Flemish photographer pays tribute to the human spirit


Photographer Lieve Blancquaert has collaborated with Leuven’s M Museum to display her work within the museum’s permanent collection, with a distinct focus on human fragility

Behold the man

A woman in black weeps for her lost son, lamenting in an ancient tongue. A dozen other mothers who understand her pain look on in sympathy.

This unknown woman is the first exhibit in Ecce Homo, a collaboration between Leuven’s M Museum and photographer Lieve Blancquaert, an intriguing partnership in which the latter inserts new work inspired by the former into the museum’s permanent collection.

It begins with a video of this veiled, almost sculpted mother, a modern-day pietà who Blancquaert encountered at a refugee camp. She talks for several minutes in Arabic about her son, who she’s not seen or heard from in two years. Statues of Mary from the museum’s collection adorn the walls, facing the screen.

There is no translation of the woman’s words, but her pain is clear from her tone and body language. “Grief is universal; anyone who watches this will understand,” curator Marjan Debaene explains. “It’s not meant to be a documentary, it’s a work of art. Lieve says she speaks to the other mothers in the room.”

The next gallery contains an unusual altar painting and some heavy religious vestments. Blancquaert took the garments worn during the Passion of Christ as her inspiration for a series of photographs made during a week spent at the casualty department of UZ Gent.

Blood-stained shrouds

In an emergency, doctors have to get to the injury as quickly as possible, shearing off any clothes the patient might be wearing. Blancquaert took these burnt and blood-stained clothes and put them back together. Their bright colours and banal slogans bely the underlying sense of violence and aggression; to her, these are modern-day shrouds.

Everything in this collaboration is unobtrusive; there’s genuine harmony between the permanent collection and the contemporary insertions. That’s true also of the Masters room, where Blancquaert rubs shoulders with hallowed names such as Rogier Van der Weyden and Michiel Coxie.

When we have photographs taken of our children, it’s always them at their best. But this is a girl at war with herself and the world

- Lieve Blancquaert

Her response to these works came from another refugee camp in Dunkirk where she met an Iraqi family. The resultant triptych – a contemporary Christmas crib, she calls it – shows mother, father and child swaddled in bright synthetic blankets, attempting to keep out the chill of a northern French winter.

“The father was an English teacher in Iraq and felt shame because of the way they had to live here,” Debaene explains. “He showed Lieve photos of his house, his garden, his friends, his old life. She went back a few weeks ago and they were gone.” 

On the other side of the wall hangs “Martyrdom of St Quentin” by Jan van Rillaer. It depicts a strong man who bears his suffering in silence: he shows no anguish despite the brutal torture two tormentors are inflicting on him. Alongside, we see a portrait of a young man, head back and prosthetic arm held by his side, the word “Imagine” tattooed on his chest.

Crucifix uncrossed

“Lieve wanted to capture the man’s strength and beauty,” Debaene says. “He was full of dreams and ambitions, and the fact that he lost his arm in an accident isn’t going to stop him. He takes his disability in his stride.”

At times, you almost have to look twice to see the modern work. A case in point is the portrait gallery, where a series of idealised 18th-century young women are joined by an interloper, alike in style but not in message. The subject protects her anonymity, covering her face with her long fair hair and offering the world her imperfections: a series of deep self-inflicted scars on her forearms.

Blancquaert photographed her at a psychiatric centre, where the residents know that physical pain is more bearable than mental suffering. The girl’s position is defensive, almost foetal. “We still idealise our portraits,” says Blancquaert. “When we have photographs taken of our children, it’s always them at their best. But this is a girl at war with herself and the world.”

A small, dark room displays pictures of refugees, young men living in a reception centre in Antwerp who have crossed the Mediterranean by boat. On arrival they were given foil sheets to keep warm; Blancquaert has pictured each of them wrapped in their survival blanket.

A murky Flemish landscape by Constant Permeke hangs at one end of the room, a stark contrast to the bright metallic blankets, and so different from the lands these men have left behind. Opposite, a battered wooden statue of Christ has clearly suffered too, losing arms, head and identity.

Sleep soundly

The statue is hardly recognisable as a piece of sculpture any more, just as these men are hardly recognisable as individual people, reduced to statistics by war. “We think the statue is from the 17th century, but we don’t know for sure,” says Debaene. “He must once have been very beautiful, but now he’s like a piece of driftwood, just like these refugees who wash up on Europe’s shores.”

The final room contains images of sleeping children and statues of angels, one of which has lost its wings. These children are unaccompanied refugees currently being cared for in Flanders. In the background, they talk about their dreams and sing lullabies from their homeland. 

It started with the angels. I was inspired by them, and I wanted to do something with these young refugees who arrive here all by themselves

- Lieve Blancquaert

“It started with the angels,” says Blancquaert. “I was inspired by them, and I wanted to do something with these young refugees who arrive here all by themselves without parents. Some are only eight or nine years old.”

She spent some time with Minor Ndako, an organisation that supports unaccompanied minors. About 20 children live at their centre in Dilbeek, Flemish Brabant, where Blancquaert made her soundscape.

“One little boy told me: ‘I was in Turkey and it was dark. We got on the boat and my mama and papa were there, then we arrived in Greece and it was light and they were gone.’ Five minutes later he was talking about how much he likes apple sauce and wants to become a doctor.”

It’s that spirit and resilience that Blancquaert has tried to capture in this series of images, taken as the children slept.

“The place where you sleep should be a place of security,” she says. “It’s one of the most important places you can have. If you don’t have a place to sleep safely, you’re completely lost.”

Until 17 January, M Museum, Leopold Vanderkelenstraat 28, Leuven

Photo © Lieve Blancquaert

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