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Previews The Places We Live

Gabriel Metsu. A Master Rediscovered


Rijksmuseum 16 December-20 March 2011

Slum life: The light and dark side of poverty The Cultural Educational Centre Zuidoost until 10 December

More than one billion people around the world live in urban slums, according to the United Nations. In the late summer of 2005, Norwegian photographer Jonas Bendiksen moved into a tiny room in the Kibera slum of Nairobi and stayed there for about three months. Impressed by how people could maintain a sense of dignity in spite of their very harsh living conditions, he set out to document the daily lives of slum dwellers in different corners of the globe. It turned out to be an extraordinary project that was completed in 2007. After Kibera, he went to Dharavi in Mumbai, the barrios of Caracas and the kampongs of Jakarta. The resulting photographs became ‘The Places We Live’, a travelling exhibition supported by Amnesty International. It arrived in Amsterdam in October after its opening at the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo and also stops in Washington DC and Berlin. The exhibition is set up under a large black tent, which has been divided by cardboard walls into four rooms, one for each slum. These walls and a string of Christmas lights hanging between them give visitors some sense of the experience of living in makeshift dwellings. Inside, life-size images are projected on canvas-covered walls. Patrons sit on wood stools and listen to the stories of the people in the images, interviewed by Bendiksen himself. In every shot, the subjects are posing for the camera, looking directly at the viewer, and speaking candidly about their circumstances. One of the most surprising statements comes from a woman living in an improvised, flood-threatened shelter under a bridge in Jakarta: ‘Even though

we live underneath a bridge, I still like to have some decorations,’ says Asanah, a wife and mother of three. Yet, to portray some of the world’s poorest people as if they’re ‘just like us’ – sometimes preoccupied with decorating – is a dangerous artistic choice. These people may be optimistic and resilient but they’re also struggling to survive extreme weather, unsanitary conditions and gang violence. The exhibition occasionally shows us this darker side. In the violence-ridden barrios of Caracas, ‘you have to kill or someone else will kill you,’ says a young man holding a gun as he calmly recounts his ‘probably 18 or 19’ murders. The breaks between stories, which often consist of landscape shots of slum neighbourhoods, accompanied by recorded street sounds, present the broader picture, though these are clean, bright and beautifully composed shots that make the circumstances seem almost charming. Dubbing the stories in English rather than subtitling them may allow for a better understanding of the accounts, but it also removes the subtle nuances of each speaker’s native tongue and tone. Bendiksen wanted to demonstrate that normalcy can still exist in unimaginable poverty and so he did. There’s an optimistic patina to the show, however, that could easily make some viewers walk away nursing the cliché that the ‘poor are happy’. While his approach thankfully doesn’t exploit suffering, it sometimes seems as though the Norwegian photographer has turned his camera away from the starker realities of slum life. Catalina Iorga

These people may be optimistic and resilient but they’re also struggling to survive

56  December 2010

Gabriel Metsu was one of the leading lights of Dutch Golden Age painting but art patrons who view his work today often mistake him for Vermeer. It used to be the other way around, says the Rijksmuseum’s curator of 17th-century painting, Pieter Roelofs. Until the 18th century, Metsu was the more recognised of the two. One Parisian art dealer at that time, in fact, described Vermeer’s work as ‘in the style of Metsu’. ‘Today, we appreciate Metsu because we have been conditioned by Vermeer,’ explains Roelofs, who believes that ‘A Master Rediscovered,’ the Rijksmuseum’s new retrospective, ‘unveils why Metsu was considered a master in his time and perhaps will reinstate him.’ The exhibition of 37 works, brought together from collections across the globe, gives a sense of Metsu’s extensive oeuvre, from his early large-scale history paintings to the small, luminous and meticulously detailed canvasses of house servants, soldiers and young people in cosy Dutch interiors. The later works grouped him among the most talented of the Leiden Fijnschilders (‘fine painters’), who specialised in scrupulously realistic portraits taken from everyday life. While he was alive, Metsu’s works commanded high prices and royals and dignitaries from around Europe sought out his paintings for their collections, while Vermeer’s works remained primarily in his hometown of Delft. By mid-19th century, Metsu receded

from the limelight just as Vermeer’s works started showing up in French auction houses, were discovered by the Paris art world and became popular internationally. The current exhibition uses plenty of evidence to show why Metsu once had a higher profile. One pair of masterpieces,

One Parisian art dealer described Vermeer’s work as ‘in the style of Metsu’ for example, ‘A Man Writing a Letter’ and ‘Woman Reading a Letter’, both painted in the period between 1664 and 1666, display Metsu’s mastery of lighting and spatial surroundings in their geometrical composition. Metsu’s talent is also epitomised in ‘The Sick Child’ (1664-6), which was painted at the height of Amsterdam’s worst plague, when the city lost ten per cent of its population. Roelofs gestures toward the ashen child glaring out from the painting. The mother holding the child looks worried. On the wall in the background hangs a painting of a Jesus on the cross while Mother Mary weeps. ‘No other work so typifies the parent-child relationship or human relations so well,’ says Roelofs. ‘It makes the viewer feel like a voyeur peeping in the neighbour’s un-curtained window.’ Benjamin Roberts

Man Writing a Letter 1662-’65, oil on canvas

The Places We Live  
The Places We Live  

Review of 'The Places We Live' travelling exhibition by Jonas Bendiksen, which was shown at the Cultural Centre Zuidoost, Amsterdam, between...