by Ingrid Braam and Roel Hijink
“My work is more of a question, not so much an answer”
A painter par excellence
“When I paint I am happy”
There is a painting measuring approximately 150 x 120 cm against the white wall on the floor in Bouchaïb Dihaj’s studio. Two equally large old pink ball shapes above each other in the center of the canvas immediately catch the eye. They are divided into segments by thicker and thinner winding dark brown lines, like the surface of an orange cut in half. Each segment differs slightly in color shade – light pink, dark pink, red-pink – all with a brown-gray undertone. Some segments are green-brown with dark green outlines. White accents have been added here and there. A half bright white sphere appears diagonally behind the top sphere. The whole thing looks organic. As well as the background against which the spherical shapes are placed; a kind of network of fragile and sturdy, straight and curved lines on a background in muted gray, green and brown tones. A straight, narrow gray-white “tube” runs down from the top sphere on either side. On top of this sphere is another thin tube-like structure in the same transparent gray-white. It is difficult to guess what exactly the painting represents. Just as it is not clear what Dihaj’s other paintings from the past two years depict. The works were created as a result of his major lung surgery that he underwent several years ago. They are on the border between abstraction and figuration. Some canvases evoke the hallucinatory effect of microscope photographs. The paintings above all exude a certain atmosphere, somewhat surreal and mysterious. The color palette in which tempered grays, browns and greens predominate contributes significantly to this inscrutability. Even the light parts usually do not become brighter than gray-white. The lack of pure colors is characteristic of Dihaj’s palette. Only some bright white and yellow accents occasionally stand out in contrast to the earth colors.
Dihaj works without a preconceived idea. The basis of his work is “controlled” coincidence. He works in series with 3 to 4 paintings, which he starts simultaneously and then treats individually. What is immediately noticeable is the energy that bursts from the canvases. The paintings possess an attractive vitality; as if a development, transition or metamorphosis is actually taking place. This powerful painting gesture reflects Dihaj’s inner urge to paint and the enormous pleasure this gives him as a painter par excellence. But Dihaj is not just about painting. He views painting as timeless and transgressive and for that reason painting has a much deeper and broader meaning for him.
The large size of the canvases enhances the dynamic appearance of the works. Dihaj likes to use large canvases because he feels comfortable with them, also physically. The energetic visual experience suggests that the scene was painted on the canvas in one go, but nothing could be further from the truth. All works have been painted over, sometimes with multiple layers of paint and in completely different colors than the original. His meaningful paintings therefore literally become layered. Building up the layers of paint testifies to the constant pursuit of perfecting the colors in order to express what lives inside him.
Dihaj attended the Ecole Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Casablanca, according to him a copy of the French art academy. Art techniques such as anatomy, perspective, plane and shape and color theory predominated. In search of artistic freedom, he left for the Netherlands on a Moroccan scholarship. He found that freedom at the Academy for Art and Industry in Enschede (AKI), which at the time, with Joop Hardy as director, was considered the freest and most idiosyncratic art academy in the Netherlands. Hardy’s “mildly anarchic” organizational talent within an atmosphere of democracy, openness and the freedom to choose paved the way to “intelligent” spontaneity, fantasy and improvisation. Dihaj still loves Hardy’s ideas. At the AKI, a lot of attention was paid to art and culture and, as he puts it himself, for him the international orientation was an openness to the world. In Enschede, Dihaj found a world of painting that strongly attracted him. As a painter, it was (guest) teachers such as Alphons Freijmuth, Reinier Lucassen, Theo Wolvecamp and Henk Visch who significantly shaped him.
In which Dihaj followed his masters, was in throwing off the coercive academic baggage. Both Lucassen and Freijmuth were referred to as the New Figuration in the early 1980s. In a period that marked the end of painting, they looked for possibilities for a new style of painting that did justice to the old. It was an attempt to continue an important painterly tradition. Georg Baselitz had already initiated a new figurative painting in 1960. He would later be classified as part of the first generation of the Neue Wilde who caused a worldwide revival of painting in the early 1980s. For the painters of the New Figuration, the starting point was an idea or theme that is continually elaborated in different ways, predominantly with figurative images. The subject was the curious relationship between image and depicted object, between art and reality. The reality of unreal creations, the abstract life of realistic representations. René Margritte, who stated that figuration is also an abstraction, was a source of inspiration for Lucassen and Freijmuth.
