Are you startled? Do you feel uneasy or rather moved to ask and to help? Do you find yourself under her spell? Or all that and more at the same time?
There is a larger than life accusation staring at you from this oil painting. Her emotions of being unjustly entangled in a life or death conflict storm at you. She is cornered, humiliated, hurt, sad and angry. She is close to tears and waits to see what comes next. Very alert, also anxious. When you look again she looks as if she feels guilty, even though she is not to blame. Uncertain yet determined.
A human being is appealing to you. Her eyes compel you to comfort, yet she frightens you. You are puzzled by her perfect lips and her bosoms dominantly displayed in the far too cheery festive dress. Her hair is fashionably straightened but spiky. And she wears no jewellery, only a thin stream of blood that shines like the glitters of her revealing costume. Is it the result of a fight or of strangling? Or does she bleed from wounds of centuries that keep breaking open? Was she forced to wear this dress or was she at a party where something went terribly wrong? Is she to blame or is she not to blame?
An outrageous image. Exactly. Stigmatising and stereotyping. It is fiction and it is not. This portrait expresses severe racial and gender injustice and abuse. Aggressions that still go on, every single day and all over the world.
She is aware of the crime against her. She is fragile, hurt and small, but as a human she is still resilient and powerful. Just that she cannot stand alone. She represents all victims of racial discrimination, human trafficking, lack of safety for women in the club circuit, physical and sexual attack and psychological intimidation. An insanely multifaceted and widespread problem globally. The blood could even be an allusion to a wound from a possible slave collar, a historical reference to racial injustice but also to objectifying or literally possessing people in our times.
The title ‘My name is…’ is a universal reference to (re)stating who you are and (re)defining one’s borders. In this one movement of the head and the eyes her whole being claims her space. She conveys her painful truth and seems determined to stand her ground and defend it. Will she be able to?
One of the painter’s favourite artists is Nina Simone, jazz singer-songwriter and civil rights activist from the 1960’s. The title of this painting is also a reference to her song ‘Four women’ with ‘My name is…’ in the refrain. An intense plea for racial and gender equality from decades ago.
This contemporary ‘tronie’ (portrait painting genre dealing with expression) is about compassion too. You are at once confronted with your own humanity. Do I feel addressed? How do I look back at her? Do I see a human in distress or do I see all kinds of categories? Does the discomfort stir me to action or do I think of ifs and buts? Do I want to see and understand the truth despite my own prejudices?
Her pure and silent scream for justice breaks my heart.
Hansa Versteeg ‘My name is…’, 2021, oil on canvas, 110 x 100 cm
Written by Anikó Ouweneel – Tóth