Fleur Ouwerkerk is a Dutch multidisciplinary artist. Her work is rooted in identity politics, often criticizing cultural stereotypes. She is influenced by African culture.
In everyday life you like to dress fashionably and accentuate your femininity. Why do you perform your gender in this way?
For me it’s important to stick to how I want to look and what looks best on me in my opinion. Because my hair is so short I like to show my femininity by wearing figure hugging clothing to balance it out a little bit. When I choose to wear something that’s hiding more of my body I want to balance it out by showing either more legs or more cleavage. That’s what makes me feel good.
Why did you cut your hair this short?
I cut off my hair this short 7 years ago. Before that I tried a lot of different hairstyles because I like variety. A different hairstyle would make me feel like a different person and give me a different vibe and I like to play with that. Before I cut my hair, I had little patience with my hairstyles, and I knew that there would be no way back after cutting it short. So, I was thinking it over more seriously than I normally would. I decided to cut off the sides of my long hair first. The hairdresser had more problems shaving my hair than I did. I loved that hairstyle for three months before I got bored with it. A shaved head is much more neutral, like a blank canvas. So, I went back to the hairdresser to take it all off. It was weird seeing the features of my face pop out when my hair was shaved. I felt freedom. It was exactly how I hoped it would look and feel like.
How did people respond to your short hair?
I got a lot of resistance at first. People didn’t understand it. They did not think of it as beautiful or how I can think of it as beauty. They did not understand why I chose to shave my hair off opposed to having it removed because of illness. But to this day I feel that it’s the best look for me. My hair, as well as my art, reflect the identity in the exterior, the appearance. Having my hair short relates to how I essentially feel. It represents how I want to look beyond trends and beauty standards. It slows me to stay close to my personal perception of beauty. There were moments that the reaction of the public made me grow my hair out but then I asked myself “Why am I growing my hair? Just because the other people don’t like it? Do I really want my long hair again? No, this is not how I feel.” So, then I cut my hair off again. I experienced this twice.
When did you realize that you are a woman?
I think in the period after I shaved my hair. When I walked out of the barbershop I got a lot of intimidating reactions. People assumed that I had cancer or received crooked compliments like “You are still beautiful” as if my beauty was cut off at the barbershop. I had to explain or defend my choice of shaving my hair off as if it was not as if it was forbidden, as if I did something wrong. That’s when I realized that there are certain expectations of what a woman should look like. Does carrying long hair make a woman? Is it that superficial? By playing with my appearance I challenged the beauty standards. I never thought that would happen just by cutting my hair off.
On your website you write that you identify with the transforming abilities of a chameleon and like to become somebody else every now and then. How does this influence your work?
It’s a big part of it. My work is about the combination of identity and looks. Changing your look, like with a different hairstyle, hair colour, wig, a different style of clothing, makes you feel like a different person. You get different vibes and attention. I like to play with that. Changing my look is like a performance. I like to capture moments through portraits. Sometimes I can change my look for a certain period. I notice my feelings and the reactions that I get for looking that way. Through the portraits that I create I reflect a certain period. Nowadays I like to project this on a model or muse.
In Ode to Orlan you are holding a presumably male torso covered in body hair in front of your naked body. Why did you choose to use maleness as a tool and what are you trying to achieve?
It is an ode to The Artist’s Kiss by Orlan where she is holding a piece of her naked body in front of her while being dressed. At the time I made that piece my work was about exterior and switching roles. Also, already about hair, gender specifics and body hair. In that piece I wanted to confuse the viewer. A lot of my work is registration of a search for a balance between male and female. It was a still of a moment that I was trying to create.
In your work you often refer to African culture and identity however you are presumably Western and white. Can you elaborate this?
I get a lot of questions about why I make African art, but I never stated that I make African art. I have a love for certain materials. In my graduation works I mix the Dutch and African cultural references because I question identity. It was a search for my identity in a cultural way, an exploration of my roots. I don’t feel Dutch. I don’t know what I feel like. I asked myself “What is typical Dutch?” and “Why do I feel different when I’m in a Dutch crowd?” and approached it like an outsider or tourist. Significantly enough I came up with the clichés of cheese, liquorice, tulips, clogs and haring. I used these references in my work. For example, in one portrait I am carrying Dutch cheese on top of my head in an African manner. In another portrait I wrapped a liquorice lace around my neck to create a reference to Kayan Lahwi neck rings. I also made a video of eating my first haring. I was looking for ways to express the confused with my cultural identity and decided to place typical Dutch things and traditions in a different context. So, these two worlds merged into a new world where I feel that I belong.
Why do you use ethnicity as a tool?
