Eugenie Boon, ‘Krese par’i pia pa nabega den bida’, 2021. On view at Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam
‘I want to create spaces that encourage personal growth’ – in conversation with Eugenie Boon
Artist Eugenie Boon is known for her big and colourful paintings, inspired by her home country Curaçao. Nele Brökelmann talks to her about her move to The Netherlands and the scenes she depicts. ‘I believe that it is important for people from the islands to see their own reality represented in museums and galleries.’
How was it for you to leave Curaçao?
‘I was eager to come to the Netherlands. I was born in a family of three sisters, and all of them had moved to the Netherlands. Seeing them grow into independent women motivated me to do the same. In Curaçao, it is normal that every year around two hundred young people go to the Netherlands to study. So I loved the idea of that, but I did not expect to study art. I thought I would become a researcher, teacher or psychologist, because I was taught that these are the only ways to have a good and successful career. When it became clear that I did not want any of that, I felt lost about what to do with my future. That was when my art teacher suggested to look into IBB (Instituto Bueana Bista).’
What does IBB do?
‘IBB has a two-year preparatory program, in which they help you to put together your portfolio and make sure that it is broad enough. They then travel to the Netherlands to represent you and your portfolio at the different art academies. This is how I got accepted to HKU in Utrecht. They also have an Artist-in-Residence program that brings artists from all over the world to Curaçao. During those two years I got the chance to speak to those artists and see what they are doing. This program challenged me to broaden my perspective a bit more and to start considering possibilities outside of the island.’
You are helping people from Curaçao by taking their photographs and guiding them with product branding, how did you get into that?
‘Aside from his day-to-day job, my father used to be a photographer. I have seen him earning extra money through photography. That way he could make ends meet when I was younger. As an art student here in the Netherlands, I decided to do the same to be able to buy materials and pay my bills. In my second year I moved to The Hague and looked for an anti-squatting studio. Here is where I started photographing. I would mostly get assignments from people on the island who were starting up their businesses. I photographed their events or themselves to increase their visibility online and in that way promote their services. I enjoyed talking to these “entrepeneurs” who moved from Curaçao to the Netherlands to pursue their career. These interactions broadened my perspective on my already on-going research.’
‘I realised that my conflicted feelings came from mirroring myself in what I was researching’
How did those conversations influence your artistic practice?
‘They helped me to better understand the struggles people coming from the islands to the Netherlands face when it comes to navigating their identity and legitimacy, their search for a home. Looking back now, I realise that in some sense I was using an ethnographic approach to research. It’s weird because I was both an in- and an outsider. I was hoping to find answers to understand my own identity better and at the same time inspire other people through my practice. That’s a lot to try and undertake. So now I have developed a more manageable way of doing research. I’ve found rest in what I am doing.’
How did you organise that for yourself?
‘It was a very complex and chaotic research process. I realised that my conflicted feelings came from mirroring myself in what I was researching. As poet Elis Juliana stated: “Once you acquired the understanding you also have to face yourself to affirm position”. I concluded that I needed a framework for what I was researching. I developed a triangle diagram to gain a bird’s eye view on my own research. In the middle of the triangle I put “duality”, because I felt this push and pull of something intangible that I could not put my finger on. The triangle has three pillars based on cultural and social setups in Curaçao that are causing dualistic perspectives and stagnation: religion/spirituality, education/upbringing, gender/social constructs around female and male. In-between the three pillars I located “reality”, “morality” and “identity”. With this diagram I gained an overview of all the complex areas I was researching through interviewing people and observing history’s toll on the people of Curaçao.’
How are you including the duality in the relationship of Curaçao and the Netherlands in your research and work?
‘I use imagery, mythological stories and games from Curaçao. I am often referencing Bon Kun’e, because it brought the community together to have fun. Games like Monopoly or Stratego reflect historical events and how societies changed. They tell a lot about our reality. I like to know the history of the games. Incorporating elements of them into my work is my way to talk about difficult topics in a more simplified and visual manner.’
‘My paintings of these lives are so colourful because life actually is this colourful there’
Can you give an example?
‘The symbols that appear on casino cards changed throughout the centuries. They originate from Spanish cards that were sometimes used like tarot cards. The signs on these kind of cards represented something in society: nobility (cup), knights (sword), artisans (bastonne) and merchants (gold). Eventually they were simplified and turned into clubs, diamonds, hearts, and spades. When these cards arrived in Curaçao through globalization, I found it very interesting to see how we eventually created our own game, one that is very known and popular on the island: Bon Kun’e. It’s a very simple game, a bit similar to Bingo. At first, I used these symbols to develop a visual language that resembles or references things I grew up with. But learning about the different versions’ histories, I realised that every society has had its nobles, warriors, peasants and merchants and decided to adopt a more universal research language.’
