The Other Way Around
Anne Verhoijsen is not the kind of artist that sits down at her desk in the studio every morning at nine. Every work she creates finds its origins in a need, an urge, or a question. Her oeuvre is defined by openness to other cultures, her affinity with fabrics and clothing and a longing for beauty. Following her first world trip, she returned to the Netherlands with a deep understanding of the idea that people differ from each other in numerous ways yet at the same time share a longing for beauty and acknowledgment. From that moment, every work has become a step closer to better understanding the beauty found outside the boundary of our Western standards.
In Ouagadougou, a friend from Ghana presented her with a blouse and shawl made of batik fabric in traditional motif. She gave away he blouse because she would feel herself like a lost tropical bird in it.
The outstanding batik shawl is often worn and proves an opening for special contact with African women; in the same way you might address someone in his own tongue. It is an open gesture towards the other, often being rewarded by a smile and a moment of solidarity.
During a summer course at Webster University in Leiden she met and quickly became friends with Ethel Tawe who is originally from Cameroon. While Ethel now lives in London, due to a family connection, she is often in the Netherlands. Once, while strolling through The Hague, Ethel suggested to Anne to fashion a crown with her blue-and-yellow shawl, similar to the predominantly African hairstyle with which a scarf is tied around the head. This tradition dates back to the Nemes, the crown of the ancient African rulers, and is often experienced by women as powerful.
Anne was shocked, as the idea seemed to her to be rather carnivalesque. However, Ethel went on to explain precisely her thinking behind the idea. Once Anne understood the thought pattern, the carnival image vanished. “Then I want to pass the test and I surrendered to her.” In the picture she is wearing a blue coat with large shiny buttons and the crown-like turban, which suits her beautifully.
There is a website where African women post pictures of themselves wearing just such a crown and Anne is currently the only white woman among them. There have been many positive responses.
During the recent Marrakech Biennale, she is reacquainted with Jelili Atiku, the Nigerian performance artist. He is wearing a beautiful suit of African fabric and explains to Anne that his suit is part of his decolonization process. He sees that even clothing patterns can be associated with many deep layers of colonialism and suppression. Atiku is often seen performing on the streets of his community in Lagos. His unique, personally designed costume covers him from head to toe in bright red, the color of blood and represents the language of violence. For such an artist where clothing plays an essential role in his life, should he not one day look in the mirror and think: what am I wearing? Are these the clothes of the oppressors of long ago? Why not wear colorful, traditional African clothing? What does it say about my soul if it is always bundled up in western tailor-mades?
Often, colonialism still determines the unequal relationship between the west and her former colonies. Raw materials being taken from the colonies and processed in the more developed world. The former colonial powers have left their footprint and now, it is up to us all to ensure that everybody can, once again, stand on their own feet.
Anne has found inspiration to make a film in which she can add her contribution to the process for the decolonization of Africa.
While the younger Ethel ties a headscarf for the older Anne, she wonders why it is that Africans don western clothes but the opposite never occurs: The other way around. “I usually wear Western clothes and the crown is what connects me to my roots, it gives me strength. Why is it rarely the other way around? Would such a crown look good on everybody? Is it because it is African? Is it prejudice?”
If Anne, during the process of tying the scarf, says something her words are silent, only Ethel’s voice is audible in her perfect English. Yes, we are sort of speechless to her questions. Anne Verhoijsen’s film is an answer by retaining the question.
In the work ‘The Other Way Around’ Anne is seen wearing a lemon-yellow cardigan and a crown, which has a large knot on the front. Aesthetically, it does not quite agree with me, but why? Is it that Anne is too old? Too wrinkled? Is it the contrast with her glasses? Is my personal taste for modesty in the way, my Dutch frugality? Am I uncomfortable because it falls outside my western norms
Ethel’s voice continues like a mantra: “People of all cultures can wear a crown. However, they think: it is not for me; but why not? Perhaps because it is African?” Her innocent questions open up larger, deeper layers. Clothing may seem superficial, for what is fashion on the scale of world problems, but it is precisely in the daily routine that one can read so many things. While many shawls and clothing made of batik fabrics may appear authentically African they are, in reality, produced by Vlisco, a Dutch firm which dates back to 1846. Vlisco is deeply rooted in Dutch colonial history. The fabrics they produced were originally intended for the Indonesian market. However, when they failed to be a success there, Africa came into view and now the company exports the fabrics to the African continent. These are generally expensive fabrics, which are much loved for their beautiful and fade resistant bold colours. While the designs with traditional patterns may look authentic, it was the western designers at Vlisco who conceived all this.
Anne Verhoijsen’s simple, intimate moment reminds us of a common point of contention; even today, clothes in Africa still bear the imprint of the past. And that makes the point of “Why can’t it be the other way around?” so magical. As the artist Vincent Meesen wrote: “We are all ‘the other’ to someone. Difference is the bases of all creation.” So yes, why would we not wear each other’s clothes, stretch the term taste somewhat, try out each other’s values, and let every individual shine. Then we can start decolonizing together.
Hanne Hagenaars, Art criter and curator