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Kanal Façade: Anne-Mie Van Kerckhoven honours Brussels in monumental street art project
The giant parade of vibrant figures dance over the busy Brussels boulevard, an exuberant and kaleidoscopic tribute to the city’s artistic heritage and popular culture.
It’s the second of three designs to adorn the former Citroën garage as the Art Deco and Modernist building metamorphoses into the capital’s future museum of modern and contemporary art, scheduled to open in 2025.
After the Belgium-based French artist Laure Provost kicked off the temporary series in the spring, it’s the turn of Van Kerckhoven, also known as AMVK, to fill the landmark public space. This she does in her inimitable style.
From a harlequin symbolising Brussels’ cherished folklore to a ghost echoing urban chaos, a mandala motif and strong female characters, the metaphorical and multi-layered work serves as a striking homage to the capital.
It also reflects the internationally-renowned artist’s complex and socially-critical oeuvre. Since the 1970s, AMVK has pursued a singular career encompassing drawings, paintings, collages, video and digital works.
After studying graphic design, she has persistently explored aspects of science, including AI and computer graphics. The 72-year-old artist has also continually placed women and questions of gender at the centre of her art as part of a broader preoccupation with counter culture.
Van Kerckhoven’s pioneering role in the art world was one reason why she was commissioned by the new canalside cultural hub.
“We want to be ambitious, break and push boundaries. Anne-Mie’s work is all of that and more in the way she navigates from music to film to painting, to digital media through to technology,” said Kanal’s artistic director Kasia Redzisz at the inauguration.
“This all makes her practice incredibly relevant for us but also for the younger scene,” she added, highlighting how the “quintessentially avant-garde” artist was influencing and inspiring emerging practices.
For Van Kerckhoven, it was initially intimidating to be given complete freedom to fill the enormous space. But when Redzisz told her that she liked her drawings, it triggered her creativity and recalled the origin of her artistry.
“A lot of people are frightened of my drawings because they come from my subconscious,” she laughed.
Although the work advanced by trial and error, she knew with certainty that the starting point was to be scenes with streets.
“I’m from Antwerp and when you come here, you are walking the streets and it’s a really close relationship with the urban experience.”
Unusually, she didn’t show her early sketches to her husband and long-time creative partner, Danny Devos, or her gallerist Frank Demaegd (Zeno X).
“I didn’t want any remarks that would steer me. It was my insight and the soul of Brussels that I remembered from the 70s when I came here with its own folklore and Brusseleer identity.”
Her recollections of the city’s fervent culture include the iconic café La Fleur en Papier Doré/Het Goudblommeke in Papier. It was once the haunt of Surrealist artists and is commemorated in the façade.
But there were also moments of doubt. In one of her female figurative drawings, she was concerned that one looked as if she had a penis. “I don’t see it,” said someone she asked, although Van Kerckhoven recognises that she aims to depict the inner strength of a woman, or create a female character who can be a bit of everything.
Her trademark vibrant colour palette provoked another disquiet. Half way through the process, she was worried about the density of her colours and tempered them. The KANAL team quickly objected and the bright warm hues remained.
Ahead of the unveiling of the work, she suffered a sleepless night after painstakingly poring over every pixel to ensure each detail was correct.
Despite her prolific career, Van Kerckhoven is modest about her achievements, while confessing how much she needed this project. “I embraced it actually because it’s one of first times in my life that I had this confidence.”
Speaking at the opening, she reflected on Belgian identity, underlining its individuality and energy.
“We may not be a country, but we are a people. The pride was there from the time of the old Belgians, the culture of our French-speaking Belgium and our Flemish-speaking one.”
“They form a beautiful, diverse and highly personal whole,” she continued, pointing out that its citizens did not behave as sheep. “Practically every Belgian is original and that is their quality, especially in times of globalisation and mass communication.”
With all the temperaments of Europe gathered in this identity, over the centuries domination and contempt have given rise to a murky mish mash of traits. They favour a kind of moral autonomy that inhabitants of other countries can only envy us, said Van Kerckhoven.
“That autonomy has become very useful in the new world constellation to which we are evolving,” she concluded.
The Façade series is a collaboration between KANAL-Centre Pompidou and artlead. As part of its opening activities, Nightshift on 8 and 9 September welcomes live DJ sets to the former nightclub K1, now Atelier Kanal.
KANAL Façade: Anne-Mie Van Kerckhoven
Until 10 March
Photos: ©KANAL-Centre Pompidou