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Antwerp debates images of women in public space

19:04 05/02/2019
How a city moves beyond stereotypical representations in public art works is at the centre of a series of talks and activities in Antwerp this month

A wide-ranging conversation about female representation in the city is underway in Antwerp. Over the coming month, a series of events will ask why women are so under-represented in public space and think about ways more representative monuments – or other public art works – can be developed in the future.

The series Imagining Monuments is a collaboration between Extra City Kunsthal and the Middelheim Museum; the institutions came together last year to discuss the hot topic of decolonising public space. “For this year we were thinking about other issues of under-representation, and it became apparent relatively quickly that women are massively under-represented in monuments in public space today,” says Eline Verstegen of Extra City.

The issue is not that women are absent from public space, but that the range of representation is so very limited. Walk around Antwerp, and you will see lots of statues of the Madonna and a few allegorical female nudes, often accompanying statues of famous men. But that’s about it.

Do we still need monuments?

How this situation arose was the subject of the first event, which saw artists, academics and activists gathering last week to discuss historical context. But the conversation quickly expanded to take in other questions, such as whether it makes sense, in 2019, to talk about “the woman” as a gender category or if permanent monuments are still the best means of representation.

“As an arts space we are particularly interested in how artists can play a role in finding new forms of monuments,” Verstegen says.

Then there were questions about stereotypes and the power of representation. “Is this just a check-box that you need to tick, in order to show a diversity of people, or is it really about empowering through representation?”

These issues will return in future discussions. On 7 February the topic will be broadening our understanding of gender and how this might be reflected in public representations, while on 21 February the discussion will tackle diversity.

“We live in a super-diverse city, and that needs to be factored in,” explains Verstegen. “Our identities are so complex and layered that we probably need to think about them more from an intersectional point of view, where you have all these axes that constitute your identity.”

Each discussion will include contributions from Antwerp-based artists who have produced work addressing the issues raised. Katinka De Jonge, for example, has scanned all of the monuments in Antwerp and layered up all the images in certain categories, such as man, woman, king or soldier, to make 3D composites. “It’s interesting to see how very stereotypical these are,” Verstegen says.

No easy answers

Meanwhile Stef Van Looveren has produced a monument concept in the form of a pair of candles cast from his own legs and feet, which burn down over time. “This touches on the idea that maybe a monument doesn’t need to have a fixed shape, but can be fluid, in constant transition.”

Finally, Mashid Mohadjerin has contributed photographic work on the representation of “Middle Eastern” women in public, and how that connects to ideas of protest and rebellion against traditional modes of representation.

As well as these curated events, there are informal meetings on Sunday mornings, where members of the public can discuss female representation in public space. Led by artist-curator Anne Bielig, these take place on 10 and 24 February, and 3 March.

Imagining Monuments concludes on 7 March with an event summing up the issues raised and personal perspectives from four people who have followed the whole series. These are the artist Anne-Mie Van Kerckhoven, art collective ooooo, poet Maud Vanhauwaert and Sara Weyns, director of the Middelheim Museum.

“We are not looking for solutions that will magically solve the problem,” Verstegen concludes, “but we are interested in finding methodologies or ingredients to take into the future when thinking about representation in public space.”

©Photos by Mark Rietveld

Written by Ian Mundell (Flanders Today)