ART AFRICA | Interview with Marion Boehm| ARTCO
ART AFRICA: You were born in Duisburg, Germany and have lived in Italy, France, and are currently working in Frankfurt, Germany as well as in Johannesburg, South Africa. Would you say that these geographic, cultural and linguistic transitions have had an influence on your practice and in your work?
Marion Boehm: Yes, they have had a huge influence in my work. I have always been hungry to travel the world. Besides visiting beautiful geographic and cultural locations, the most exciting and enriching experiences for me have always been to get in contact with local people directly – listen to their stories and get to know their daily life, their dreams and their sorrows. Most of my life I have spent as a guest in different countries, cultures and religions, and I have experienced hospitality, kindness and warmth throughout them all.
I think I am a very visual person, and have become a good observer when it comes to details in diversity. That’s why I love to use tiny little details in my work, they are meant as a surprise to the observer who will only discover them on a second, closer look.
What I have learned, especially during my time in Italy, is to appreciate beauty in whatever form – and there is so much beauty to discover. In my series, ‘Silent Beauty’, real true beauty has to do with authenticity, truthfulness and dignity, and comes along with inner beauty, deep within.
In Africa beauty appears without preparation, without warning, unpretentious, without an audience in mind and without aiming to be captured – absolutely fascinating for me, because it is so different compared to our western lifestyle of glamour magazines, mirror-gazing and selfie obsession.
Concerning lingual transitions, some of my strongest encounters happened without words, but rather on a spiritual level – feeling the uniqueness, essence and energy of a person without the necessity to explain anything.
Marion Boehm, Sacred Heart, 2017. 168 x 119mm. Courtesy of ARTCO
Working with a variety of materials – Shweshwe cloths, photographs, pastel, graphite and newspaper collage – you have set-out to capture the daily life of Kliptown, a suburb in the township of Soweto, South Africa. Why did you choose these special materials in the portrayal of Kliptown, and how exactly do they achieve this?
Visiting Kliptown was a life-changing experience for me. Prophetess Agnes and Bolo, the informal community chief, introduced me to the community, and people invited me to their homes and told me their stories. Their openness and warm welcome – not treating me as an outsider, but accepting me as part of their community – overwhelmed me. I felt very honoured that I could participate in special ceremonies.
I came home and had to work on these strong impressions – that’s where my art started.
Recycling materials are very present in Kliptown. People live from collecting newspapers, glass and plastic and often live in between piles of material stored in their shacks.
If women want to dress up for special occasions they often wear traditional shweshwe cloths. Besides using the typical brown, yellowish small patterns, there is a new hype about shweshwe being rediscovered by young African fashion designers in all kinds of vibrant colours.
That’s why I’ve been using these materials in my first cycle, ‘Patched – An Artistic Voyage Through Kliptown’.
My actual cycle, ‘Stitched – Reinterpreted Historical Portraits of African People’ as shown at my solo show at the last Paris Art Fair, enlarges my range of materials used in my collages. Doing research in historical portraits during the colonial period, I discovered that there are only a few showing African people. And if so, Africans were portrayed in working positions or as scientific or anthropological study objects, without asking for permission.
I am reinterpreting these images showing African historical portraits in a new context, similar to the representative photos taken by white people at that stage.
Using ancient precious stitcheries, goblins, lace, velvet and other materials from that time, I want to combine the richness of art aesthetics of still-lifes of that period with the portraits of African people.
In a way, I am trying to ‘correct’ the past which is of course an illusion. That’s why the view of my characters is still the same, looking at the observer and confronting him with a silent reproach in their eyes.
You have said that your work specifically pays homage to the women of Kliptown, acknowledging and celebrating their positive energy and hard work. What is it that draws you to Kliptown, and why is it important for you to celebrate these women?
Kliptown was home of the Congress of People which saw the drawing up of the Freedom Charter, a document that outlined an alternative vision to the oppressive policies of Apartheid.
Despite its historical significance, Kliptown has been neglected – there is a lack of infrastructure, education and employment, and due to the absence of these necessities, the people of Kliptown face great challenges.
Living under difficult circumstances, and facing a daily struggle to put food on the table – the women I met in Kliptown do not complain. They take care of their families, accept their lives and responsibilities and care for the wellbeing of those they love. Instead of being self-absorbed, their own wishes become secondary to serve as their families’ backbone. They are fulfilled and feel needed. I have never experienced aggression, but softness and constructive, positive optimism.
My portraits are not meant to evoke pity. Instead, I want to share my sense of wonder and amazement for these women’s beauty, compassion and strength. Beauty is not hair or face or skin, but compassion, caring and love. Feeling embraced by the unspoken openness of these extraordinary women, I feel the true unity that exists among us women around the world.
Marion Boehm, Ancestral Gallery, 2017. 167 x 147. Courtesy of ARTCO
You are set to exhibit your work at numerous locations around the world in 2018 – could you talk us through this, as well as the work we may expect to see at these exhibitions?
I am just coming back from my solo exhibition at the London Art Fair. My new series, ‘Ancestors’, was on show with ARTCO Gallery, and there was an overwhelming response.
Ancestor worship is one of the earliest forms of religious beliefs, and present today throughout Africa. It’s based on love and respect for the deceased. The belief that the dead have a continued existence and can influence the fortune of the living, also includes the faith to ask for special favours, and the fear to anger the ancestors. Only they can communicate directly with the supreme God. If anything goes wrong people think it’s because the ancestors are angry and a Sangoma – isiZulu for a person able to do magic healing, almost like a shaman – must be called. The social function of ancestor worship is to cultivate family loyalty and respect towards the older generations.
I am integrating ancient crowns of death into my collages which were used at the end of the 19th century to honour the dead in Christian Europe. But instead of the Christian symbols in the center of the crowns I use an image of the ancestors of my characters. With my beaded crowns I refer to the traditional African beadwork, showing similarities and building bridges between both cultures. But at the same time, I’m questioning the enforced Christianisation which came along with Colonisation, and destroyed many ancient African spiritual traditions.
In February my works will presented at the Investec Cape Town Art Fair by ARTCO Gallery. I am especially looking forward to my next solo show at the Art Paris Art Fair in April 2018! In time for the Paris Art Fair a new book about my latest work will be published.
I am working on a homage to the rich cultural scene of African origin in Paris. This vibrant community of artists dates back to the early 20th century. In my ongoing series, I am portraying artists like Henry Ossawa Tanner or Josephine Baker. My new theme is meant as an ongoing series portraying contemporary artists.
It’s been great to meet the artists personally in their homes or studios and to get an inspiring insight into their work and their lives. Of course, they are all invited to join the opening.