by Martijn van Nieuwenhuyzen
curator | Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam
It was in July, 2016 that I first visited Raquel van Haver’s studio on the ground floor of one of the high-rise apartment buildings that are emblematic of Amsterdam’s Bijlmermeer district, better known to locals as "the Bijlmer".
Right above the entrance to her studio, a small group of men were leaning over the balcony railing, smoking, shouting, and messing about. Some people can be alarmed by the raucous atmosphere of the Bijlmer, but I had lived in the area for 28 years myself so to me it was familiar and even reassuring. Van Haver’s studio was a small, stuffy boiler room crammed with materials and art works. The paintings were leaning in rows against the walls and one another, and the place was strewn with drawings, paint tubes, brushes, burlap, plaster paste, plastic bags, and cardboard boxes. If you didn’t watch your step in this tiny labyrinth you were sure to leave with a souvenir paint blob stuck to your clothing. It was a pleasure to watch the charismatic Van Haver navigate her way around the studio, grouping paintings together, pulling out drawings and laying them out on the floor. Several of the works were inspired by her experiences in the Bijlmer. She was seventeen when she moved into this 1960s modernist suburban development. It was originally intended for white middle-class and working-class families, but the "Bijlmer dream" of a peaceful, well-organized, and spacious living environment soon became what many saw as a failed project when these families started moving out to the satellite newtowns of Lelystad and Almere. The people who came to take their place were mainly migrants from Suriname, the Dutch Antilles, and various African countries. But there were also a few remaining "Bijlmer believers", those members of the first wave who stayed on because they loved the Bijlmer despite its rough edges. They could not bring themselves to abandon the functionalist ideals of light, air, and spaciousness.
This architectural dream (along with the low rents due to the massive number of vacant premises) was also behind my decision to move to the Bijlmer with my boyfriend when I was an art history student in the early 1980s—just before the neighborhood’s downward spiral hit rock bottom. The Bijlmer had become a refuge for people who could not—or were not allowed to—set up home elsewhere; people such as the heroin addicts who left Amsterdam’s historic center when the police embarked on a large-scale cleanup project. The junkies would take the subway to the Bijlmer and hang around in our corridors and stairwells. In his 2017 novel Wees onzichtbaar ("Be invisible") Murat Isik evocatively describes almost exactly the era that we spent living in the Bijlmer and passionately defending our neighborhood against the criticism and derision of our friends. We loved this unique and troublesome place, with its 130 nationalities, expansive green areas, and lively street culture. Now, in 2018, much of the honeycomb of high-rise blocks that defined the Bijlmer has been replaced by low-rise architecture—and the junkies have disappeared, too. But the Bijlmer still has a rawness about it and it remains one of the most multicultural and bustling districts of Amsterdam.
When I first saw Van Haver’s paintings I was overwhelmed with a sense of pride in the Bijlmer. Her narrative and figurative style deeply impressed me, as did her choice of subjects reflecting empathy for people in marginal communities—in the Bijlmer and beyond, in the urban ghettos of Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean. It was right there and then, in Van Haver’s Bijlmer studio in 2016, that I was struck by the idea of inviting her for an exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum.
Now, two and a half years later, Van Haver is at the Stedelijk with a new series of paintings entitled Spirits of the Soil. Its origins can be traced to a journey she made to the Nigerian city of Lagos at the invitation of the African Artists’ Foundation. While she was there, Van Haver immersed herself in the city’s slum districts, collecting stories and images, and befriending the "area boys", the loosely organized gangs of teenagers and street children on Lagos Island. She photographed and sketched the shanty town life of local people hanging out, hustling, partying, eating, and drinking. On her return to Amsterdam, these photographs and drawings formed the basis for a new series of paintings that blend experiences from Lagos, the Bijlmer, and other places around the world. The paintings testify to the artist’s highly specific sense of form and complex use of materials: they are monumental, collage-like constructs on burlap, with layer upon layer of oil, spray-paint, plastics, charcoal, tar, paper, ash, and even mobile phones and hair. And while in some parts plaster has been used to sculpt relief-like structures, adjacent parts are strikingly sparse and sketch-like.
The exhibition itself, likewise titled Spirits of the Soil, starts in an introductory space containing photographic collages created by Van Haver in 2017 during LagosPhoto. This is followed by a series of four rooms that each contain a single large, new painting. The exhibition culminates in the largest gallery, where the main piece, We don’t sleep as we parade all through the Night... (2018), is embedded in a spatial installation. This work merges the images from the previous galleries into a single gigantic painting measuring four by nine meters. The figural composition showing several individuals grouped around a table set with food and drink recalls Da Vinci’s The Last Supper. The central company around the table is flanked by scenes of—as Azu Nwagbogu phrases it in his essay for this publiction—"liming" figures shown eating, drinking, gambling, and generally having fun. The informal architecture of the slum depicted in the painting is continued across the gallery in a spatial installation comprising wooden partitions, steps, and elevations.
The Stedelijk Museum is privileged to present this new series of works by Raquel van Haver, and I first wish to express my gratitude for her dedication to this exhibition: with the exception of a brief visit to Suriname, she has spent the entire past year developing this new series in her studio and she would not have been able to complete it for this exhibition without putting in long workdays. I would also like to thank Azu Nwagbogu, executive director and chief curator of the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa in Cape Town, for his essay in this publication in which he so eloquently encapsulates Van Haver’s work and methodology. I am most grateful to Jeffrey Croese and Sara Mattens of Vinger.nl for the graphic design of this publication, and to Ammodo, Mondriaan Fund, the AFK (Amsterdam Fund for the Arts), and Stadsdeel Zuidoost(the municipal authority for the Southeast borough of Amsterdam) for helping to realize this exhibition though either individual grants to the artist or contributions to the museum. I am also indebted to the Stedelijk Museum team for their energy and enthusiasm in making the exhibition come about, and to the staff at CBK Zuidoost, particularly its director Annet Zondervan, with whom we have run the artist residency BijlmAIR since early 2000—it was Annet who first took me to Raquel’s studio. Thanks are also due to the management of the Dutch National Opera & Ballet for allowing the use of a studio at its stage-set storage facility in Amsterdam Zuidoost.