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'Il faut que le masque ait dansé'

18 May 2016 Marianne Theunissen

Peerke Donders stands on top of a pedestal, one arm lifted, the other resting on the head of a kneeling black man whose arms are wrapped in cloths, the man must be leprous. Peerke was a missionary, born into a poor family in Tilburg and was worshipped later in his life. On May 23rd, 1982, Donders was beatified, after Pope Johan Paul II confirmed in 1979 that Donders cured a young child from bone cancer in 1929. So it wasn't leprosy the child suffered from, which is a shame when you think Donders spent his whole life on treating leprosy patients in Suriname. Somewhere in 1982, someone sprayed the words "Golden Wonders" on the pedestal. The text stayed there for quite a while. '"Golden Wonders" in Tilburg, that poor town where not only Peerke was raised in a small weaver's home. Only the Catholic Church was successful there. If I had lived in Tilburg back then, I would have done anything to get away, go out on a mission, an adventure, to unknown places, Dark Africa... On to experience miracles and magic, away from the streets and poverty of Tilburg, on to other cultures.

Somewhere between the huge churches of Tilburg, the small houses, and brick catholic schools where mostly artists and creatives now live, not far behind the "Golden Wonders", is the studio of Paul Bogaers. He too works in a former catholic school. Paul became known as a photographer and as the maker of novels that consist out of found sentences collected from old books. Cut out from books and pasted into a new one, creating new narratives.


"Tropical Woe", his first book from 1992, parodied a travel report on an expedition through Dark Africa. It was a parody on the blend of boyhood dreams and obscure histories from the earliest colonists and missionaries. Next to his fascination for the era in which this Africa was "discovered", Paul Bogaers is interested in African art, masks and imagery. He can explain this passion. Art and religion are not the side effect of humans being the only natural being with a conscious, who started discovering the self. Despite this rational view, Paul takes pictures of pieces of tape, a wig and a pit on the way to his studio. He says he wants to reach the invisible through using something visible. According to him, photography is quite limited when it comes to that. I look at pictures of the wig and the pit in his camera. Simply shot, no extraordinary light, no interesting angle. Pieces of tape, a bottle, a curtain, a rock.


There must be more to it than the reality of this visible world. Paul groups these pictures and combines his own pictures with found imagery. By juxtaposing the two, he appeals to the human reflex that immediately connects images: people create a relation or a story, the pictures become metaphors, people create a space in their brains. His photos make you grow a little.

Paul in zijn atelier aan het werk voor het boek “Onderlangs” dat is samengesteld uit 215 oude en nieuwe boeken
Paul in zijn atelier aan het werk voor het boek “Onderlangs” dat is samengesteld uit 215 oude en nieuwe boeken

In the staircase of Pauls' studio building I am overwhelmed by the huge amount of images and masks, eyes stare at me from every corner, eyes made from shoe soles, beads, bird eyes, empty cavities and the openings of bottles. Mouth openings made from all kinds of materials.
His studio houses a collection of African sculptures. Both authentic and fakes, for Paul there's no difference. Bought on e-bay, he says. Tons of little figurines and masks. I have to think of packed African art shops like the ones in the comics of Tin Tin or the mission museum in Steijl, where still today you can find thousand of artefacts, collected by missionaries in China, Indonesia, Africa and South America, stacked to the ceiling in glass boxes. Accompanied with little explanation, except for the country of origin, they are a sign of Western appropriation and also witnesses of a time when missionaries seemed to be the only enthusiasts about other cultures, without forgetting to mould the other culture and to turn it to impose rules of Western society and religion.

Paul doesn't like to call himself a collector, despite of all his E-bay purchases. He needs the sculptures and masks for work. He buys expressive works because that's what he wants to work with now. African spirits have human features and shapes. The masks and sculptures are a gateway to the spirits, by using something that is shaped after you, you will find a spirit that resembles you. It must be nice for the spirits, that recognition, according to Paul it makes sense. You can read a lot from someone's appearance, you can tell if someone thinks a lot of a little. Or if someone is open or closed.

Even though they are quite abstract, the masks have eyes, a nose and a mouth. The masks carry the spirits, by wearing the masks the spirit takes control of the wearer and finds a way to speak.  In the same way Christ speaks to people through the Hostia, even though the Hostia is made from a rather obscure paste. In Christianity, this Godly transformation is called transubstantiation; the substance changes but not its appearances. So the Hostia paste transforms into flesh and blood during mass, I wouldn't know which kind of transformation is better.
Paul makes use of the recognisability of the African mask. He makes them out of papier-maché, bottles, sneakers, but he doesn't wear them. He puts them up or he photographs them, often from the inside, the part of the mask that is not supposed to be visible. As he photographs them, something new happens, the kind of transformation Paul is looking for, the image receives a second layer. Tons of eyes stare at me from the walls, from bottle necks, pieces of bone marrow, cardboard boxes. Even more eyes look at me from the pictures, from photographed backsides and holes in the ground, a birdcage covered in grass, two female legs next to the entrance of a cave. If he tries to connect with spirits, what kind of spirits would they be? They seem less strict than the two camera lenses that Paul used for his photography. But Paul doesn't believe in ghosts and neither do I. The things that look at us from the walls, is that us in our purest state? At the same time the masks make a comment, especially when Paul photographs them. His work is about looking and commenting on our own way of looking. The work can refer to the way we, Westerners, deal with our colonial past, just like his novel "Tropical Woe" does. Westerners took African art from their context, collected it, photographed it and organized it. Paul's pictures make a comment on the cataloguing and looking at African art.

