Obiter Dictum

Notes on the adventure of life.

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Mother’s pride

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The retrospective of Flemish mother-and-daughter artist duo Memymom is sure to ruffle a few feathers during its premiere exhibition at De Brakke Grond in Amsterdam this week. Images of a young Lisa De Boeck, photographed by her mother, Marilène Coolens, between 1990 and 2003 form the centre of the intimate retrospective.

The cross-generational collaboration between the Flemish mother and daughter, which continues today, began with what the pair describe as a “hangover from the past”.

Coolens began taking the photos that now make up The Umbilical Vein when her daughter was just five and continued until she turned 18. Images of a nine-year old De Boeck sitting on a bed in a Pucci blouse and high heels, others of her pouting seductively at the camera à la Marilyn Monroe or posing as Catwoman, capture the transformation of a child into a young woman.

The photographs will leave few people cold. They taunt viewers, who find themselves wanting to give them a comfortable place within an understandable context. But a nagging question remains: Are they a statement on the sexualisation of girls, or do they simply add to that imagery? Or are they about something else altogether?

According to the duo, they found inspiration for the characters De Boeck portrays in their experience of the 1990s, the decade during which most of the photos were taken: pop culture, fashion, pedestrians on the streets of Brussels.

De Boeck usually seems quite serious in the photos, often almost unhappy. But Coolens encourages you to look closer to find a child’s daily reality. And you find this in tiny details, such as a faint trail of spaghetti sauce in the corner of Catwoman’s mouth. Some viewers appreciate the way in which the work plays with the concepts of identity, family and growing up, but others – often mothers who have daughters – question the way in which Coolens portrays her daughter.

De Boeck, now 28 and a photographer and video artist in her own right, is quick to counter the allegation of inappropriateness: “I was like a cat who knew exactly what to do to get food: I knew what I had to do to make my mum pick up her camera,” she says. “I loved being in front of the camera. I would find a scarf, put on her lipstick or high heels…”

Coolens says that the collaboration with her daughter has always been very intuitive. “It’s also the reason we named the retrospective The Umbilical Vein,” adds De Boeck. “There is no connection more fundamental – or invisible to others – between a mother and her child than the umbilical vein.”

To De Boeck, the implicit bond with her mother is fundamental in the strength of the images. “It was a game I could only play in the safety of my mother’s presence. She gave me the freedom to play without misunderstanding the characters I was playing, and she did it without saying a word. Now that I’m grown up, I realise how privileged I am to have such an intuitive bond with her – both as a daughter and later also as an artist. Even today, our bond as artists is fluent and spontaneous. And the same things still inspire us: places, people, especially women. That’s why the feminine is so often a theme in our work.”

The retrospective, which was commissioned by De Brakke Grond’s director, showcases 80 photos out of more than 1,000 taken over 13 years. It is interesting to see the changes in the photographs as the years progress – not only in a young De Boeck growing up, but also in the changing dynamic of the collaboration between mother and daughter.

“When Lisa was very young, the photos were more spontaneous and playful; they were less directed than those in which she is 15 and wanted to have her own say about how the photos were taken. You can see that in the images,” explains Coolens. “The way in which she chose to play with the camera – on her own terms – is perhaps most visible in the photos ‘I’m an Old Woman Now’, in which she longingly pouts at the camera, and ‘The Misfit’, taken a few moments later, in which she decides to act grumpy and cantankerous.”

De Boeck laughs: “I find it fascinating to see myself in those early photos. I don’t remember posing for those first photos, so it’s really interesting to look back as an adult on my childself.”

The last photo in the Umbilical Vein series was taken just after Lisa turned 18. Called “La Veuve Joyeuse” (The Merry Widow), it shows Lisa in a long black coat, a black ostrich feather in her hair, gazing pensively off into the distance.

