Iriée Zamblé, 'Easy does it', detail

Play and Fight: Iriée Zamblé and the importance of taking up your space  

Issue no5
Oct-Nov 2020
Wat is Nederland

Iriée Zamblé declares her entry in the art-world with confidence:‘kicking in doors’ and smashing through glass ceilings, she “takes up space” as “a form of protest”. All the while she wonders: what will pushing against the grain now mean for Afro-Dutch artists in the future? Alyxandra Westwood visits her at Museum Het Rembrandthuis, where she is currently on residency.

Not long after graduating in 2019 from the HKU School of Art, Iriée (1995) was a finalist of the Koninklijke Prijs voor Vrije Schilderkunst 2020. Recently, she was invited to participate in the Open Studio residency at Museum het Rembranthuis. When I visit her workspace, it becomes clear that Iriée has undeniably taken up her space in the museum and made herself at home. Her studio is demarcated by a thin cord, another ‘boundary marker’ that Iriée isn’t shy about extending beyond. The floor is dotted with paint, materials and books, the walls covered with photos and sketches, along with the prepared canvases that act as platforms for the characters waiting to be brought to life in bright colours and textures, made with free and gestural marks. Although the paintings are of different sizes and don’t yet make up a series, they are interlinked with one another mainly through the presence of the figures glancing out and demanding the attention of their audiences, looking at us directly with their blasé expressions. Soft music can be heard in the background, allowing for the museum-setting to become an intimate and comfortable space.

The concept of play and fight is important to Iriée’s work as it describes both her trajectory into the art world, and the complexity of what she aims to represent. Born and raised in Amsterdam, the city-environment became the backdrop and starting point for her work, “Travelling in and between cities like Amsterdam or Rotterdam a lot like I do” she says, ”you unquestionably become aware of all these people walking around. I felt that the art world just didn’t reflect that.”

The concept of play and fight is important to Iriée’s work as it describes both her trajectory into the art world, and the complexity of what she aims to represent

Along with her interest in the melting pot of metropolitan life and the characters who contribute to those environments, Iriée developed an interest in fashion and its ability to signify and communicate a sense of one’s self. Symbolic motifs can be seen in works such as Suckafree (2020)and Spillin the beans (2020), where actual bandanas or handbags are used as canvases. She is most known today for her paintings which prioritise and empower images of the Afro-Dutch people she encounters around her in the city and who take centre stage in her work through stance, style and swagger.

Iriée: “Something I want to portray in my paintings is that sense of myself that hasn’t really played a leading part in art, [therefore] giving me the feeling I don’t really belong - I show people who are in control of themselves, in contrary to the depiction of black people that has been evident in art – I like to portray that feeling of…you don’t have to like me, but you’re going to have to look at me.”

“I like to portray that feeling of…you don’t have to like me, but you’re going to have to look at me”

As soon as blackness became central to Iriée’s work, something shifted. What, for Iriée was an attempt at painting her reality, began to ‘ruffle people’s feathers’. “It sparked a lot of conversation, and not necessarily in a good way”, Iriée explains. ”It became obvious to me that being black could not easily be perceived as the norm within the academy. There was still a lot of work to be done.”

“When I was in thesecond year of art school this felt like a lonely fight, it felt super personal and a rejection to one’s self. I constantly had to convince people that it was normal to portray blackness, and more importantly why it matters. Now that I am out of the academy, I realise more than before that taking up space the way I did at the academy was already a form of protest.”

Whilst Iriée had not necessarily set out to make an imprint on discourses around blackness in the Netherlands, she started to recognise a strong sense of purpose and urgency in her portraits. They brought to the surface an inherent lack of cultural understanding structurally present and deeply ingrained in many Western art institutions and societies. Iriée has had to “kick down that door” like many emerging artists of her generation and the artists of generations before, to whom the door was kept closed.

Seeking out her own role models outside of the academy, and forging her own path, Iriée started to understand the location of her work in a landscape of contemporary art that is still underdeveloped when it comes to inclusivity and intersectionality. Disrupting structural racism and offering a seat at the table for more diverse and nuanced voices “puts things into perspective and questions the structures we are navigating through”.

As Black Lives Matter protests rose around the world, Iriée critically observed and questioned why and how people –including herself– were making their (online) contributions to the protest. Looking at related posts from people on social media she wondered “who are you trulydoing this for and what are your intensions for posting?”

Early this year Iriée was invited to participate in an exhibition during her residency at Roodkapje in Rotterdam – an institution which had supported and stimulated her artistic experimentation since art school. The project asked artists to produce work that investigated the repercussions of the Covid19 pandemic on themselves and their practices. However, as the Black Lives Matter protests started to expand worldwide, Iriée felt compelled to use the exhibition as an opportunity to make her own comment on the protest in the specific context of the Netherlands:

“I didn’t feel I had much to say about the pandemic as my mind was clouded by the worldwide protests. I felt like I did have something to say about the protests and the social media aftermath. It was the biggest protest ever – even when we were in a pandemic – so that was really beautiful to see. Everybody was connected online and I was thinking about this collective togetherness and how the black squares [that were posted on social media] became an image of that solidarity.”

This sparked the development of a series of paintings titled #blackouttuesday (2020), the first of her paintings not to include figures, being entirely formed through text. In maintaining the motif of the black square, the work inevitably references the revolutionary paintings of Russian artist Kasimir Malevich. At the same time, the works utilise ironic and playful textual references which read either as Instagram captions like ‘Keep your foot on the gas bro’ or which reference lyrics by the Fugees such as ‘Too many MCs not enough Mics’. In the latter painting, Iriée examines how institutions make up pretexts for not being inclusive in the Netherlands, giving the common excuse of, “yeh we want to be inclusive, … but we just can’t find them”. The text reflects the amount and volume of those in society who yearn to have a voice, with yet still not enough space created for an equivalent contribution.

“Am I there to broadcast the institution’s ‘inclusivity’ or there because of my work?“

Iriée’s many experiences in art school, and the growing attention for her emerging practice, have given Iriée more understanding of her position in the context of a Dutch art world. Although there have been, and still are, times where she has had to fight more dominant cultural perceptions, she has come to realise the most significant factor is to stridently take up and own one’s space:

“As an artist who is yearning for visibility and nuance in the art world, next to feeling grateful, I will almost automatically question the intentions of why I am curated into a show. Am I there to broadcast the institution’s ‘inclusivity’ or there because of my work? You have all these different factors, but I just have to let that go, and enjoy the wave – you have to be critical of the interest but also enjoy it. I just hope that it’s a sustainable wave that many artists can benefit from, because apparently there are enough mics.”

Iriée Zamblé’s work is on show in the exhibition and open studio titled Rembrandt Open Studio: Iriée Zamblé and Timothy Voges, at Museum Het Rembrandthuis until November 29th, 2020. In 2021 Iriée will hold solo exhibitions at Roodkapje in Rotterdam, as well as continuing her residencies there and at SBK in Amsterdam. 

Alyxandra Westwood
is an artist, writer and curator and is based between Utrecht and Melbourne

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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 5 — 2020