All recent exhibitions were canceled or postponed in this period, so we felt that there was a need to send something tactile to people at home, and for artists to still present their works during this period. We asked about 45 artists (internationally), including duos, to contribute to the publication. And we did it in the same number of days. It’s a combination of visual works and texts. We wanted to represent a diverse group from the cultural sector. So, not only visual artists, but also writers, theatre makers, a scenographer, and so on. We printed an edition of 3000 issues and we managed to distribute all of them in Belgium, the Netherlands and to the artists abroad.
What can you say about the art community In Belgium and its specificity?
It’s a vibrant art community. There is opportunity for domestic and international artists in Belgium. Artists’ initiatives throughout the years have really fought for a decent framework for artists to work in, to have platforms, to get funding, to create art spaces. There is a rich tradition in art institutions, a strong history in fine arts and contemporary arts and we have many collectors. Even a barber can be an art collector here, and that’s beautiful.
Sadly though, these things are in a recession, partly because of our government’s’ yearly subsidy cuts and the recent economic crisis that will surely have an impact on this… We shall see.
Your favorite advice?
Never waste a good crisis.
*This interview was conducted just before “Black Lives Matter” protests broke out in the US.