Archive: Issue No. 74, October 2003

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Hentie van der Merwe

Hentie van der Merwe
Suranamese Theatre Performance & Music Group, Sranan-Bromki Dyari, 2003
Colour photograph
20 cm x 20 cm

Hentie van der Merwe

Hentie van der Merwe
Percussion band Eternity, 2003
Colour photograph
20 cm x 20 cm

The new Dutch group portrait
by Jan van Adrichem

In the first half of 2003 Hentie van der Merwe moved into a studio apartment in Amsterdam Southeast, where he lived as part of the artist-in-residence project of the Stedelijk Museum Bureau Amsterdam and Artotheque Southeast/The New Podium. For this project artists are asked to reflect on Amsterdam's most multicultural neighbourhood.

The artist became fascinated with the multi-coloured, multi-ethnic community in the Bijlmer and the way it meets with all sorts of social structures: associations, sports clubs, bands, choirs, work groups, discussion groups and theatre companies.

A selection of van der Merwe's photographs was shown at the Artoteek Zuidoost/ Het Nieuwe Podium on the Bijlmerdreef, from September 6 through 27, under the title 'As Groups: a social and cultural exploration of Amsterdam Southeast'. That same month a selection of these group photos were also presented in the number 53 and 54 metro lines, as a travelling portrait gallery.

Hentie van der Merwe's investigation of Amsterdam Southeast comprises a record of 80 photographs of this community. The photographs feature such diverse groups as the Sports Association Bijlmer F-Juniors, the pop group Evolution, the Youth Advice Council and the percussion band Eternity, as well as the project group Investigate the Bijlmer Air Crash and the Asthma Fund's Chronic Non-Specific Lung Disease Sports swimming team.

These groups comprise a varied assemblage, not only in terms of their differences in ethnicity and the cultural backgrounds of the subjects depicted, but also through the variation in the group activities developed and the degree in which the various cultures mix within them. Some cricket teams (Gaasperzoom Cricket Academy) are perhaps almost exclusively Pakistani, while Scouting Holendrecht is much more varied in its ethnic composition.

Van der Merwe's photographic method was rather simple: the group portraits are frontal and generally made from fairly close up, often against a neutral landscape or architectural background. All attention is focused on the (generally) standing, sitting or kneeling figures. Some of the portraits, such as that of Evolution, radiate an enthusiastic cheer; other groups gaze into the camera with more detachment, dignity and reserve.

The interest with which van der Merwe studied the attitudes of ordinary people and their relationships with one another places his work in the social-documentary photographic tradition, to which such divergent and important photographers as August Sanders, Wally Elenbaas, Koen Wessing, Robert Frank and William Eggleston have all made contributions.

Yet, in addition to being social document, van der Merwe's series of portraits are also a conscious attempt to seek the tension between a formal record - rigidly ordered - and an express interaction of the photographer with his subjects, who are not only arranged frontally, but sometimes also emphatically pose, smile broadly or engage in activities for the camera, which gives the images a certain dynamism.

Van der Merwe's work demonstrates a conscious of a very familiar genre in Dutch painting, that of the group portrait. One could therefore say that his photographic portrait gallery on the Bijlmerdreef was a temporary counterpart to the gallery of group portraits in the Amsterdam Historical Museum, which has passages filled with famous sixteenth and seventeenth century militia portraits, or schutterstukken. As such, the prints presented in metro line 53 were a shuttling mini-edition that literally connected the two.

It is not surprising that during his stay in Southeast, van der Merwe should have displayed great interest in the group portraiture. Earlier he had shown an enthusiastic interest in the militia pieces and group portraits in the Frans Hals Museum, which he studied. He expressed particular regard for Frans Hals, an acknowledged Golden Age master of the Dutch group portrait.

More evidence of van der Merwe's interest in the conventions and characteristics of the painted group portrait were on view on the wall of his studio in Amsterdam Southeast. There, as study material and decoration, he installed a great many pictures of posing football clubs; group portraits of the Pope, seated on a monumental chair, receiving a delegation of Knights of the Order of Malta; and world leaders seated at a table on the mosaic floor of the Römisch-Germanisches Museum in Cologne, looking into the lens of a camera above them. These he mixed with reproductions of old group portraits, of militias and the governors and governesses of charitable institutions.

What struck me about this now dispersed collection of pictures were the differences in format and relation: some images were compact and square, others extremely elongated and monotonous in their arrangement. Also clearly detectable was the contrast between convention, which is often sovereign in both the painted and photographic group portrait, and the inventiveness with which some photographers and portrait painters have approached the genre of the group portrait.

It is to Hentie van der Merwe's credit that he has recognised the multiple possibilities of the group portrait and made productive use of them in his lively series of portraits of a varied number of groups from a vital, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural neighbourhood, which - based on the photographic evidence - apparently plans to thoroughly exploit the advantages of its variety and multiplicity.

Opening: September 6
Closing: September 27