So why did the duo stop the project just as Lisa turned 18? “My dad had died the year before,” says De Boeck. “The last picture was a way for us to process that loss. Of course it doesn’t solve anything, but it does confront the beautiful brutality of life.”

Coolens and De Boeck continue to collaborate. In the last decade, they have worked on more than 10 projects together. Their recent work continues to push the boundaries of emotional aesthetics, stopping just short of the erotic. “We create dark fairy tales and invent mysteries in which anything your mind conjures up could happen,” says De Boeck.

Flanders in Amsterdam

Last week’s opening of The Umbilical Vein in De Brakke Grond was a festive affair, introduced by Flemish visual artist Michaël Aerts and with live music by blues musician Roland Van Campenhout. It also marked the start of a crowdfunding initiative for a book based on the exhibition, for which best-selling author Saskia De Coster wrote a story.

Sounds like a big Flemish reunion, doesn’t it? That’s because De Brakke Grond is a Flemish cultural centre in Amsterdam. With a name (The Brackish Ground) inspired by the swampland that dominated the area in the middle ages, the centre opened in 1981, the culmination of 10 years of planning after the then Flemish and Dutch ministers of culture agreed to investigate new forms of collaboration.

Today, the centre showcases the best in Flemish theatre, dance, music, visual arts and film. West Fleming Piet Menu, who served as a programmer at the cultural centre from 2002-2007, became its director early last year.

[Published in Flanders Today, September 2013)

Written by sabineclappaert

October 1, 2013 at 6:18 pm

When “defeat” is a four-letter word

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Flemish athlete Kris Bosmans came back from a stroke to become the country’s leading para-cyclist.


The handsome, broad shouldered young man that fills the front door looks nothing like a Paralympic athlete. His easy smile and sparkling green eyes welcome me as he walks me confidently to the dining room table where the interview will take place. Yet Kris Bosmans (32) is exactly that: a top Belgian para-cyclist and one of the country’s chances at a gold medal at the upcoming Paralympics in London in August.

But Kris wasn’t always an athlete with a disability. He started cycling at the age of fifteen and in 1998, at the age of eighteen, was one of the top fifteen riders in the junior category and one of the fastest sprinters of his generation.

Then the cruel hand of fate struck.

“I’ll never forget that day: Saturday, July 14th, 1998.  I’d just finished the Ghent-Menen race.  It was seven o’clock; I was sitting on the couch in my trainer’s livingroom when suddenly I felt the left side of my mouth go slack. I remember the voices of people around me, as if in glass bubble, asking me if I was all right. I could hear them but I couldn’t respond. That’s when my trainer called the ambulance.”

A wry smile breaks the thoughtful look on his face. “In the ambulance on the way to the hospital, sirens screaming, I remember thinking: ‘I’ll be back on my bike tomorrow’.”

But nothing was further from the truth.

The verdict was harsh: cerebral thrombosis, commonly known as a stroke. This occurs when a bloodclot forms in one of the arteries that supply the brain; the clot blocks the artery and keeps it from functioning. “The first question they asked my trainer when we got to the hospital was: “Is he taking doping?” Can you imagine? You’re eighteen and they suspect you of taking doping?”

In Kris’ case the stroke was due to a hereditary condition caused by elevated levels of a non-protein amino acid called homocysteine. Kris spells homocysteine for me on the corner of my notebook. It is only then that I notice the awkward way in which he holds the pen and the child-like scribble it produces. “I used to be left-handed,” he shrugs, “but now of course I have to write with my right hand.”

He shows me his left arm, which he holds close to his chest, the hand curled to a tight ball. “I can’t stretch my fingers fully,” he says showing me the effort it takes to uncurl them, “and I also don’t really walk very normal.” Seeing my look of disbelief, he gets up and slowly paces back and forth before me. “Sometimes I drag my left foot, especially when I’m tired. And my arm, of course you can see it in the way I hold my arm,” he adds as he sits back down. “They told me I have cerebral palsy. I have less than half the power in my left leg than I do in my right. And there’s the spasticity in my left hand and foot, of course,” he shrugs.

