How does the color red sound? Hard, shrill or sneakily soft? What sound does a black arabesque make? A weight full of hops? And how do you hum a painting made of festive strings? Whoever stands in front of the abstract work by the Jewish Sedje Hémon, originally trained as a violinist, cannot help but try to sing along to her paintings, which are now on display at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in the exhibition Abstracting parables.
Hémon (1923-2011) is arrested as a woman resister during the Second World War and miraculously survives the Nazi camps. However, her health is so poor that she had to stop playing the violin in the 1950s. She takes up her other great love: painting. The work, as it appears in the Stedelijk, is an ode to art itself (hence the title as The painting party), to the vitality and uncompromising nature of abstract art. When you translate the abstract foundation to something else, for example music or to the flat surface, you see Hémon doing it all his life.
Hémon is one of three artists who can be seen side by side in this major exhibition in three separate solos. The title of the exhibition, Abstracting parables, means that the work of the Pakistani artist and designer Imran Mir (1950-2014), the Afro-Brazilian activist, stage actor and artist Abdias Nascimento (1914-2011) and Hémon is abstract, but sometimes also narrative. All three relate to the Western tradition of modernism, without neglecting their own culture, the place where their cradle stood or that of their ancestors. This is most clearly visible in the work of Nascimento and Mir.
The exhibition was created by the curatorial team for the last edition of Sonsbeek, which opened in Arnhem last summer. That art manifestation extends until 2024. During that time, Sonsbeek manifests itself in individual places. The Stedelijk Museum is the first big stop.
The three artists are presented as alternative, forgotten voices in the dominant Western art discourse. It sounds good, but is only partly true, because Sedje Hémon has certainly not been forgotten in his long life. She already had exhibitions in Paris in the 1950s and in the 1960s was acquired by the Dutch art historian Hans Jaffé for the Stedelijk Museum. In 1968, the Holland Festival had her paintings ‘translated’ to music, and Hémon also became famous as an avant-garde composer and champion of the pan flute. In addition, her work was shown at the previous Documenta in 2017, both in Kassel and Athens.
It is different with Imran Mir and Abdias Nascimento, who have never been seen in Europe. Their work comes as a big surprise. And that surprise lies mainly in the fact that it is both one and the other. Both a story and the abstraction, both the relationship and the spirituality. The interesting thing is that when you walk through the halls, look, go back and look again, it is the paintings that are the least figurative that tell the most.
All seeing eye
Mir is most obvious in his references to the Western canon, simply because the titles of his canvases and some pictures (Sixth Paper on Modern Art, Eight papers on modern artetc.) refer to it. Mir has an unpredictable ability to express himself. His sculptures quickly become too literal. But many of his acrylic paintings are incredibly good. The highlight is the above Sixth Paper on Modern Artin which he uses triangles, rectangles, squares and circles, midnight blue, white and all the colors of the rainbow to try to fathom something as impossible as the riddle of creation.
Of the three soloists, Nascimento is the most activist. His sometimes brightly colored paintings are full of references to the black man’s struggle for justice, to the forced transition from Africa to the ‘New World’, to the cosmology of gods and myths. This gives his work an adventurous appeal, which is expressed in many figurative elements. Still, Nascimento also clearly refers to abstraction – and in his best works it ensures calmness, balance and a great mystical attraction.
One of his most beautiful canvases is called Creation n. 2: Obatala and Eshu. The god of heaven and the benevolent spirit who is Eshu are not represented in body and limbs. Instead, you see a rowing boat from above, which can also be read as an all-seeing eye. Black ironwork in the foreground makes the scene even flatter than it already is. Everything is a symbol, but everything is also autonomous art. Everything is color, shape and the ability to build a new perspective.
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