Interview with Lisette Van Hoogenhuyze, now on Umbigo’s cover of the month

Think about letters in an alphabet, how they change meanings through different combinations. How many scenarios exist?

Mafalda Ruão interviews Lisette Van Hoogenhuyze, author of Umbigo’s cover of the month, exploring her ever changing trajectory, in between techniques, mediums and approaches. A never settled practice, rather a continuous learning process that hopes to embody the cultures and symbolisms of long time generations. Aiming to point the timelessness of life. After all, isn’t life an infinite loop of relived stories, even when appearances deceive us? Through her paintings, tapestry, colourful landscapes, the deeper we dive, the more truth pops out.

As observers, we tend to go beyond the author’s position, inventing something detached from its origin. We combine fragments of ourselves in relation with the work and create something unknown in the space organized by the capacity of art for allowing an indefinite plurality of meanings. But as Lisette would say, without these open readings, the essence of a piece will never be achieved.

Mafalda Ruão – In which way(s) do you think coming to Lisbon shaped your work?

Lisette Van Hoogenhuyze – I work in a very intuitive way. The change of the seasons and the shift of the cities’ colours have a profound influence on my practice. In Lisbon, there is a huge difference in terms of natural light and amount of sunshine in comparison to where I come from, which is the Netherlands. Having daily pink sunsets and rays of light hitting the pastel coloured buildings or the azulejos is a continuous source of inspiration. Other than that, in Portugal I have allowed myself more time outside the studio, and have enjoyed nature more. This connection with the outside is a great source of snapshot images of moments that I like and want to save in my mental photo album. My relationship to the elements has changed, and my work has become increasingly narrative, having lately also incorporated marine elements such as shells, pearls and marine wildlife. I feel like there is a lot more storytelling going on in my pieces now than ever before.

MR – So, would you say there is a narrative that runs along your work?

LVH – More and more there is. My latest projects largely deal with storytelling. Myths, fairy tales, dreams… And also history and contemporary news flashes. The point that my work hints at is that we’re living in a loop where all the stories once told are relived, and it seems like we’re not paying attention to the mistakes we repeatedly make. Timelessness is crucial to me, and I don’t necessarily have to signal one specific moment in time through my pieces.

MR – You don’t work with a defined moment in time, neither with an established space. In fact, being a constant traveller, would you consider this displacement somehow a trigger for working on different cultures/realities?

LVH – Working with diverse cultures and realities has always had a strong influence on my practice, and is maybe even part of its offset. However, I have had my base in The Netherlands to come back to at all times. Now that this stable location has shifted to Lisbon, I feel that I can take more distance, not only physically, but also mentally, from the values, the rules and the conformities of the academy and art scene in Holland and northern Europe. The influence of an array of cultures and realities now comes even more naturally to me, since I spend time and converse with people from various origins every day.

MR – As you expressed once, colourful landscapes allow for escapism. Which potential do you recognise in your practice and what do you try to achieve through it?

LVH – I believe that my ‘colourful landscapes’ in a paradoxical way allow for you to be drawn to something that you might not want to see. For example, in certain paintings you may think that you’re seeing a beautiful pink and orange sunset, but when you come closer and really allow yourself to observe in detail and use your senses, you realize that the color in the sky comes not from a sunset, but from a bushfire. You perhaps wish that your mind had left you with the simplicity of the beautiful sunset, but now you’re confronted with reality. I think it’s a sort of metaphor for what I look for in my work. I like to draw you in with a seemingly appealing aesthetic, but the deeper you dig and the more layers you peel off, the more bluntly you are confronted with something that might not be so pleasurable as you first thought.

MR – And you do it by frequently flowing between the abstract and the figurative…

LVH – I don’t like committing to one thing. I often shift between different mediums and techniques too… I see all of these possibilities as letters in an alphabet, which together can form words with different meanings. Some works need a more abstract approach, whereas others benefit from a figurative expression where meaning becomes somewhat more clear, or sometimes even more mysterious. There are a lot of dualities in the stories I tell. I never say “this is right or this is wrong” in my work, it’s more layered, complex and individual than expressing just one message. The viewer’s principles are also an important element that completes my pieces, as their interpretation helps to activate them.

MR – In fact, a figurative element that is often represented in your paintings and tapestry is the female figure. Do you perceive your art as a tool to communicate and compel social and political messages?

LVH – Just by being a woman, for me it is inevitable to feature women as protagonists of my work. The representation of the female figure is something not uncommon in art history. However, in my pieces, rather than representing it in a sexualized way reminiscent of works crafted by males, I present her as a strong character that has agency and goes on adventures – the world is hers! She has long and pointy nails, goes sunbathing with her friends, walks through fire and hangs out with snakes. Yes, I think that is a way for me to express social and political messages. Women are on the rise, and the rights taken from us across the world only shows the fear men have of our doing.

MR – I read once that if you can’t be found in the studio, better to check at the beach. Why and in which ways this passion such a landscape manifests in your practice?

LVH – The beach is a place where I can truly find peace. I have a lot of hectic energy, and feel like I am always running around. This site, located between water and land, seemingly at the end of the earth, where you can stare into the horizon and let your imagination wander, is very appealing to me. I also love fantasizing about the life that’s in there, in the ocean. A whole different world that we were once part of… It is so fascinating. Also, even though it is a place that allows me to breathe, it’s likewise a huge source of inspiration, where I like to study different people that seem to merge as one, all with their flowered bathing suits and multicolored umbrellas. Here, identity is set aside and forgotten for a while.

MR – What about the future? Any upcoming projects?

LVH – I am currently working on a large project for Art Rotterdam, which will take place in February. It consists of a three meters wide, manually tufted and painted beach umbrella. Its narrative revolves around scenes that find their origin in the apocalyptic floods. I want to explore the powerful image of the water flooding the earth, drawing from the myths and legends that wished to explain this phenomena. It’s a very colourful and ‘happy’ umbrella, but the content is quite serious. It expresses my fear of the aesthetics of the ‘end of the world’ that we often see around us nowadays, with people doing TikToks in front of a forest fire or taking selfies in their destroyed houses after a storm. It’s a project that I’ve been working on for a while, developing it through a historical and anthropological perspective.

Then, on a more pragmatic note, by the end of February I will take part in a residency in India, where I will learn weaving and textile dying from a family that has been passing on their knowledge from generation to generation for decades now. I can’t wait to dive deeper into the meaning and symbolism of these ancient crafts. I am also eager to take a step back and zoom out from my current context, in order to get to know more about the completely different view of life that most people in India have, as opposed to how we treat our problems and thoughts in Europe.

Master in Curatorial Studies from the University of Coimbra, and with a degree in Photography from the Portuguese Institute of Photography in Porto, and in Cultural Planning and Management, Mafalda develops her work in the areas of production, communication and activation, within the scope of Photography Festivals and Visual Arts - Encontros da Imagem, in Braga (Portugal) and Fotofestiwal, in Lodz (Poland). She also collaborated with Porto / Post / Doc: Film & Media Festival and Curtas Vila do Conde-Festival Internacional de Cinema. In 2020, and she was one of those responsible for the curatorial project of the exhibition “AEIOU: Os Espacialistas em Pro (ex)cess”, developed at Colégio das Artes, University of Coimbra. As a photographer, she was involved in laboratory projects of analogue photography and educational programs for Silverlab (Porto) and Passos Audiovisuais Associação Cultural (Braga), while dedicating herself to photography in a professional format or, spontaneously, in personal projects.

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