The starting point of the New Figuration according to Freijmuth – the representation of abstract ideas through figurative elements – seems to apply to Dihaj’s paintings. Likewise that of René Daniëls, admired by Dihaj, who is seen as the heir of the New Figuration. Daniëls uses figurative elements for his fundamental painting research. Painting should be as spontaneous as possible, to loosen up and to paint vigorously, according to Daniëls. Dihaj sees the freedom of painting in the work of the late Cobra artist Wolvecamp, but he must also recognize himself in his working process. Although Wolvecamp’s work looks spontaneously painted, its creation is a lengthy process of removing, adding and changing. Dihaj’s paintings also seem to be created spontaneously, but in reality they are the outcome of a long working process. When it comes to explaining his work, it is Visch who inspires him. That is, his mysterious explanation of things, in the words of Dihaj. It is an approach to art that Dihaj, who prefers to let the mystery of images speak for themselves rather than explain them himself, agrees with.
As Dihaj says now, he woke up in Enschede and further developed at the Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten in Amsterdam. He used all the knowledge and skills he had learned in Casablanca and Enschede to create his own working method and a mainly abstract visual language. During his academic years he became acquainted with painters such as Gerhard Richter, Jörg Immendorff, Sigmar Polke and Markus Lüpertz, who influenced him equally as a painter. Lüpertz in particular, because Dihaj really sees a work by Lüpertz as a development of painting. Paint is the starting point and not the means. For Dihaj, the essence of painting is the search for new possibilities within painting to tell something. A quest that he recognizes in a number of contemporary artists with whom he feels a kinship. He finds great recognition in Moshekwa Langa’s search for the essence of existence and the freedom to shape it. Dihaj also has great appreciation for painter Ina van Zyl. In her work she takes complete freedom in terms of color, composition and expression and leaves room for the viewer to interpret. In terms of representation and use of color, her series of paintings of plants, seeds, flowers and trees in earthy colors from 2022 certainly shows similarities with Dihaj’s series of paintings. However, it is the way in which she uses her brush that appeals most to him, as a painter to the depths of his being.
“There is no distinction between my work and person, it is one”
This statement by Dihaj already reveals that it is almost self-evident that the personal experiences surrounding his period of operation are reflected in his work. His impactful experiences from that time mark the beginning of a changing visual language and a new theme. What these intense experiences brought him is a deeply felt awareness of human vulnerability and a fascination with science. The science to which he is infinitely grateful because it saved his life and for which he has great respect. The mystery of human existence has occupied him intensively ever since he crawled through the eye of the needle. This also applies to the phenomenon of time. Immediately after the operation he was unconscious for a few days, but once he regained consciousness, disconnected from the clock, he experienced this as only for a moment. It raises philosophical questions for him about the meaning of the concept of time, of the experience and awareness of time. All these major themes find their way into his recent series of paintings.
Science and nature have a prominent role in Dihaj’s work. These two subjects come together in his paintings, with the micro-organism in relation to the cosmos taking center stage. Now a current theme due to the corona pandemic. During the time of his lung surgery, he became fascinated by medical images that visualize the internal body, including photos of his own lung. He was also captivated by the stunning beauty of the microworld. Impressive and wonderful visual experiences that he captures on canvas in dynamic networks of organic shapes, lines and structures in moody earth tones.
The great thing about Dihaj’s work is that it not only reveals his sources of inspiration, but at the same time evokes so many different associations. About his recognizable representations, Dihaj says: “My works are abstract, but all handwriting is figurative.” At first glance , the full-screen representations resemble lush flora with details such as flower buds, leaf veins, stamens, stems and branches. They are reminiscent of the drawings of Surinamese nature by the naturalist and botanical artist Maria Sibylla Merian in her book Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium from 1705. Distantly they are also reminiscent of the semi-abstract floral compositions of Piet Mondriaan and the idiosyncratic flower paintings of Erik Andriesse. Andriesse, like Dihaj, was an admirer of Lüpertz. In the 1970s and 1980s, Andriesse was part of a generation of artists who refocused on painting with energy. He regarded nature as his greatest learning experience, which is reflected in the spirited power of his work. A dynamic that is reflected in Dihaj’s work. Certain motifs in Dihaj’s paintings resemble parts of the internal human body: organs, tissues, veins, nerve pathways. There are also strong associations with images of the microworld. Of immensely enlarged micro-organisms such as viruses and bacteria in all their splendor of colors and shapes. A visual link was quickly made with the 17th century drawings of micro-beings observed through a microscope that the microscopist Antoni van Leeuwenhoek made and had artists make.
