Sven ‘t Jolle .Sans-papiers

12.11 until 08.01.2006

For this ‘gallery exhibition’ he took his inspiration from the earliest visual culture of the Middle East. He makes a connection between the oldest writing on clay tablets and ‘sans-papiers’ [‘without papers’ = illegal immigrants], the illegal trade in cultural artefacts and the controversial European constitution. These topics are incorporated in various forms into a museum display and an installation in the city centre. In the museum he shows sculptures which, in their innocent-looking silent presence, soon stir up painfully burning issues. His infiltration into the urban fabric on the other hand is based more on the figurative symbolism of Catholicism and refers to the traffic in refugees brought about by globalisation. This will take place in one of the neighbourhoods of Ghent during the Christmas period. Sven ‘t Jolle’s work is characterised by the combination of historical, political and social elements in a highly individual visual idiom. This variety of ingredients gives his works several levels for the viewer to discover or ‘read’. This format is also clearly discernible in this particular presentation. The plaster sculptures are inspired by votive figures from the earliest civilisations of the ancient Middle East. Original sculptures of this sort are to be found in the collections of the major classical art history museums in Europe.

Sven ‘t Jolle raises questions about the presence of these sculptures in the museums and by extension the unlawful appropriation of the cultural heritage of non-European peoples by Western museums. It was not only in the 19th and early 20th centuries that the great European museums acquired such priceless treasure by the archaeological or colonial plundering of countries in the Middle East. Even today, the ‘residence permits’ of cultural artefacts in foreign museums remains a topical problem. Since the figures were removed from the country of origin unlawfully and do not have valid papers, Sven ‘t Jolle refers to them symbolically as ‘sans-papiers’. By using this term he is also referring to the oldest form of writing: cuneiform script, without paper. The oldest primitive inscriptions known to us are in earthenware and were done in Harrapa, in the Indus Valley (now Pakistan). The Indus civilisation was characterised by the absence both of major class differences and of great displays of wealth by its rulers. It was a peaceful civilisation in which the people made art and incorporated it into works in stone. Quite independently of this, the Sumerians, in what is now Iraq, also invented a cuneiform script on clay tablets. Starting out from this historical background, Sven ‘t Jolle links it to the present-day issue of the ‘sans-papiers’. This term was coined in the French-language press in the mid-nineties, when a huge amount of media attention was focused on the violent clearance of churches where illegal refugees had sought refuge. Previously, the term ‘illegals’ had been used, which had a negative connotation. ‘Sans-papiers’ is a much more human term. It gives the asylum-seekers a face and a story of their own. The anthropomorphic images Sven ‘t Jolle creates linkup symbolically very well with this. They make us reflect on the image of asylum-seekers in the media. In his own way the artist opposes current practices under the deportation policy of Fortress Europe.

One of his works on this theme is Qualaat Europa, Klein Kasteeltje (1993) which is in the SMAK collection. Sven ‘t Jolle’s sculptures act as amplifiers for the voices of the nameless people who in the negative spiral of globalisation are forced down to the lowest levels of society. It is no coincidence that there are specific references to the Middle East, which on the one hand is not easily accessible to Europeans but from which on the other a huge stream of refugees has been set in motion. Drawings are also shown in addition to the sculptures. They are photocopies of pages in the artist’s sketchbook. They are the result of his study of the relationship between an age-old visual language and the possibility of using it in present-day media (such as strip cartoons and animated films). Altogether they form something like a storyboard. The votive images that were his source of inspiration actually originate from the ‘infancy of mankind’. According to the artist, this ‘primary’ pictorial language contains archetypical elements that still appeal to us today. They are in themselves very discreet, in contrast to the tremendous possibilities they offer. Sven ‘t Jolle would like to refocus attention on this wealth of expressive possibilities in the forms they use. In his work he often finds himself looking for this sort of direct and unsophisticated image that can appeal to a broad public. The sculptures presented here were first made in clay and then cast in plaster into which pigments were mixed. The use of clay expresses the directness. The artist sees working in clay as the equivalent of drawing in pencil. In their absolute simplicity they are the purest basic techniques, which artists have already used throughout the ages to express themselves, and yet they remain entirely up-to-date.

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