Ultimate glory: Flanders rewards its brightest creative minds


Flanders’ most prominent creatives win a new accolade at event where diversity and urban life take centre stage

Cream of the crop

Flemish artists, creatives and innovators across cultural disciples have been rewarded with a new prize for their outstanding contributions in an event that recognised issues ranging from urban regeneration to radicalisation, and domestic violence to fashion.

The ceremony last week at Ghent’s Vooruit arts centre brought together artists from the entire cultural scene under one new event, replacing the Flemish Culture Prizes which were awarded at various events scattered throughout the year.

The new Ultima award refers to the name of the sculpture the laureates receive, “La Ultima Isola” - The Last Island – by Antwerp artist Philip Aguirre y Otegui. Each winner also goes home with a prize of €10,000. 

Abandoned places

The list of this year’s laureates illustrated the jury’s enthusiasm for initiatives with an urban and diverse slant. A prime example was the Ultima for social-cultural work for adults going to Toestand, a volunteer organisation in Brussels that turns vacant buildings or land into temporary socio-cultural centres.

Both inside and outside Belgium’s borders, the young people running the organisation re-energise the social tissue of abandoned places. 

This is therapy for us. We travel around playing these scenes and realise we are not the only ones facing these problems

- Louiza Amghizar, Forumtheater, Molenbeek

A project called Refugees for Refugees also got the judges’ attention, bagging the Ultima music prize for Muziekpublique. Nine musicians from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Tibet – drawn from among the refugee population in Brussels – last year made the album Amerli under the guidance of Muziekpublique.

The album, songs from which were performed at the awards, was named Album of the Year by a consortium of music journalists from the Transglobal World Music Chart.

Amateur art

The jury’s choice for the Ultima for amateur art was Molenbeek’s Forumtheater (pictured). Run by women of Moroccan descent, with the help of Dutch director Har Tortike, its performances address familial and social violence. The initiative began in Molenbeek, where the women live, but went on to tour through France and the Netherlands.

“We play small scenes, based on true stories that we have experienced ourselves and that end badly,” says Fatima Zaki, one of the initiators and members.

“Then we stop and ask the public what could be changed in this situation so that things would work out for the better.” Fellow member Louiza Amghizar adds: “This is therapy for us. We travel around playing these scenes and realise we are not the only ones facing these problems.”

Forumtheater’s most recent project addressed the sensitive subject of radicalisation of young people in the community.

“In the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks on Brussels airport and the subway, lots of the women in our group complained that they were getting weird looks on the street,” Amghizar explains. “To show that we too are victims of this situation we went to work with the story of a woman from our community who lost her son in Syria. On stage we tell her story, the mother’s fear, literally, word for word.” 

I wrote this book with the intention of breaking through an ideological firewall

- Jeroen Olyslaegers, author

Having already won the Fintro Literature prize last month, Jeroen Olyslaegers was again honoured at the Ultimas ceremony for his novel Wil, set in Antwerp in the Second World War.

“I wrote this book with the intention of breaking through an ideological firewall,” he says. “Because many have always put me into the category of activist, people taking other positions along the political spectrum wouldn’t be inclined to read my books.

“With this novel – describing plain humanity during a very difficult period in our nation’s history – I seem to be reaching a much wider audience. This prize symbolises the breakthrough. It’s fantastic,” he adds.

Limburg to NYC

Also breaking through to the Flemish public at large is documentary filmmaker Pieter-Jan De Pue. He took home the Ultima for film with his epic Land of the Enlightened, a fictionalised documentary about Afghan children during the American manoeuvres in their war-torn country, which took him eight years to finish.

Having won the prize for best photography at its premiere at Sundance in 2016, and a nomination for best documentary at the Irish Film & Television Academy awards, De Pue had to wait 18 months before receiving recognition or encouragement at home.

Rounding off the evening was a long-distance appearance from Limburg-born fashion designer Raf Simons, who was awarded for his entire body of work and given twice the prize money of other laureates.

Speaking via video linkg from Calvin Klein’s offices in New York, he was close to tears when saying he missed his family on the other side of the Atlantic.

“But you need to go forward,” he said. “If you have something to say, nothing should stop you. If you have a voice, you need to let it be heard.”

Photo: Jasper Jacobs/Belga