What do you consider to be the role of art?
‘I see art as a tool to understand world history, philosophy, economy and ecology. With knowledge of those, you can broaden your perspective. The aftermath of slavery left people feeling unworthy. Therefore reconciliation is important, at least to me, I had to do that for myself too on the mindset level. I experienced colourism in my family, with some family members feeling less worthy than others.’
Can you elaborate on the scenes you paint? They seem to depict a very colourful daily life.
‘Those are based on photographs I take myself. I see the paintings as a form of representation. I believe that it is important for people from the islands to see their own reality represented in the context of museums and galleries. My paintings of these lives are so colourful because life actually is this colourful there. Showing these together with more abstract or dark works makes them speak to this group of people. It helps to elevate the thought that we also belong in those spaces. It is important as well that these works are made by someone who understands their reality. I share their frames of references, I understand their ways and how they’ve been brought up. The paintings capture small moments. I think these zoomed-in compositions best reflect our norms and values. They invite the viewer to observe intimate details that together tell a bigger story than just a portrait would.’
You also reference folk-tales, as the one of Anansi the Spider. Why did you choose to take up the figure of Anansi’s child into your work?
‘Anansi is a Western folk-tale that also came to the islands through slave trade. On each island it took its own form. On Curaçao, Anansi is called Kompa Nanzi. In essence, they are all about a very smart spider that knows all the stories about the world. I found out that Anansi was a hero for the enslaved people, because he found ways to trick the systems that were forced upon him. In elementary school we got an illustrated book with all the stories both written in Papiamento and Dutch. This object was the closest thing to art I had. I still have the book. I remember not yet understanding the value of the stories, but being mesmerised by the stories and illustrations. Spider Kompa Nanzi’s wife Shi Maria and their kids are usually just side-characters, but in my work I try to tell the story from the perspective of Anansi’s youngest child, Pegasaya. That way, I try to bring forward the perspective of a younger generation trying to live up to the hopes and dreams of the older generations. At the same time, the work keeps account of what is going on right now; it addresses our current needs, possibilities and resources. This is important because I don’t believe we still have to hold on to Anansi’s mentality of resilience and survival. Doing so might stagnate our growth.’
‘Pegasaya can take up different roles. She can question things, and challenge systems and perspectives that are not working anymore or are in need of a change’
Is taking on the role of Pegasaya a way to take up space and create your own rules?
‘Yes. Pegasaya can take up different roles. She can question things, and challenge systems and perspectives that are not working anymore or are in need of a change. Her costume is all black, but there are golden elements in her face. They are inspired by a card in Bon Kun’e called “The Ace of Gold”, which also goes by another name: “Spil ban dil”, meaning “Mirror let’s make a deal”. This idea of reflection, and self-reflection, is important to me. Pegasaya’s face is mirroring what is going on around her. Through her I feel able to question intimate things that other people can relate to. Sometimes I use her to embody intangible aspects of my research through performances and bodily choreographies.’
You recently published a book about your work together with Nest and The Hague Municipality, what have you learned from the process?
‘At a certain point while making the book, I did not want to continue with it. My research started feeling too intimate. Now I want to continue making and creating works that explain what I did with this research, while also allowing myself to explore other interests. I want to continue creating spaces for growth, by learning new techniques, discovering different mediums and exploring a variety of topics. I am for example fascinated by the biological processes of grapes. They transform from a white flower to a green and later red or blue fruit, which makes them eatable. There is an elegance to the grapes’ ripening process that amazes me! I want to continue exploring patterns, colour combinations and harmonies. Who knows, perhaps someone might be interested in this type of work too. I need to allow myself to do this.’
Is there an artist that inspired you to take this step?
‘That would be Hilma af Klint. Looking at her drawings, I feel that she was also dealing with abstract subjects such as duality. She makes references to things like DNA structures, death and rebirth. Her visual language was inspired by patterns she discovered in nature. I share her interest in nature and science and am also inspired by the way in which she is able to simplify complex subjects. I often find myself oversimplifying shapes and colours as well, because I know that the themes I work with are heavy enough by themselves.’
Until the 7th of January, Eugenie Boon’s work is on view in the group exhibition Africa Supernova at Kunsthal KAdE in Amersfoort
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