Raquel van Haver at Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam

By Sam Steverlynck

Raquel van Haver, Spirits of the Soil, 2018 (installation view, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam). Photo: Gert Jan van Rooij. Courtesy the artist

Born in Colombia but adopted at an early age by a Dutch couple, Raquel van Haver grew up in the Bijlmer, historically a ‘difficult’ neighbourhood on the outskirts of Amsterdam. This mixed cultural background also seems reflected in the subject matter of her work: van Haver feels at home not only in the Bijlmer but also in places like Trinidad, Surinam, Cuba and Nigeria, whose urban life she has portrayed in great detail in her work. On fieldtrips to these countries, she’s taken thousands of pictures of various forms of street life. In the opening room of this show, for example, she uses and rearranges photos taken during a residency in Lagos into colourful, kaleidoscopic collages that capture the dynamics of that metropolis: images of passersby, ethnic masks, dice or a bottle of local beer are all assembled and then scanned, delineated against a black background by fluorescent colours.

All of this could be seen as, and serves as, a prelude for her paintings, also based on myriad photos but made according to an idiosyncratic expanded-painting technique. Van Haver augments oil on canvas with bits of burlap, cardboard or chalk, giving her compositions remarkable texture and physicality and blurring the line between painting and sculpture. At times, the works recall bas-reliefs; yet van Haver does not pay tribute to, say, military generals but rather to the man in the crowd from the global south who has to scrape to make a living yet, judging from the paintings, seems to embrace life while doing so. Take Dem Smoke and Blaze under Royal regime (all works 2018), the first painting in the show, a dynamic scene of a group of men sitting on plastic chairs while drinking and smoking. Central in the composition is a table, filled with bottles of beers and packets of cigarettes, including real butts glued to the canvas. Van Haver also folds in tar, plastic, charcoal, even fake hair – materials one does not immediately associate with painting – with which she almost seems to sculpt elements in her compositions and manages to impart a spatial and highly tactile dimension to the flat canvas. Though one can still clearly see the frame’s rectangular form, bits of the canvas exceed it, reinforcing the painting’s makeshift appearance. The same applies to The eyes must be Obeyed… One 1000 Soldiers with One 1000 Dices. When They Start Make you no go Anywhere, a lively rendering of people drinking and chatting in front of a refreshment kiosk, or Change the Rhythm of the Dancehall… It’s Still the Same Groove, which captures a moment of euphoria during a party, parts of the dancers’ hands protruding from the canvas. 

The exhibition builds towards a grand finale in the last room, where a black wooden construction, a kind of stage onto which one can climb to observe the compositions in detail, is specially made for the three paintings on view. Not just a scenographic trick or a way of reinforcing the metaphor of the theatre of street life, this serves as a spatial apparatus for giving the work the attention it deserves. This especially holds true for We do not sleep as we parade all through the Night…, which not only impresses by its monumental size (9.2 by 4m) but also by the vivacity of the scene around a long table where people – young, old, in various skin colours – eat, drink, fight and play in a vernacular variant on Leonardo’s The Last Supper (ca. 1490). Though van Haver’s subject matter is not boundless – variations on the theme of community and street life – the work doesn’t bore for a second, thanks to the way her inventive play with material reinforces the dynamism of her subject matter.

Raquel van Haver: Spirits of the Soil, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, 25 November – 7 April 2019

From the March 2019 issue of ArtReview