After his stroke, Kris would spend two months in hospital, another four months in a rehabilitation centre and a total of two years recovering. “I remember the first time I got back on my bike, my mom and dad cycling alongside me… My mom just rode away from me!” he exclaims, the look of complete horror clear in his eye. “Imagine that! And she averages just 15 km/h!”

But giving up is not in his nature and the urge to cycle again drove him mercilessly. “I couldn’t accept that I’d never be able to cycle again so when my therapist said ‘Do ten repetitions’, I would do twenty.”

At first, Kris refused to face his new reality. Unwilling to accept the new limitations put on him by his body – the altered grasp of his left hand, his right side having to compensate for the lack of strength and coordination in his left, Kris took up his regular place at the start of Belgium’s top races for juniors.

“I tried for two years to compete as normal athlete against all the guys I’d grown up with cycling.” He falls silent; a muscular hand sweeps invisible crumbs off the table. He stares out at the summer green hills framed in the floor-to-ceiling windows. “The hardest part was coming to terms with the fact that I would never again be able to reach the level of physical excellence I had before my stroke; that I would never compete at the top level of cycling.”

He calls the years between his twenty-second and his twenty-fifth birthdays his “difficult years”.  “On the one hand I had to come to terms with the fact that I’d never become a professional cyclist and on the other hand I just wasn’t willing to admit defeat,” he says.

Kris’s world changed when he saw a documentary about Belgian para-cyclist Jan Boyen, who won bronze at the 2008 Paralympics in Peking.

“He is such an inspirational athlete. When I heard his story I immediately contacted the Flemish League for Handicapped Sport (VLG). I wanted to know how the handicap categories worked. They sent me to a neurologist at the University Hospital in Antwerp, who did a whole lot of tests to determine in which category I would fall. I’m “C3” (“C” stands for cycling. Cyclists with Cerebral Palsy fall in the C3 category). Para-cyclists are divided into five categories: C1 are those with the most severe physical impairments, those with a C5 classification have the least limitations. All riders in all categories ride on normal bikes though,” adds Kris.

Kris first competed as a category C3 para-cyclist in 2009. It soon became clear that his talent was still there, just waiting to be tapped. Within months, he’d won six races. Soon, a ninth place at a world cup race in Spain followed. A few months later, he was Belgian champion. Before the 2010 season was over, Kris would become World Champion.

Today, Kris is a full-time athlete. He has a Bloso statute (the official statute given to all Belgian professional athletes) and a few sponsors. “It won’t make me rich, but at least I’m doing what I really love,” shrugs Kris, who quiet his job as sales manager for a large pharmaceutical company in 2009.

There are 88 days* left to the start of the Paralympics in London on August 29th.  Belgium announced the final selection for its Paralympic team at the end of June. One of those places belongs to Kris.

He nods toward his bike leaning against the garage wall, ready for his second training of the day, scheduled to start as soon as we’re done. “The next race is a world cup road race in Madrid. Then a week of rest and then we begin the preparation for the Paralympics in August.” His goal? “Gold, of course!” he laughs.

What’s after the Paralympics, I wonder. “My trainer tells me that I’m only at the beginning of my career. My strength has improved fifteen percent each year for the past three years, so I’m going to do this for as long as I can.”

And when he can no longer race, what will he do then?

Kris glances at the clock on the wall behind him, at his bike outside the window. “Then I hope to become a part of the entourage of a top para-cyclist,” he sighs, as he stands, clearly impatient to conclude the interview.

He walks me to the front door and we say our goodbyes. Before I’m in the car, the door has closed. I watch him walk up the driveway toward his bike. He really meant it when he said: “All that matters is the bike. Just let it be me and the bike.”

(Published in Flanders Today, July 2012. View here.)

Written by sabineclappaert

July 18, 2012 at 5:53 pm