Central to my work as a visual artist is my involvement with the world. More specifically, the question of how man relates to himself and to the world around him. My work is thematic, in which the subject is decisive for the visualization. Through my artistic expressions, I intend to address societal issues, themes in which I am or have been personally involved such as poverty, illness, a sustainable society and nature, but also mental resilience, trauma processing and the question of how people deal psychologically with life experiences, positive as well as negative.
If it is necessary to speak of a specific signature, then this is mainly determined by the content or the theme, in which I search for the most suitable visual form. As a result, there is a great diversity of visual forms in my works of art.
Because of my years of work as a humanitarian aid worker on the African continent, I experienced the consequences of violence, poverty and illness from close by in such a way that it is reflected in my work as a Fine Artist.
From 1992-1999 I worked as a humanitarian aid worker. First for Médecins Sans Frontières in Rwanda, Uganda and Zaire on the eve of the genocide where I ended up in the middle of the violence. In later years as a volunteer at the Red Cross Hospital in Cape Town, South Africa, where, thanks to the support of funds I raised in The Netherlands, one of the most successful AIDS control programs in the world was launched in the townships around Cape Town. Trained as a Home Base Care Worker and AIDS counselor, I worked for more then five years in the poor slum areas consulting HIV/AIDS infected pregnant women in the community referring them to the Red Cross Children's Hospital to get nursed and treated with medication. For years I saw sick women and children living in the poorest of poorest areas in miserable conditions. Death was omnipresent.
Having worked for years as voluntary aid worker in Africa I finally returned to The Netherlands in 1999. Trained in Fine Art in Cape Town in my spare time I was admitted to the Royal Academy of Fine Art in The Hague, where I graduated in 2005 in monumental 3D Fine Art. It was the time of Postmodernism in Fine Art in which the culture of image was leading. Social engagement within Fine Art was not done and non existent.
Since my years in Africa with the tremendous human suffering I had witnessed, I searched for ways to tell my story. How could I study in a world all about beauty at the Royal Academy while I had witnessed and experienced a world full of suffering and horror in Afrika?
After my graduation in Fine Art, I developed interactive art projects building gigantic sculptures named Arms Around You to bring the AIDS epidemic I witnessed in Africa to the attention of the Dutch public. This resulted in the Love Life Festival around my art projects, with debates, lectures and educational programs, nationally supported by the Dutch government (NCDO) and Dutch NGO’s and Financing Organisations, locally embraced by the Lord Mayor of The Hague, who annually, around December 1, organized the official World AIDS-day commemoration in the The Hague City Hall.
Together with the Oleanworld Foundation, a foundation I had meanwhile founded, we received a lot of publicity and attention, with Free Publicity articles, radio interviews and a television broadcast special by Dutch Current Affairs Program Een Vandaag. Our commitment was groundbreaking.
Activism, but not necessarily
Nowadays social engagement and art activism by artists within the Fine Art is widely accepted. Highly relevant too, in a world overwhelmed with problems such as war, disease, terrorism and climate change. Although these themes are equally important to me, I, however, do not perceive myself necessarily as Art Activist, for the sake of activism. For me, Art Activism is not an aim in itself, but rather a possible consequence of the subject matter I want to address which occasionally requires or even dictates an active attitude.
For example; with regard to the subject of AIDS I have always taken position that, from an ethical point of view, I was only allowed to deal with this subject when I actually was ready to also contribute in the very fight against the disease in the world. I have always taken a stand that getting inspired by the suffering of others only for the sake of artistic inspiration, is highly unethical. My years of active involvement in fighting HIV/AIDS worldwide justified the choice of this subject in my artwork and at the same time encouraged me to actively continue reporting and advocating about ways in finding possible solutions to fight the AIDS pandemic. In that sense one could call my work as an artist Art Activism.
My works of art are both two and three dimensional: paintings, sculptures, installations, but also photo series and film. Whether it concerns my 9-meter-high sculptures Arms Around You, my paintings on plastic construction canvasses Kayelitsha, the video installations Thandeka Zulu and Splinter, a video installation in the form of a four-poster bed, or my Nature Goodie Bags collection, I search for the most suitable visual form from a content perspective.
Where social engagement was barely accepted in Fine Art at the time of Postmodernism, twenty years ago, art connoisseurs today often regard diversity in an artist's work as weakness. An artist must have an unambiguous visual signature, recognizable to the spectator. He must be able to present a virtual business card.
Perhaps it is time for diversity. For artists who use many forms of art, in different styles with varying materials. Artists who, from a content perspective/theme, search for a visual image that is illustrative without being an illustration. Art with a substantive signature that invites the spectator to look and feel, to understand, to experience beyond a visual appearance.
My experience during years of interactive Fine Art projects have taught me that such a perspective is possible. For the hundreds of volunteers who helped build my interactive art project Arms Around You inspired by my experiences with AIDS in Africa throughout the years, the sculptures became more than just their colossal appearance.
By incorporating them in the creative process whilst sharing information about and around the origin of the sculptures, a larger more comprehensive image emerged for the volunteering participants, both intuitively as well as cognitive, than merely the visual appearance of the sculptures. They thus became works of art with deeper layering, radiating not only matter, but also energy, because of the involvement of many and the content and story behind the works of art.
Ciska de Hartogh