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My preferred dinner table scenario includes friends and new acquaintances. While being entangled in a conversational jam session, we share thoughts and dreams and drink just a little bit too much of wine. Although this is common practice amongst friends in The Netherlands, it surely is not in the rest of the world.
I have been living abroad for over 16 years now, of which the last nine years in the United States. Due to the current political climate, discussing politics could not have been more banned from the dinner table than ever before.
Like politics, also religion, and especially sex are socially unaccepted topics in casual conversation. Americans vow by correctness and will do everything to avoid making other table guests uncomfortable.
Utterly correct, hence not the most titillating social climate for a Dutch fire-starter like me.
Tonight, however, I am entertaining at home in The Netherlands and we will discuss ‘The Nudes’, my new series, unrestricted and uncensored over dinner.
At best, my work is inspired by people. By dreams, fueled by inspiring encounters, and above all the zeitgeist.
Enter the preceding year of my life.
It started with my solo exhibition ‘Through The Eyes Of Others’ in Amstelveen’s Museum Jan van der Togt. Seeing more than seventy-five of my pieces on display, spread over four beautiful rooms, catalyzed my creative drive.
The night before the opening party I posted the following image on social media:
For the next day promotion activities for my first solo museum exhibit and my first photobook, that had taken a year to complete, was scheduled. However, I was baffled to find out both my facebook and Instagram accounts were blocked. My penalty: no access to both my accounts for five days. Five days that could have been spent on promoting my dear work.
What had I done wrong?
On my Surrender picture, a minuscule piece of a nipple is visible. It had never crossed my mind this could be labeled as explicit content or nudity. Through my eyes, I observe a beautiful black-and-white image depicting a dancing woman. A piece of art, gracing the walls of a museum.
That same morning, I inspected my works on the museum walls in a dazed state. I wondered which other of these pictures also would be banned from social media. Well, about half of it, as a vast body of my work contains nudity.
For me, the starting point of creativity is nakedness. I am not a fashion photographer. Too often clothing blocks my creative quest for that specific intimate vulnerability.
During my three month exhibition in the Jan van der Togt museum, one of the interesting people I got to meet was Pastor Werner Pietersen. Pietersen wanted to interview me, as part of a closing monologue for a local television broadcast I was to be a guest at.
I was Impressed by this lanky Pastor while we observed my work together. A man of religion amongst all this nudity, I thought…
A man of religion with this artist brought up without religion of any kind alongside him, I thought…
Surprisingly enough, it turned out we were both emotionally wrestling with the same overarching questions of life.
A lot of my work is inspired by religion and mythology, it even includes work containing quotes from Apostle Paul.
An observation Pastor Pietersen immediately shared, is that recurring and connecting themes in my work are contact and making contact. While overlooking my work he reflected that not one single person is an island on its own. We are all connected and we can solely witness ourselves through the perspective of other human beings.
He also noticed my preference for androgynous models in my work.
“We are living in a moment in time where we are going back to the one-human. We will not be male or female, we will simply be”, I proclaimed.
It made Pastor Pietersen reminiscence about the book of Genesis, that starts with a one- human.
And he read to me:
“God created the heavens and the earth, but no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up for it had not rained upon the earth yet, and there was no one to till the ground. Then God formed man from the dust of the ground, and planted a garden in Eden, in the east. There he put the man whom he had formed. Out of the ground God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Then He said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.”
So out of the ground God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name.
The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner.
So God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh.
And the rib that God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man.
And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.”
“The serpent in the three persuaded the woman to eat the forbidden fruit from the three of good and evil. God had forbidden, because He knew that if man would eat, it would open their eyes, knowing good and evil.
So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate.
Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked and hid.”
This story touched me as never before in my life: “I want to capture paradise through my lens”, I reminisced.
Not an easy task in retrospect. How can one single image contain all the beauty on earth? How do you depict all the wonders and diversity of God’s creation?
What was it in this story that had attracted me so much? Man not knowing shame. Not knowing fear.
The difference between good and evil had become visible through their eyes. But what specifically was that evil? Maybe solely the fear, the shame.
‘Where are you, why are you hiding?’, is the question God asks the humans after they eat the forbidden fruit. ‘We are afraid.’, is the answer. That is the shame – the fear.
Fear is a particular concept for me. It is something you can’t hide. Just like nudity is something you can’t hide, because after all, we all are naked.
For twelve years of my career, I acted and studied method acting. I witnessed people taking the stage for a scene, a monologue, or a presentation. And you know what it is with fear? It always comes out. You have experienced it all as well, without a doubt. That trampling foot, an arm making spastic moves, an itchy nose. And why the need to overly caress that ear all of a sudden? That all is fear we are unconsciously trying to mask, but never quite successful.
What I have learned from all those years of acting is to answer my fears. Only then it can be defeated. It’s possibly even better to confront that fear head on and face it. ‘The other side of fear is freedom.’
