Unknown Masterpieces offers platform for new photo talent


Instead of waiting for submissions, the curators of this year’s International Photo Festival Knokke-Heist decided to go find new voices themselves

“Not the usual suspects”

This year’s International Photo Festival Knokke-Heist again offers a handful of thought-provoking exhibitions, but, unlike in previous editions, there is no contest for local talent. “The formula was worn out,” says Stephane Verheye, co-curator with Freddy Van Vlaenderen of the Unknown Masterpieces show on view this year.

“It’s bizarre. Every year, we got more entries for the contest,” Verheye says, looking back. “But while the quantity went up, the quality went down.”

His fellow curator blames it on the digitisation and democratisation of the medium. “We received more and more inferior digital images, made by recreational photographers lacking a real vision,” says Van Vlaenderen.

So the two men decided to change course and become more pro-active. Verheye visited photography students and graduates in art schools, while Van Vlaenderen, also president of the Centrum voor Beeldexpressie (Centre for Visual Expression), concentrated on self-taught photographers. Together they selected a mix of new talent and autodidacts.

“We started from a blank page,” Verheye explains. “The chosen photographers had to combine good technique with an idiosyncratic vision.”

The pair were also keen on showing different styles, so not just still lifes, say, or documentary photography. “We were lucky since the photographers we really liked already represented this broad range,” says Verheye.

“Photography gets a lot of attention these days, also in the general media,” says Van Vlaenderen. “But mostly you only get to see the usual suspects.” By offering 11 lesser-known talents a platform to show their work, the curators of Unknown Masterpieces hope they can help the artists launch long-term careers.

A faraway cry

Van Vlaenderen also distinguishes one additional selection criteria – social relevance. All the photographers communicate a message about the society in which they are living. Take self-taught Jef Paepen from Wuustwezel, Antwerp province, at 59 the eldest artist included in the selection. In his “Inner State” series, Paepen made digital alterations for the first time, but only to maximise the scale of the images, making the naked female models he photographed in his studio look even smaller and more isolated, like a faraway cry.

The idea was to capture the smallness of humanity

- Photographer Jef Paepen

“As you take a closer look at the expression on their faces, you notice they are trying to hold the walls around them,” Van Vlaenderen says. These burdensome walls are meant to symbolise today’s societal pressures and at the same time criticise the overregulation people are confronted with.

“The idea was to capture the smallness of humanity,” Paepen tells me. “These women are detained by their state of mind and their surroundings.”

In Paepen’s work, the nude body becomes a metaphor for nature, life and freedom. The contrast between the women’s stately and angular gestures and the unnatural expression on their faces is striking. “We try to be free, but it feels as if we don’t get the space for that anymore,” the artist says.

This lack of freedom seems to run counter to the message proffered by most of the young photographers in Unknown Masterpieces. They find comfort in portraying the desolation, even the triviality, of humanity, without shouldering the weight of the generation of photographers that came before them. “I was flabbergasted by the ease with which the younger generation throws away unnecessary ballast,” Van Vlaenderen says. “What used to be an obstacle for us was self-evident for them.”

In Unknown Masterpieces, he continues, “we leave the ‘Yes, but …’ behind”.

The academy-trained artists especially seemed to easily free themselves from irrelevant rules, without giving up their idiosyncrasy. “This don’t-give-a-damn attitude shows their real potential,” says Verheye.

How perfect is perfect?

The work of Julie Scheurweghs is illustrative. Examining the intimate relationship between people and their cameras, the Ostend-born, Brussels-based photographer asks questions about the codes of photography itself against the backdrop of a society that sees photos as an extension of people’s personality. “Her selfies in the bathroom mirror are not trivial, but fit inside a strong conceptual vision,” explains Van Vlaenderen.

For the Knokke-Heist show, Scheurweghs, 26, created more than one series of photos. A wall covered with prints she found on the street functions as a metaphor for what happens to our photos when we separate them from their natural habitat on a digital platform.

The intriguing images of remote, snow-covered landscapes by Ghent-based Maroesjka Lavigne grab you in a different way. With one peculiar, colourful  and “perfect” object often at the centre – a bus, a house, a crane – the photos the 25-year-old took during a five-month stay in Iceland have a universal appeal, with each of them making you wonder what’s inside, each of them underlining the fascinating relation between humans and nature.

Veerle Scheppers from Leuven likes to take photos of young, vulnerable-looking girls in their bedrooms. But don’t be mistaken: this imaginary world that tries to capture the girls’ innocence was staged in her studio. Scheppers, 25, says she wanted to capture the children’s gaze because they lay bare their souls. In a world in which the ubiquity of new technologies and excessive parental expectations is increasing, she asked herself: Can children still be children?

Until 9 June
Cultural Centre Scharpoord
Meerlaan32, Knokke-Heist

An African dress parade

From 11 May, the traveling World Press Photo ’14 exhibition will also be on display at the International Photo Festival Knokke-Heist. Until then, the “international” in the festival’s title will be honoured by the African continent. And that’s a pleasant surprise since curator Christophe De Jaeger has selected 16 top photographers who work from or visited Africa for the outdoor Haute Africa exhibition.

The photographers on view all take a closer look at the hybrid of colours and mixed emotions the continent’s dress codes pack. Post-colonialism doesn’t always oppose Westernisation, you’ll notice. Wealthy people pose in front of the lens of British photographer Martin Parr at the Durban horse races, just as socialites do at similar events in Dubai or the UK. Here, Parr’s installation on Rubensplein, close to the waterfront, serves as a mirror for Knokke’s notoriously well-heeled passers-by.

Other outdoor locations are also spot-on. When you stroll around IJzer Park, it feels like you’re literally bumping into Jim Naughten’s brightly coloured and razor-sharp portraits of Herero tribe members, dressed in clothes reminiscent of Namibia’s old colonial regime.

The beach and the sea offer a cool background for the sapeurs series (pictured) by Congolese photographer Baudouin Mouanda and his Spanish colleague Héctor Mediavilla. You’re immediately struck by the different attitudes of the African and European artist towards their dandy subjects. The second observes a distance through a more documentary approach, while the first emphasises movements and the moment.

An antidote to the exuberance of the sapeur colours can be found in the simple, black-and-white portraits of young lesbian women from townships in South Africa. For artist Zanele Muholi, exhibiting them in a church represents the ultimate freedom of expression. Compelling.

Instead of waiting for submissions, this year’s International Photo Festival Knokke-Heist went looking for new voices

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