Art and science have been inextricably linked since the Italian Renaissance. Artists made images of the exposed body, which contributed to the rapid development of anatomical knowledge from the 14th century onwards. Anatomical drawings and images of the internal human body have always raised theological and philosophical issues regarding our perception of our body, our physicality and who and what we are as humans. Triggered by his medical experiences, these are also questions that Dihaj asks himself. To see his inner body, his own living insides, outside of himself in medical photographs was an intriguing sensation for him. It touches on another important subject in his work: the balance between the self and the other. In this way, the relationship between the self and the other is given shape through his medical experiences in the two different perspectives from which the photos of his lung are viewed. On the one hand from the perspective of the doctor, the other, who views them from a medical perspective. On the other hand, from himself as an artist, the I, who looks at the photos with an artistic eye. In his paintings, the relationship between the self and the other is expressed in the demarcated interior on the canvas that is at the same time outside the body and at which the viewer looks: I and the other, the boundaries between the body and the outside world.
The recurring contrast between organic and geometric shapes is fascinating, which creates a certain tension in the work. In this context you could understand this as a synthesis between nature and science, between the irrational feeling and the rational intellect. It characterizes Dihaj’s art in which a deep awe for the power of knowledge – which has many faces and is not bound to place – comes together with lived emotions during his period of operation and his mystical experiences in Africa.
The mystery of existence
“I was born in the realm of mystery”
Dihaj places himself in the Northern European and Dutch painting tradition. The question of how he arrives at his palette of moody colors opens a gate to another world. From an art historical perspective, for him the colors refer to classical works – think of Rembrandt and Vermeer. Dutch painting inspires him by its sobriety and hidden beauty, for which you as a viewer have to do your best, he explains. He also sees that modesty and hidden beauty in the work of Mondriaan, for example. But in addition to the influence of the earthy tones of the Dutch masters, there is an unmistakable influence by the colors of another world. That world is Africa, the continent that shaped Dihaj so profoundly through his childhood and travel experiences. Its earthy colors reflect the rich hues of the African landscape. In a universal sense, the earth colors reflect his connection with nature, with the ground under his feet, the energy of which he always feels in a different way everywhere in the world. Usually more rational in the city than in nature. He is not interested in nature itself, but he is interested in the interaction between people and nature. The power of the soil is a constant source of inspiration. For him, the ground is a metaphor for the energy, the mystery, the magic. Perhaps this spiritual connotation is the most important meaning he attributes to his color palette.
For him, the earth tones represent a different world than the tangible one. With his muted colors, Dihaj evokes the mysterious, that which he does not know but is present. He speaks of supernatural forces and thus refers to his experiences in Africa, which are steeped in mystery. With his moody earth colors, Dihaj takes us to a world behind visible reality. He thus adds a spiritual dimension to his work. Thus, the fascinating contrast between fact-based science and spirituality, between reason and emotion, between the material and immaterial world is also manifested in his use of color.
Dihaj can marvel at all the paintings he has made when he sees them together. Just as if they were painted by different identities of his. As if the works were created outside of him and he was controlled by a higher power. The thought of the painting Higher Wesen Befahlen: Straight Obere Ecke schwarz millen! by Polke from 1969 looms large. Or, as is written in relation to this work by Polke: “The art of painting well is difficult to achieve. Therefore, let anyone who does not consider himself capable of this do not attempt it. For it must come from the higher inspirations.” You could consider the higher powers in Polke as the supernatural powers in Dihaj. After all, it is the unknowable, that which lies behind the visible, that captivates Dihaj and allows him to be guided in his artistic ambitions. It is the mystery of existence that confronts him with many inner questions during his creation process. Those questions take him somewhere. The answer is of no importance to him.