Paul Bogaers
Paul Bogaers

Black Ellis, door Paul Bogaers
Black Ellis, door Paul Bogaers

The colonial connotation of African are collections is the main focus of the exhibition "Il faut que le masque ait dansé" in Marres. More specifically, the collection of African art by Tony Jorissen, started in 1969.

Paul Bogaers and I visit the exhibition together. The authenticity of the object might not matter much to Paul, it was the main focus of Jorissen. The objects had to be old and used. The collector often had an emotional and intuitive connection to the sculptures he bought. He selected them with a feeling for aesthetics and a hunch of spirituality. The history was also important, it was not so much about the object's origin or about determining its ethnographic knowledge (some collectors avoided that knowledge, because it would emphasize the object's function instead of its beauty), but the object's family tree was important, the life the object had lived in Europe. What mattered was which famous collector had owned the object since its arrival in Europe. This was what determined the value of ethnographic art. The exhibition aimed to question these and other (neo-) colonial tendencies and does this by adding contemporary art to the show. I can see both next to each other, the critique and the African art. The critical art doesn't effect the way I see the collection of masks and vice versa. There already is a negative colonial aura surrounding these kind of collections, so a critique in the form of art is quite pleasant. According to the brochure, the ambiguous attitude towards African art collections is the topic of the exhibition. I enjoy looking at a room with European design furniture, two Catenary chairs, the magazine l'Oeil (1960 and 1961) on the table, a publication that encouraged their readers to buy African art and blend it with European objects. It's  pure visual pleasure. The video piece 'Object ID' by Pauline M'Barek poses questions on researching ethnographic objects. Questions like 'why was the object made' and 'who made it'. Those kind of questions remind me of the famous novel 'A bend in the river' by V.S. Naipaul, that tell the story of Belgian missionary Father Huismans, who collects African sculptures and masks in a remote, dusty, African town. The indigenous people don't appreciate the objects, and use them as tools, throwing them in the corner after use.

The book doesn't say how much time the father spends on the Catholic religion but he researches the history and local culture intensively and no one in the town seems to see its importance. After the father is killed during a trip through the jungle, the city is plundered by the indigenous people who want to revenge the colonists, they destroy schools and streets, hospitals and houses but don't care much for the father's art collection. Right after that, the art collection is plundered by an American tourist. What a parody! I know Naipaul's novel received a lot of criticism but issues concerning the histories and interests in African heritage are far from settled.  Why is it so important for us to know who made an object and why? Is it about honouring African history, or do we do it for ourselves, to cleanse ourselves from guilt? In both cases we appeal to ourselves. I recognize this ambiguity in Pauline M'Barek's video piece, which doesn't express harsh critique, but more of an acceptation towards today's situation, double-sided and unclear as it is. In Alain Resnais and Chris Marker's "Les statuent meurent aussi" from 1953, scandalous criticism was expressed: in the film's second part the audience is being stared at by the masks instead of the people looking at the masks and in the showcases we see Western office utensils, labelled 'origin unknown'.  The way of filming that was used to shoot the non-Western art is remarkable; dark backgrounds, quick cuts with dramatic light and shadow effects. It must have worked well in that time, the film is still intriguing tpday, especially as a time document. There are works on show by Jean-Luc Moulene that focus on the dry scientific Western way of registering the art works. And it works, the calm and objective way of photographing emphasizes the fantastic aesthetic qualities of the African objects, the melancholic transience of the African past seen through (neo-) colonial eyes. It strips the objects from their spirituality and function. Sarah van der Heide's work "24 European Ethnographic Museums" doesn’t just come up with a response to Western ethnographic museums but also forms a reaction on this exhibition.

The most impressive about the show are the sculptures and masks. The works are not accompanied with credits, names, or explanations. That's wrong, you can't do that anymore, you can't apply that anthropological colonial treatment. Paul does happen to know all of the names and describes the symbols of the Pende, the Tshowke, Kuba and Songye masks, like a true collector. It makes me pay more attention and also other visitors and the girl working in the museum shop listen in on Paul's descriptions on the background of the works. I know a lot more now, but still don't understand a lot of it. Who were those spirits and why did people want to contact them, why did they use a mask, and are those spirits still inside the masks, also if I would wear them? For now, I prefer to watch and there's not much more I can do, I see all kinds of human and animal figures, some grotesque, others serene, more or less abstract. A huge creativity connected to a strong sense of proportion and expressiveness. The makers must have been proud, it must have been great making images that functioned as a bridge between people and the gods. Western artists missed out on that experience, even though some of the artists are being treated as gods by museums and curators. But if you can create a transformative process from our daily reality, you have come a long way.
 

"Il faut que le masque ait dansé", Marres 2013, Foto Paul Bogaers
"Il faut que le masque ait dansé", Marres 2013, Foto Paul Bogaers

"Il faut que le masque ait dansé", Marres 2013, Foto Paul Bogaers
"Il faut que le masque ait dansé", Marres 2013, Foto Paul Bogaers

 

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