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Funky, Funky, 2003, oil on canvas, 200 x 180 cm., collection Museum Het Valkhof, Nijmegen

‘Yes, we can. Yes, we did.’ The famous slogan, issued from the presidential campaign of Barack Obama, marks the outset of the solo exhibition Get Up, Stand Up by Iris Kensmil in gallery Ferdinand van Dieten – d’Eendt in Amsterdam.

Kensmil displays her recent works in painting, drawing and installation, which seek to give an account of the emancipation history of black people, specifically in the United States. Her work emphasises on iconic figures and movements who helped to shape this history, such as the Black Panthers and Marcus Garvey (founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League). In choosing these particular examples Kensmil walks a fine line between historical documentation, or a consideration of history, and artistic engagement.

While the theme of the emancipation history of black people covers all works on display, they differ greatly in execution. Nevertheless, the intertwinement of word and image, always a characteristic element in Kensmil’s art, also remains evident here, for example in Our Battle Cry (2008).

Iris Kensmil, Our Battle Cry, 2008, 120 x 150 cm., oil on canvas.

On the one hand there are paintings. In canvases as the before-mentioned Our Battle Cry and Universal Negro (2008) we see a painting style reminiscent of works from the beginning of Kensmil’s career in which the paint was applied equally thick in small brush strokes.

Iris Kensmil, Universal Negro, 2008, 160 x 240 cm., oil on canvas.

However, there has been a change in atmosphere. Whereas the colours in earlier examples of the artist’s work such as Funky Funky (2003) were more warm, vibrant and exotic, the mood has now shifted to a darker, at times even obscure, and more serious tone.

Funky, Funky, 2003, oil on canvas, 200 x 180 cm., collection Museum Het Valkhof, Nijmegen

The exhibition also presents drawings, executed on paper with casein, ink, tempera and pastel. The three key works in this section Then They Marched (2008), The True Meaning (2008) and Their Spirits (2008) (in image left-middle-right) form an installation, in which portrait mug shots of Black Panther activists are shown overlaying and accompanying textual battle cries that relate to this African-American movement. All the drawings, even the enigmatic If the Negro is Inferior (2007), have an exceptional persuasive quality about them. They literally draw up a history of suffering and struggling. Yet simultaneously, in the gaze of the portraits/mug shots and the stature of the standing figures, these images bear witness to a dignified but imperative call for black people (or in this case, African-Americans) to be participants in world history.

installatieoverzicht met They Marched , 2008; The True Meaning, 2008;Their Spirits, 2008

Get Up, Stand Up is first and foremost an exhibition that is concerned with a history of emancipation. Kensmil’s work describes that history by foregrounding some of its greatest protagonists. Although the texts in or guiding the images often embrace the activism that goes with the black emancipation history, the images never directly call for this kind of engagement. They reveal the activists, showing their combative, vulnerable or disheartened side. Somewhere in between the image and the text, in the middle of history and activism, the spectator can decide for him/herself.

Iris Kensmil, Universal Negro, 2008, 160 x 240 cm., oil on canvas.

Kensmil’s approach of history is however not necessarily a critical one. For instance, looking at Universal Negro or the artist’s Surinam background in comparison to her depiction of the African-American history, the question rises if this claim of universality is legitimate. Is there such a thing as the negro and an universal black emancipation or should this struggle be defined in more specific cultural, national or even regional terms? Maybe a history of emancipation should be differentiated further, but Kensmil’s art proves – as did the world-wide responses to the campaign and election of Barack Obama – that the sentiment is in fact universal. Mr. President together with “Yes, we can. Yes, we did” does in this sense not only mark the beginning of this exhibition but also a next stage in the history that Kensmil is elucidating. It is a new icon, a new point of departure, stemming from a long line of predecessors, as if the artist were to say: “Yes, we always have.”

Hendrik Folkerts

curator Moderna Museet, Stockholm

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