Facing your fear always takes you further ahead and makes you accept it for what it is. That is also how I translate our fear of nudity. Hiding it doesn’t help. It is visible, we can see it through the clothes we use to try and hide it. It dominates our thoughts. Man, how often we think about it…
Besides that, nudity is a subject. Like a landscape or still life. It’s a form of art with human nudity in a leading role.
Many of you witnessed Michelangelo’s unparalleled David in Florence he created in 1504. His comment about this work: “And who is so barbarous as not to understand that the foot of a man is nobler than his shoe, and his skin nobler than that of the sheep with which he is clothed?”
Nudes dominate the history of art. In the 17th century, Peter Paul Rubens painted his ‘The Three Graces’. There’s Gustave Courbet’s ‘L’Orgine du Monde’ from 1866, depicting a close-up view of the female genitals and abdomen. Around 1923 the world gets to know the nudes from photographer Edward Weston. And there’s Helmut Newton more recently with his controversial and explicit photography in the eighties. All world famous, admired and groundbreaking.
Nevertheless, it seems over time we have become more protective about nudity. Janet Jackson’s exposed nipple became ‘Nipple Gate’ and led to a new law in the US. A law enforcing all live television broadcasts to be aired with a delay, protecting us from something
as ‘haunting’ as an exposed nipple. No music can be listened to without hearing beep-beep- beep, since also words like blah, blah and blah are prohibited from airing.
In 2011, facebook closed down a French teacher’s account because he had posted the aforementioned ‘L’Origine du Monde’ from Gustave Courbet.
And just recently facebook repeatedly censored the ‘Venus of Willendorf’. The small figure symbolizing female fertility, on display in the Naturhistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria.
Don’t get me wrong. Without a second of a doubt, our children should be protected and restrictions are essential. Although porn is one of the world’s biggest industries, it shouldn’t be available for everyone.
But, what’s to gain by covering up all nudity? What do you protect by inflicting fear or shame? Is our youth not far better off by gaining knowledge about the contrasts and possibilities, about the wisdom to be gained by knowing good and evil?
Not to be fearful, but to be aware.
Aware of ourselves. Aware enough to accept our full nudity. Too many people suffer from mental and physical disorders caused by the shame of their own body.
Let parents raise their boys with a comprehension of the female body, as not to have them see it merely as objects of desire. Teach them to respect it for what it is, just like they would their own body.
Anyway, back to my desire to capture paradise.
Likely, paradise lies in the eye of the beholder. To me, it means to have a place where one can live in freedom.
Nudity, before shame, before it got exposed to the concept of good and evil. Nudity before censorship on social media.
Vulnerability forms a key theme in my work. The quest for vulnerability. And what can be more vulnerable then taking a step towards another person while being nude?
To me, nudity is the ultimate vulnerability. It stands for freedom.
I have noticed this is the point of view from a European woman, as myself, and is not shared by many others from, for example, the United States.
Just like all Dutch have something Calvinistic, all Americans have something Puritan. Their Puritan ideas have an impact everywhere and on everything. Moralism plays a central role in American politics and society, in stark contrast to Europe. The contrast between American decency versus European immorality plays a central role in American rhetoric the country prides itself on since the dawn of the Republic. Not without consequence.
Americans are so thoroughly comfortable and convinced with their own principles and traditions they have transformed them into an international myth of American enlightenment and political correctness amidst a so-called evil and corrupt world.
While in Europe sexual development forms a natural phase in human life, it’s being suppressed in the United States. Americans don’t address it publically. However, their behavior shows a different reality. Porn is one of the biggest industries in the United States till this very day.
But we seem to incorporate more and more of these Puritan suppressions in our formerly liberal European society. Obviously, social media is the key factor here. Female nipples are banned (where its male counterpart aren’t), and genitals are the ultimate enemy. We have been neatly covering up our forbidden fruits with little stars, hearts, and bars. This has an absurd effect when applied to art.
Last year, I found myself contemplating over my nudes, meanwhile soaking the whole “Me Too- Times Up-Equality-on-the-Work- Floor” discussion up, and asked myself what the hell I was supposed to be going to do with all my nudes, now that all of it was taboo.
What would be allowed then?
What remains if I strip my work from all its nudity? My series of nudes started with two portraits.
A philosophy from Aristotle and Locke based on the principle we are born as a blank sheet with our whole being based on experience and perception.
A message fueling me with hope. Because everything we consider today, everything we allow or forbid, should be ashamed for or not, springs from what we make ourselves believe. We restrict ourselves with what we learn.
‘Fear the mind, not the body’, I then concluded. ‘We can unlearn what we have learned.’ And what if we started with that blank sheet?
I removed the sexual content from my nudes.
This resulted in these images depicting entangled people from all ages, races, believes and life views. Without showing explicit content, we are aware these subjects are naked. Naked in their vulnerability and their quest for freedom.
What remains if you strip us of everything that defines us?
A blank sheet, to be colorized with the knowledge of good and evil.
Accept everything around you and try to observe and listen without judgment.