The eyes of people who don’t exist and never have

The Dutch artist Ruud van Empel talks about his art, including his portrayal of black children as ideal types from middle class Dutch 1960s backgrounds.

All the images are from Ruud van Empel's "World" series.

About a month ago, we came across the ‘World’ series by Dutch photographer Ruud van Empel. Initially, his art stood out because of the ‘race’ and age of his models for the series: the majority of the models are black children. Since the artist, as we soon learned, grew up in a small and rather homogeneously white southern Dutch town, it seemed unlikely that this apparent preference simply occurred by chance. But it wasn’t just the race factor that got us interested in asking Ruud some questions about his models.

There was something odd about the entire style, demeanor and surroundings of these kids. Almost all of them are exquisitely groomed in what looks like Dutch middle-class attire from the 60s and surrounded by an almost perfect scene of tropical nature; quite a wondrous contrast in itself. On top of that, all these different forests seem to breathe a peculiar sort of ambiance. Perfectly ordered yet sinister, the lakes, trees and leafs are inviting and foreboding at the same time. The children don’t seem to be intimidated by it, though. They look at you with eyes wide open. Bold. Innocent. Confident. But there’s something uncanny about their look. Their innocence seems tainted. The reason for this oddness, we soon find out, is because we are looking in the eyes of people who don’t exist and never have. Instead, they are photoshopped into being through a patchwork of noses, arms, eyes and lips.

This is how the artist goes about creating these images: First he collects all the features he needs by shooting a variety of young models in his studio and by subsequently wandering through Dutch forests, in search of fine leafs, perfect branches and the right waters. Only to tear it apart and spend weeks reconstructing it all until both the person and the setting match his desired standard of photo-realism. He calls it digital collage. If we are to believe Elton John, who as a fan even dedicated a song to Ruud during a concert, his techniques represent what much of modern photography will grow into in the 21st century. His work also deeply impressed the director of San Diego’s Museum of Photographic Art, Deborah Klochko. Intrigued by “all the little secrets in his work,” she exhibited his work in 2012.

Having worked on it since he graduated from the Sint Joost Academy of Fine Arts in Breda in 1981, his style of magic realism did not develop overnight, nor did it take off easily in The Netherlands. Outside of the confines of the Lowlands, however, his skills found widespread appreciation. In the last ten years alone, Ruud exhibited his works in places like Bejing, Barcelona, Tokyo, Seoul, Tel Aviv and New York City. The United States proved to be a particularly keen admirer.

So we decided to ask him some questions about his work.

Childhood and innocence seem central themes in your work. Can you tell us why?

The first large work that I made with a young girl in it was in 2003 and was titled Study In Green#2. It shows a puppet-like girl in a red dress. She is alone in the forest. It was an idea that I had had for over twenty years, so in 2003 I decided to finally make it. The idea was to do something with beauty. Beauty has been a taboo in Art for such a long time; I didn’t feel like making something that might look very artistic but in fact was ugly. To me, both nature and the innocence of children is something beautiful. Children are born innocent into a cruel and dangerous world. I wanted to do something with that idea. So I gave the girl puppet-like eyes to make her innocence come off even stronger and gave her an almost fairytale kind of forest. But as an effect of the photomontage-technique it ended up looking strange and somewhat frightening. I liked this and decided to explore it further.

Many of the children in your works are black. How did this choice come about?

I grew up in a small Catholic town in the south of the Netherlands. There was only one black boy in my primary school class. In the portrait Generation 1 (above) I expressed this situation. It shows a white class with just one black pupil. With World#1 I decided to work with more black children. It set off a whole new series of work. First I thought of portraying a girl in a dirty, old and torn-up dress, as if she were very poor. I suppose this idea popped up in my head because of the image we Westerners are often given. I didn’t really like that idea though, and decided to give them the clothes my generation wore when we were kids, especially because those clothes looked very innocent to me. Later, in 2007, the art historian Jan Baptist Bedaux told me this was the first time a black kid was portrayed as a symbol for innocence in Western Art. He wrote:

The fact that many of the children in his compositions have a dark skin is a facet that cannot remain without comment. Although it is self-evident that a child’s skin colour is not important, the iconography of the innocent child was traditionally represented by ‘white’ children. The earliest examples of this date from the early seventeenth century. These are portraits in which children are captured in an idealized, pastoral setting. It is a genre to which the children’s portraits of the German artist Otto Dix, a source of inspiration to van Empel, refer. In deviating from the standard iconography by giving the child a dark skin, Van Empel inadvertently assumes a political stance. After all, this child is still the focus of discrimination and its innocence is not recognized by everyone as being self-evident. The most pregnant image from this World series is undoubtedly the one of the girl whose black skin contrasts sharply with the dazzling white of her dress.

How do your photoshopped representations relate to the ways Dutch media present black children?

Dutch media often show black children as sick, poor or starving. I suppose it works, and helps to raise money. It is an image that appeals to many people. Nobody wants to see a lovely young baby starving to death. Media are very simple, the strongest image is the one they’ll use to get their message across. I guess Dutch media are no different from most other countries in this pattern.

What, if any, is your relationship with the African continent? And can you tell us more about this picture of a photo class in Kigali, where Rwandan pupils are looking at your work?

I don’t have a special relationship with the African continent. I have only been to Egypt and Tunisia, but I would definitely love to visit more African countries. The photo you refer to is called ‘looking at Ruud van Empel in Kigali’ and shows a group of learners discussing my work during a photo class. I felt incredibly proud when I found out about this class. I received quite some positive responses from black audiences, who said they liked the way my work portrays black children in a respectful and beautiful way rather than as a victim.

Can we expect you or your work in Africa in 2013?

I am afraid I will not be visiting the African continent yet. First I have an exhibition at Fotografiska, Stockholm, Sweden — “Pictures don’t Lie” from 7 March until the 2nd of June. After that I will exhibit at the Fotomuseum in Antwerp, Belgium. The solo exhibition “Ruud van Empel” is curated by Joachim Naudts and runs from June 28 until October 6.

For more information on Ruud, his work and upcoming exhibitions, visit his website.

Further Reading

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The Mogadishu analogy

In Gaza and Haiti, the specter of another Mogadishu is being raised to alert on-lookers and policymakers of unfolding tragedies. But we have to be careful when making comparisons.

Kwame Nkrumah today

New documents looking at British and American involvement in overthrowing Kwame Nkrumah give us pause to reflect on his legacy, and its resonances today.