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Iris Kensmil: Some of My Souls

For more than seventeen years, Iris Kensmil's artistic practice is committed to positioning the experience, activism, and intellectual work of Black people in the Western World as a central pivot to modernity’s emancipatory aims, or, as it were its progressive claims. She does this through a practice that involves studying, archiving, and painting; through a quiet exercise of reading, listening and looking. Over the years, her work has more and more focused on depicting counter-narratives to modernity by Black thinkers and activists in the “West” from the twentieth century to date. Stylistically, she found a way to break with how Black people, and especially women, have been typically painted. Instead, Kensmil presents them, in her words, "as the intellectuals they are."

Raised in Suriname during her early childhood, Kensmil was born in Amsterdam, where she currently lives and works. Her solo exhibition at Kunstinstituut Melly consists of a new body of work about the Netherlands. This will be set in dialogue with a selection of paintings and drawings from 2007 to date regarding the artist’s longstanding interest in music—especially protest songs, from Blues to Soul and that inspired by African American emancipation struggles. In creating her work, Kensmil not only traces or captures personal and historic transnational experiences. She also portrays communities, events, and aesthetic forms that manifest what the scholar Paul Gilroy identifies as an “embattled cultural sensibility, which has also operated as a political and philosophical resource.”

This autumn, Kensmil participates in the program Beeldbepalers at De Balie in Amsterdam, for which she is curating a program taking place on 4 September 2021. Featuring artists and curator talks, this program will involve a performance by a young generation of feminists who voice, advocate and stimulate anti-racism, educational reform and social inclusivity in The Netherlands. These women figure in Kensmil’s new series of large portraits featured in her exhibition at Kunstinstituut Melly. This series follows Kensmil’s Six Woman (Understanding Futurity) and The New Utopia Begins Here. These two art installations from 2019 include portraits of women whose work had these aims, here or abroad, paving the road for creating, imagining and working towards a better present-day and future, both for Black people as much as society at large.

As part of Kensmil’s exhibition, Kunstinstituut Melly will host a special public program inspired by the artist’s 2015 art installation Dutch Nurses 2019 and her 2016 installation When I Dare to Be Powerful: May Ayim. This program will be set in dialogue with the institution’s long-term initiative 84 STEPS, focused on the intersection of art and education and including activities focused on health. These and other activities will be soon further detailed in our Engage section of this website.

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