Scarlett Hooft Graafland / Discovery
March 2017 Interviewed by Christiane Monarchi
Scarlett Hooft Graafland (1973) creates magical photographic images in far-flung places, including the high-altitude salt flats in Bolivia, remote farm sheds in Iceland, the beaches of Yemen, Madagascar, the polar region, and the Dutch village of Gorinchem. Her work touches upon major themes such as the disappearance of traditional cultures and the fragility of nature, yet the tone is always light, colourful and surreal. Initially, Scarlett Hooft Graafland mainly took photographs to document her sculptures and performances, but gradually, her photographs became works of art in their own right. Travelling to remote places and cultures, she explores the relationship between people, traditions and nature.
Following her recent, highly acclaimed exhibition at Huis Marseille Museum for Photography, (Amsterdam), Flowers Gallery will present a selection of Hooft Graafland’s photographic works in her solo exhibition at their Cork Street, London gallery, which opens 29 March 2017. Below, Christiane Monarchi corresponded with Hooft Graafland to ask her about the background to some of her iconic images.
CM: Your works presented recently at Huis Marseille deliver the viewer to a number of exotic locations, whose lush and unspoiled environment welcomes us, then asks us to consider the sculptural subjects within your compositions. From your series ‘United Emirates’ we consider ‘Still Life with Camel’ and ‘Burka Balloons’ which elicit a smile as well as genuine curiosity about how you made these works. Could you tell me a bit more about the ideas behind these two works?
SHG: When I was visiting the Arab world, both in the United Emirates and Yemen, my attention was drawn by the usage of fabrics, both to ‘conceal’ and ‘reveal’. This usage plays a major part in that culture and I thought it would be beautiful to make use it in a performance. I like it that the thin pink fabric still reveals some parts of the camel and the two men but that the volumes also become some ambiguous shapes. It reminds me of a pastoral scene, like the idyllic imagery we are used to from the art history, in contrast with the ‘now’, with some traces of car tracks and garbage waste scattered around in the background of the desert.
‘Burka Balloons’ also deals with volumes. The photo is made at an isolated coastline of the island Socotra, Yemen, one of the countries with most strict rules for women. This time I tried to echo the suggestive shapes of the silhouettes of the ladies in black with the similar round shapes of the balloons, an object probably not immediately associated with the burka dress. For me these balloons give some feeling of freedom, of joy, emphasized by the incredible landscape, the immense turquoise sea and almost surreal mountains of Socotra.
I like the effect of the ambiguity of the scene. The often unsettling juxtaposition of everyday objects I use in my work and the strangeness of the unforgiving landscape suggests a reality that goes beyond the predictability of the laws of day to day life as well as of the laws of nature and physics.
CM: A concealed pink figure re-appears in a very different snowy climate in your ‘Touching Base, 2016’, resting against an incongruously large red rock-shape. Having considered the pink-covered men in the previous image, I now project the fate of a lone migrant, resting in a harsh climate, away from his comfort?
SHG: That is right. I tried to imagine what it must feel like for a middle eastern refugee to live up north, how to make that place your own. While visiting Lapland in Sweden for a project the local newspaper wrote about the tensions between some extreme right wing people from the region and the refugees who were staying there.
And then there was this very strong color of the natural lichen moss on the boulder, so beautiful with the pink veil.
CM: Looking further into the images that will be on show here in London, we can feel a pull of the human form into the landscape, as it is subsumed into a geological formation in ‘Angèle’ (2012) for example, or morphing into a sea turtle, mythologically holding the heavens on its back in ‘Turtle’ (2013). They seem removed from time. Are you interested in the folklore and histories of the places you travel to?
SHG: I am deeply interested in the histories and legends of the cultures I travel to, I try to experience the way they view the world and each other and the traditional beliefs and stories supporting that. In my work I often try to reflect on this and want to relate that to the local landscape by creating small interventions in the landscape. Like showing Angèle (a woman partly hiding her own means of existence) in a rock formation, with her face covered in yellow wood dust (which is what Malagashy farmers use to protect their skin against the sunlight). Or having a girl holding the shield of a turtle on her back, protecting her vulnerable naked body in a way that proved insufficient for the turtles in Madagascar that are endangered by human intervention.The situation ofAngèle and that of the turtles relates to the properties and history of the local Madagascar culture and at the same time tells a broader, universal story.
CM: The image of a boy in yellow shorts serenely holding a boat, ‘Resolution, Malekula’ (2015) can be enjoyed for its purity of horizon and visual alliteration, then reading more about how this photo came to be and what it means really made an impact on me. How did you happen up this subject?
SHG: I happened to read a piece in Cook’s diary about his explorations in New Caledonia and Vanuatu, and was especially fascinated by his story about some special trees growing sixty metres high. It aroused my curiosity and I decided to travel to the same region, in search of that tree. Because of his influence on that part of the world and because I was performing a repeat of his explorations, I wanted to search for and bring along a small copy of his ship, the ‘Resolution’. Through the hardship of my travels there, the model barely survived. Then, to my surprise, I discovered a tribe on one of the small islands of Vanuatu, that still talked about Cook after two and a half centuries. The chief showed me the exact spot where Cooks ship had anchored. And right there I photographed the ship again, in the hands of ‘Hotel’, his son, a young descendant of the chief of 1774, who welcomed Captain Cook onto his island.
CM: I am interested in how narrative, imagery and playfulness keep intertwining into your images, please could you tell me more about what this giant cactus means to you?
SHG: I like to emphasize the significance of the circumstances that present themselves at a certain place. As I was crossing the barren and lifeless salt desert in Bolivia for hours, suddenly a tiny island emerged on which a giant cactus flourished against all odds. I was fascinated by the way this impressive monument testified to life and fertility, while growing its two legs high up in the air. Being a woman, who by nature has been given the prerogative to give birth and life, I decided to amplify its significance by positioning it between my own two legs.
CM: Can you share with us what you are researching and working on now?
SHG: At the moment I am working on a big embroidery piece on a photograph. A huge rock standing in the turquoise sea at the coast of Yemen. I embroider small stitches of turquoise, blue, yellow and pink silk on the piece, first I am drilling holes in the photo mounted on aluminium. This work I will show during Photo London, exciting to work on this project!
Scarlett Hooft Graafland received a BFA at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague, the Netherlands, and an MFA in sculpture at Parsons School of Design, New York. Solo exhibitions have included Shores Like You, Huis Marseille Museum for Photography, Amsterdam, Holland, 2016; Look! Cook! Look!, Landskrona Museum, Sweden, 2015; Unlikely Landscape, Museum for Photography Seoul, South Korea, 2014; Almas De Sal, Museo Nacional de Arte, La Paz, Bolivia, 2012; Reykjavik Roofs, SIM Gallery, Reykjavik, Iceland, 2004; and Part Time Human, Anadiel Gallery, Center for Contemporary Art, Jerusalem, 2000. Her work is included in several international museum collections.
Scarlett Hooft Graafland: Discovery will be exhibited at Flowers Gallery, London (Cork Street) 29 March – 29 April 2017