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Angèle Etoundi Essamba: Breaking The Stereotypical
16-02-2020 / 22-03-2020

Van 16 februari tot en met 22 maart toont Galerie 23 Hedendaagse Afrikaanse Kunst een selectie werken uit 35 jaar fotografie van beeldend kunstenaar Angèle Etoundi Essamba (Douala, 1962).

In haar nieuwste project RENAISSANCE toont Essamba de vrouwen met attributen die mensen associëren met 17de -eeuwse schilderijen uit de Nederlanden: de kraag, waaier en kant. Hoewel deze rijke stoffen gedragen werden door de elite in de 17de eeuw, zijn het voor Essamba zelf ook attributen waar zij mee opgroeide. Het kant, borduursel en het gewoven materiaal “…waren geïntegreerd in de verfraaide gedrukte jurken die mijn grootmoeders, mijn moeder en vele vrouwen droegen. Ook bloemrijke motieven waren aanwezig in hun dagelijkse kledingstijl en accentueerde hun natuurlijke gratie.” 
De sterke visuele afbeeldingskracht, esthetische vorm en symboliek fascineerden Essamba. In deze nieuwe serie toont zij portretten van vrouwen die zij al ruim 35 jaar volgt getoond met deze attributen. “Ik onderzoek hier hoe Afrikaanse adel er zou uitzien met deze attributen. In de foto’s worden deze symbolen geherinterpreteerd in een nieuwe, hedendaagse context, waarin een Afrikaanse adel, die men neigt te vergeten, wordt onthuld.”

Angèle Etoundi Essamba werd geboren in Kameroen, volgde een opleiding in Frankrijk en studeerde af van de Fotoacademie van Amsterdam waar ze nu nog verblijft. Haar eerste tentoonstelling was in 1985 in Amsterdam. Sindsdien is haar werk internationaal getoond in musea, instellingen, kunstbeurzen, biënnales en galerieën in Afrika, Europa, de Verenigde Staten, Latijns-Amerika, Arabische Emiraten en Azië. Essamba’s werk maakt ook deel uit van verschillende particuliere en publieke verzamelingen.

Afrikaanse vrouwen vormen het hoofdonderwerp van de artistieke expressie van Angèle Etoundi Essamba. Zij breekt met de stereotype representatie van de Afrikaanse vrouw en cultuur en geeft zo een nieuwe interpretatie van het hedendaagse Afrika. Sleutelwoorden voor het werk van Essamba zijn: trots, kracht en bewustzijn, die de vrouwen in haar werk uitstralen. 

Passion 1989, Contrasts 1995, Symboles 1999, Noirs 2001, La Métamorphose du sublime 2003, Dialogues 2006, Voiles & Dévoilements 2008, Africa rising 2010, I-dentity – Eye-dentity 2010, As it is 2010, Africa see you, see me 2011, Black & Red 2012, Women of the water, 2013, Invisible 2015, Strength & Pride, 2016; Daughters of life 2018.

U kunt het boek RENAISSANCE via deze link bestellen.

Angele Etoundi Essamba - 2263005 - Photoprint - 100 x 70 cm
Angele Etoundi Essamba - Cheveux de paille 3, 2005 - 2263005 - Photoprint - 100 x 70 cm
Angele Etoundi Essamba - 2263037 - Photoprint - 100 x 150 cm
Angele Etoundi Essamba - Renaissance 4, 2019 - 2263037 - Photoprint - 100 x 150 cm
Angele Etoundi Essamba - 2263026 - Photoprint - 100 x 150 cm
Angele Etoundi Essamba - Healing 5052, 2016 - 2263026 - Photoprint - 100 x 150 cm
Angele Etoundi Essamba - 2263006 - Photoprint - 100 x 150 cm
Angele Etoundi Essamba - Roots 4, 2005 - 2263006 - Photoprint - 100 x 150 cm
Angele Etoundi Essamba - 2263017 - Photoprint - 63 x 150 cm
Angele Etoundi Essamba - Enchantement du monde, 2012 - 2263017 - Photoprint - 63 x 150 cm
Angele Etoundi Essamba
Angele Etoundi Essamba - Metamorphose
Angele Etoundi Essamba
Angele Etoundi Essamba - Memoire 3
Angele Etoundi Essamba
Angele Etoundi Essamba - Second skin 8
Angele Etoundi Essamba
Angele Etoundi Essamba - Second skin 6
Angele Etoundi Essamba
Angele Etoundi Essamba - Jeune fille au collier


For many people visiting a museum such as the Rijksmuseum, the Louvre and the Metropolitan Museum of Art is like visiting an old friend. Not just because they have often been there before, but also because they are already familiar with large sections of the collections from illustrations in books, newspapers, magazines, from art programs on television or from advertising material. Seeing it again often results in a different way of looking. In getting to know it better. Paying less attention to the whole, the painting style and the painter’s skill, and more to the details and motifs. No longer simply at what has been painted, but also at why and why this way. Or, why then and not now. These kinds of underlying questions.   

