Interview by Fleur Pierets
Why choose photography?
Since I was young I was already drawing, watching, registering details from the things I saw. It was an urge and I had the feeling I was chosen by a visual language, which I pursued. I went to art school when I was 14 and it made me discover a cultural world that was alien to me. It opened the doors in my head and in my heart. Photography was love at first sight. What scared me in the beginning was the technicality of a camera. When I went to school cameras were still analogue. So you had to get going with diaphragms and shutter speeds. However, what I found very liberating was the speed of the medium. When I was a child I wanted to capture every detail of an insect but I had to do it before it was gone. Now I could just take a picture of everything that caught my eye. It was that directness, that velocity that got me hooked. I like to call my work ‘photographic drawings’.
What inspires you?
I get inspired by society and the context in which I find myself. I’m not necessarily talking about politics, but we all find ourselves in a societal context in which you are free to respond or not. And if something triggers me, I have to act accordingly. It leads to a photographic series anticipating religion, or headscarves, or ethnicity. Those aren’t my themes per se, but I can’t ignore something that’s omnipresent. I call it philosophical image processing. My antennas are always on alert for images, words I read or hear, that can bring me towards a new interpretation. Inspiration is everywhere. I write everything down in little notebooks so I can start researching whenever something stays with me. Sometimes I call myself a philographer. A philosopher who meets a photographer.
You are reading and seeing a lot. How do you decide what to take and what to leave behind?
Most of the time I think and work on one theme, quote or story per year. That’s the starting point to frame and identify what I think and feel. I research, read, make sketches, and look for other sources that connect with the initial thought. If you look at my work process you’d think I’m a painter or a drawer because I collect thousands of images to filter and to support the result. I call my work in progress photographic drawing. When I’ve gathered enough information, I unleash my intellect, my logic reasoning and continue in a purely visual manner. The images themselves lead me towards the final result. Which is both analytic and visual. I always trust my heart to lead me to where I’m supposed to go.
Can you talk me through one of your latest series?
I re-read ‘The stranger’ by Albert Camus and it got me thinking about being the stranger versus being strange. Which is a very vague concept. I started photographing in Antwerp’s typical concentrated migrant areas but that turned out to be the wrong approach. Documentary is not my course. Then I thought about registering the reflection of those worlds. The reflections in mirrors, in shop windows, etc. to capture the thought that people are always judging the first layer of what they see. So instead of creating a linear sequence, I put the layers on top of each other to make a dialogue between the different pictures. In the end you have a strange image, consisting of multiple reflections of a strange world. They almost look like paintings. So it started with a book by Camus and I ended up here. It’s unpredictable. I never know where I will end up.
Do you aim to keep your work recognizable? And is that necessary?
When I’m photographing I’m not thinking about my specific visual language. And if it’s connected to my other work. However, I think my intuition is a constant guidance which, unconsciously, makes the images correspond with one another.
How do you see your evolution?
In the beginning my way of working was a bit too noncommittal. My way of capturing an image happened a bit too spontaneously. Over time this evolved into a more philosophical and conceptual manner. Whereas now I make a combination of those two styles. Conceptual but intuitive. I feel this course is the most accurate and closest to who I am as an artist. I feel very much at home with what I am doing.
Ai Weiwei, Joseph Beuys and Marina Abramovic are 3 of your heroes. What binds them together?
Activism. And the freedom they claim to express their minds. Art doesn’t necessarily have to be activism. Personally, I find that social engagement always adds an extra value to the work or to the artist. I find what Ai Weiwei does from his context very important; his search for a full-blown democracy, the right to have an opinion and how he communicates that to the world. Activism depends on the context though. For me there’s a nuance between activism and social awareness. In my work it’s a social notion with lots of room for interpretation. If I were an activist, I would have to express my work in a more targeted and concrete manner. But I like my work to act as a window through which I can inspire a dialogue. It obviously has its community themes but it’s more in a societal - than an activist context.
And what about religion?
Art has a more added value to my life than religion. I don’t need to listen to a human invention. I’d rather listen to myself in everything that I do.
Do you identify with your work?
Very much so. Being an artist defines my identity more than my background or roots. I’m an individualist and an existentialist. The notion that I am here and that I’m allowed to be here gives me the permission to claim my existence. That kind of freedom is almost sacred. As a teenager I found a lot of comfort in Sartre. It brought me the awareness that I exist, which has been a guidance throughout my life and has been my primary motive ever since. Not only as an artist but also as a human being. Let everybody be.
Do you address certain topics in your work in order to have people ask questions?
It depends on the question. For example, I constantly get asked where I’m from and it disturbs me that my ethnicity always takes the upper hand. I know it’s because of how I look and because of my name, but sometimes I just want to be. I want to talk about my work, about what I think. However, before I can do that, I always have to explain where I come from. I believe we have to accept that the world and our society is colored, but we don’t always need to talk about it. Because it always makes you ‘the other’.
How about your place in the art scene?
There are moments when I would like to have more public recognition for my work. But I’m very sensitive when people contact me when they need a female artist, a foreign artist, or both. Work by artist Charif Benhelima for example is exposed all over the world. Everybody talks about the strong visual language of his pictures which transcends his Moroccan-ness. His work goes beyond needing an excuse to have an ethnic artist in your collection. It’s just great work. And that’s what matters. Only with that kind of mentality can you get an exact reflection of the world in a museum or a gallery. And that’s what art is all about, isn’t it?
Article © Fleur Pierets