Ingrid Braam and Roel Hijink
Academie voor Kunst en Industrie Enschede,
http://www.louiskalffinstituut.nl/nl/academie-voor-kunst-en-industrie-enschede-aki. Geraadpleegd 16 mei 2023.
AKI, Academie voor Art & Design,
https://nl.wikipedia.org/wiki/AKI_Academie_voor_Art_%26_Design. Geraadpleegd 16 mei 2023.
CultuurArchief.nl, Erik Andriesse,
https://www.cultuurarchief.nl/z/tentoonstellingen/0305erikandriesse.htm. Geraadpleegd 10 mei 2023.
Fransen, Sietske en Tim Huisman (red.), Antoni van Leeuwenhoek en de microwereld, 2023.
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https://www.inavanzyl.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/12/Het-Parool-2022.pdf. Geraadpleegd 10 september 2023.
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About the authors
Ingrid Braam is an art historian and focuses on contemporary art as an independent researcher and author. Inspired by her Surinamese origins, her special attention is paid to the work of artists with a Surinamese/Caribbean background. She is particularly interested in the way these artists depict their cultural heritage in their work. Since 2013 she has written about the work of artists of Surinamese origin. She also appeared on this subject in various Surinamese media (state news TV, radio, state newspaper).
Some of her publications:
– Surinaamse kunst in Nederland: De betekenis van ‘Twintig Jaar Beeldende Kunst in Suriname, 1975 – 1995’, 2013. Masterscriptie Kunstgeschiedenis Universiteit van Amsterdam (in bibliotheekcollectie Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam en gebruikt als bron voor de tentoonstelling ‘Surinaamse School. Schilderkunst van Paramaribo tot Amsterdam’ in 2020/2021 in dit museum).
– ‘Hedendaagse Surinaamse kunst in Nederland’, 2014, https://africanah.org/hedendaagse-surinaamse-kunst-nederland.
Roel Hijink is an art historian. As an independent researcher and author, he focuses on contemporary art. He focuses in particular on the way in which both the tangible and intangible heritage of slavery and the Second World War is reflected in the visual arts. He focuses specifically on monuments erected for this purpose, including the associated memorial rituals.
Some of his publications:
– ‘A Ticket of Re-admission into Dutch Society: The Controversy on Amsterdam’s Monument of Jewish Gratitude (1950)’, in Philip Carabott & Willem W. Ledeboer (ed.), Encounters with Troubled Pasts in Contemporary Dutch and Greek Historiography, 2023. Medeauteur Bart Wallet.
– ‘Het monument van Joodse Erkentelijkheid, teken van trots en schaamte’, in Amstelodamum, 2018, 51-67. Medeauteur Gerrit Vermeer.
– Voormalige concentratiekampen. De monumentalisering van Duitse kampen in Nederland, 2011.
Joint publications Ingrid Braam and Roel Hijink
– ‘Glas, zout en buskruit: De Afro-Surinaamse voorouderlijke dimensie in de dekoloniale monumenten van patricia kaersenhout’, in Chandra Frank, Eleonoor Jap Sam, patricia kaersenhout (ed.), Open-Ended Visions of Possibilities. patricia kaersenhout, 2023. Zie: https://www.japsambooks.nl/products/open-ended-visions-of-possibilities-patricia-kaersenhout.
– ‘The Art of Remy Jungerman in the Texture of Colonial History: Crossing the Water and FESITEN – first time’, in Rob Perrée (ed.), Remy Jungerman. Where the River Runs, 2019. Zie: https://www.japsambooks.nl/products/remy-jungerman-where-the-river-runs-behind-the-forest-set.
– ‘De kracht van kwetsbaarheid’, 2018, https://carlosblaaker.com/boek.
– ‘FESITEN – first time. Remy Jungermans geschiedenis verbeeld door het grid’, in Metropolis M, 2016, https://www.metropolism.com/nl/reviews/24140_fesiten_first_time.
– Remy Jungerman en het geometrisch erfgoed: Het westerse grid van Berlage en Mondriaan in relatie tot de Marron-cultuur (Eigen beheer, 2016).