This must have happened to Angèle Etoundi Essamba. She started paying attention to the clothing of the “models” painted by artists such as Rembrandt, Velasquez and Frans Hals in the seventeenth. She noticed the collars in particular. In the first quarter of the century these were mostly the pleated collars known as ruffs. Later these became flat collars, often of lace. The people wearing them were generally regents, royalty or nobility. The elite. Both men and women.

At that time, thanks to a prosperous trade (but also to the slave trade) enabled people in the north of the Netherlands to experience a golden age. At least for a small section of the population. An abundance of money meant the elite could afford to engage in art and science and also to pay attention to their dress. They could follow fashions. These frequently originated in Spain and came to Holland via the Southern Netherlands. One of these crazes was for the ruff. Philip II of Spain for example adorned himself in them. And since the elite enjoyed following the appearance of those in power such as royalty and regents, the trend wafted over. It did not matter that the fashion was expensive. People ordered batiste and lace from what is now Belgium and had their staff do the labor-intensive work. They could also afford to have their portraits painted by famous artists and so we are able to see the results today.
And these speak volumes. The ruff and later the flat, lace collar became symbols of power, of status, of money. This symbolism was one of the factors that persuaded Etoundi Essamba to present the collars on African women, usually women she met during her travels in Africa and recent artist-in-residence in Brazil.

Photographing the women wearing this collar gave them the opportunity to reveal, to maximize, their inner strength and their pride. At the same time it enabled them to connect to the rulers who owed their power and their money partly to their colonial practices, which deliberately disregarded the characteristics of the victims thereof. Etoundi Essamba, however, goes further. She breaks through the preconceptions, the clichés about the black woman that are still broadly prevalent. She gives her back her grace and her elegance. She highlights her beauty. The fact that lace is a particular favorite for many African women is more than a happy coincidence. The fact that lace, in particular, is popular with many African women is not just a detail, it allows the artist to deepen this perspective.

While initially the women have the collars around their necks as intended, in other photographs they are playing with them by putting them on their heads for instance. Thereby not only enhancing their beauty, but seemingly making a mockery of the origin, too.
Part of the project is in color. Here the women wrap themselves in colorful fabrics. Fabrics with floral patterns and also expensive Vlisco fabrics from the Dutch manufacturer that primarily targets the African market and takes its inspiration from African designers. Both have the same aim: the fabrics must echo the pride and the self-confidence of the woman. She is beautiful because she wants to be beautiful. These women, who for the majority never wore Vlisco’s relatively expensive fabrics, naturally appropriate these beautiful fabrics. The image as fields of all possibilities, art as a logical reappropriation.

The Renaissance project is a logical component of Etoundi Essamba’s œuvre. She has been engaged with black women and their representation for more than thirty years. She seeks out their true identity, she seeks out the inner self and tries to make this visible and tangible in many various ways. She wants black women to be looked at differently. She coaxes the viewer to share her view by creating aesthetic photographic works. Sophisticated Rembrandtesque lighting, carefully positioning the “models”, foreground and background emphasis, deliberate creation of contrasts, are just a few of the tools she uses to achieve her aims. It is also noticeable in this serie as in Symbols (1999) and Noir (2001) for example, she does not give the women any surroundings.This is how she directs the attention, avoids any diversion. In addition the images express a high degree of intimacy. She may not have known the models when she asked them to work on the project, but the way in which she works - careful staging, trying out all kinds of technical possibilities means she builds a relationship. She involves the girls and women in her process.
When I look at the work of other Afro-American / African artists - for example Ayana V. Jackson and Aïda Muluneh - then the work of Angèle Etoundi Essamba has developed. Furthermore it conclusively demonstrates that black women are stronger than the elite of the seventeenth century could ever have been prepared to admit. The renaissance of this elite stands diametrically opposed to that of black women.

Rob Perrée
Writer, Curator Contemporary Art

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