I want to be honest and create work that is representative of the real world instead of focussing on whiteness. I ca not exclude ethnicity because my work is about exterior and looks. Your ethnic origin gives you a certain look, different features and exterior. Maybe I am more interested in other ethnicities because I’m white. I am attracted to different worlds. For me it is normal to be inclusive. For example, when I work with hair, I don’t want to only work with straight hair, but also with afro and curls, with ginger, black hair and grey hair. I want to include everything because there is so much more than I know and am used to.
Liquorice dress is a woven artefact made from traditional Dutch candy. It is part of a series of work where you combine traditional Dutch food with African aesthetics. Why did you choose food as symbol of national identity?
It was an intuitive decision, maybe because of my love of food. I have a history of using food in my work. I use it in a different way. I don’t eat it I use it as a material, for example for weaving. It also relates to my preference to use natural materials. Even when I use artificial materials like synthetic hair it refers to something organic, human and natural. I like to use these materials in a different context. In this dress I used liquorice as a thread not to confuse but to expand the view on its potential as material. There are so many aspects to food, like smell and texture. For example, I used cinnamon because it’s an aphrodisiac. It has different qualities which I can incorporate in my work.
In the 2NDHEAD series you combine portraits with sketches that resemble tribal masks. Why do you abstract identity in this way?
I chose famous Dutch people. I did not want to use the typical examples like Frans Bauer that I have no feeling with. Instead I looked for non-mainstream celebrities in comedy, music, theatre and fashion. I was fascinated by celebrity because when we see someone in the grocery store that we saw on TV, we feel like we know that person, but we only see one dimension of what that person is like or just a role somebody plays. I was really interested in the way you can have an opinion about somebody or get the idea that you know somebody just by seeing a face a lot. That face becomes important for their identity. My plan was to draw a portrait only by following lines within the face. I don’t know what lines will appear because I use the shapes in the face. Then I noticed that some people are symmetric, some people are not. The line work created a new face. In that series I am exploring if the original face is strong enough to handle the drawing, to still be recognisable as the person I portrayed. Will the new face, the drawing, take over and create a new identity? Or will it mix up and create something else? Of course, it’s a masquerade, but I did not create a mask because I wanted to hide the face. I was just emphasizing the shapes and looking for the underlying pattern to see if the celebrity prevails.
In The Tragic Mulata you are covered with coffee in one picture and flour in the other. What are you trying to communicate?
The two-piece is like two different persons. The colours create a different vibe. Although the outcome consists of two portraits it is a registration of an event. I wanted to explore the two extremes because I’m not that white and I’m not that dark but in between. I wanted to get into the role of a very white and a very dark person to explore how it would make me feel and what it would do to me to have that colour on my skin, both not my own colour. Although the material was powdery and could be dusted off easily, that added layer on my skin tapped into something primal. I don’t know what I want to say with that two-piece, it is just an exploration of what it would do to me. In the one where I’m covered in flower, the camera is more drawn to the light and my eyes become very dark, and it becomes a dark portrait. Even though it’s light skin, it creates a dark feeling. On the other hand, in the one with the coffee on my skin, my eyes light up because of the contrast and somehow, it’s a lot softer. This is a different outcome from what you would expect. It contrasts the assumption in our society that white is good and black is bad. I like the outcome of the two-piece because something completely different is going on with how skin tones and colour react to the body.
Your recent exhibition at Gallery WM evolves around hair. Why did you choose this subject again?
I think I started to use hair in my work around the time I shaved my hair off and became really fascinated by the importance of hair and its beauty. You can wear an object created from hair as a piece of jewellery. I used to make objects that are worn on the body and document this act. In the image that ended up being the artwork it blended with the body. In the current exhibition I focus on how the subject of hair prevailed in my work for all these years. This time I chose to show the hairpieces as objects because of their own aesthetics and storytelling potential. I wanted to focus on the craftsmanship that went into making these hairpieces. I felt that it was time to put them in the spotlight. They don’t need a body anymore. The portraits that I also show were inspired by people with funky hairstyles. I was fascinated by the way they use their hair to express their personal style.
Considering the themes in your work would you call yourself a political activist?
I never give myself titles. I have my feelings and thoughts about hair and acceptance. I would not give myself that title because my work is open enough to spark imagination and form your own view about it. I do like to shake things up and to give a new perspective to think about. I use subjects like the exterior, or beauty standards for women, whiteness and blackness, or the importance of hair, but I show my idea of beauty. I don’t want to be singular where you can only agree or disagree. I want to keep it open to get a conversation started but I don’t give answers.
Would you call yourself a feminist?
Yes, I think I would do. In the way that I portray women, I don’t want to exclude any woman. I think it’s important to show what I think the beauty of women is. That it’s not superficial but much more layered. It’s most important for me that someone stays true to themselves. I don’t think that I make feminist work but it’s an unconscious influence. I do try to fight for the role of women in society. I treat them in the same way as men. I would not say that I’m a feminist artist, but I’m a feminist as a person.