Sonja van Kerkhoff    1989 - 98

Part one                         nederlandse versie          

In December 1998 I participated in an exhibition on the theme of contemporary religious art (Vishal, Haarlem, The Netherlands) and this is a text I wrote discussing various influences with a focus on the Bahá'í influences in my work made between 1989 - 1998

My identity as a Bahá'í
and as an artist are closely tied.

I encountered the Bahá'í Faith in my first year of art school and then joined the Bahá'í community a year later when I was twenty years old in 1981.

My Soul Myself, ink drawing, 1997.
Athena, a still from a two minute video, 1994.    

My Soul Myself, ink drawing, 1997.

My art has diversified a lot since then as has my understanding of what it means to call oneself a Bahá'í.

Still from Athena, 1994, a two minute video, where a cloth gives form to a woman we cannot see fully.

Performer: Cajla de Bruijn, The Netherlands.
Music composed by: Evren Cecimli, U.S.A.

More about this video

Te Koru Iwa, a 
fire drawing made at the 1996 Oerol Arts Festival, The Netherlands.

Likewise I find it difficult to describe what type of art I make not just because I use a great diversity of materials and styles, but because I use them in various ways.

Sometimes my approach is more conceptual, sometimes it is more intuitive, sometimes it is an interpretation or reworking of an experience, and more often a piece contains aspects of all of these approaches.

Te Koru Iwa (Nine Spiral Forms.), 1996,
detail of a nine metre drawing of fire in the sand,
Oerol Festival, Terschelling Island.

First Lessons 
in Relativity, installation of up to 50 hanging cardboard dolls in shades of pink to blue, 

First Lessons in Relativity, 1992,
silkscreened cardboard dolls in gradual shades from pink to blue.
Each doll is 50 cm long. Sexuality like identity does not have a rigid border.

More about this work

Apocalypse with four worlds,
computer manipulated ink drawing, 1998.
Edition of 20.

more images

Apocalyse with four worlds, computer manipulated ink drawing, 1998.

I strongly identify with Bahá'í values such as "art is worship" or "racial and gender equality", but at the same time I find it hard to define what a Bahá'í is.
Sometimes I don't know what a Bahá'í is, just as I don't know what God is.

In the sculpture, Certain Measures, which is a large bar-height table with some sticks scattered on it, I was responding to the general suspicion of ´ethics´ in this country. Religion, in my view, really gets a hard time because of this.

I believe we need ethical laws in order to function while it is each individual´s responsibility to work out how to apply these to their own lives. What is missing in my society, in my view, is a dialogue about ethics so I started with the idea of making some ´tools´ for the spirit.

Detail, Certain Measures, 1993.

I took five sticks as symbols for measures and engraved texts along the four sides.
I wanted people to think about these questions while holding these ´tools´ in their hands.

Most of the texts come from the book, the Hidden Words by Bahá'u'lláh, and deal in some way with bringing oneself to account. They are about morals but they are not moralistic. There are no answers given.
When I first exhibited this, people gathered around the table to argue and on occasion I was approached and berated about my moralistic work. Some people got quite angry. They were touched by this; these ´tools´. What was particularly successful was that people stayed there to debate, discuss, or to handle the sticks. They didn't walk away.

>> other views of Certain Measures

Detail, just showing
the projection on the cloth,
Visionfest 97,
Grand Hall, Albert Dock,
Liverpool, U.K.

>> other views

Another work is the video installation Ablutions, where two hands descend out of darkness to lift water out of a glass bowl. These repeated movements are projected onto a cloth suspended between four pillars (50cm apart), but it is a video of a performance and not a loop. There are variations that indicate that this is a process rather than a mechanical repetition.

I made this piece to share my sense of the spiritual as a Bahá´í. Some Bahá´ís wash before saying their daily prayer just as Muslims do. It is not about cleaning, but more a ritual or preparation for communing with the divine. The video images are from my ´performing´ these ablutions under and towards the camera.

Postcard showing various views
 of the Letters of the Living
installation of flags.
Each flag was
roughly 1 x 2 metres.

>> views of the work

Letters of the Living was an installation of 19 flags made for the 1996 Oerol international arts festival. That year´s theme was magnetism, and I chose a period of nineteenth-century Iranian Bahá'í history as my starting-point.

The first 19 followers of this religion took great personal risks, in leaving an established religion to become part of a newly emerging one to follow the Báb (meaning The Gate or The Entrance).

As I worked on these drawings, I realised that uncertainty, restraint and alienation were as much a part of any quest as desire, passion and conviction.

So these drawings and flags became the result of my own quest to express the magic, attraction, uncertainty and challenge of the spirit.

The nineteen flags were arranged along a ridge of dunes and from a distance appeared to be in a line. As you walked up towards them they didn't appear to be lined up along any particular direction.

detail of an installation of batiked flags by Sonja van Kerkhoff 

It's the same with any group or system. From a distance, the group identity or system appear to be distinctively defined but from close up or from inside, customs or systems are much more complex than following what might look like a clearly defined path.

Each flag not only symbolises a Letter of this new alphabet, but also a gate or threshold for the spiritual while each branch (from the island forests) symbolised a point of contact: the material.

The 'material' branch held each each flag to a point, while the wind swept each ´spiritual´ flag in constant motion.
The flags are a particular colour but the forms they create under the influence of the wind constantly vary. Those "Letters of the Living" followed the magnetism of the Báb and were interpreting this magnetism in diverse ways into their lives.

What I found so exciting were all the extra associations and sensations that I had not anticipated. The isolation of the windswept location and yet the unmissable presence ofthe flags and their constant highly audible flapping.

The lithograph Letters of the Living is an adaption of the white line drawings for the flags in the form of a circle (a common Sufi feature). One reason I used a circle was because many of these new Bábí-Moslims came from a Sufi background.

>> view this lithograph (52 KB)

Replaced Text, film on metal, 1992.
Replaced Text, film on metal, 1992.

The text reads:

What kind of idea of idea are you?
Are you the kind that compromises,
does deals, accomodates itself to society,
or are you the cussed, bloody-minded ramrod-back type of damnfool notion that would rather break than sway with the breeze? The kind that will almost
certainly, ninety-nine times out of a hundred be
smashed to bits, but, the hundredth time,
will change the world.

A recurring theme in my work is a sense of ´loss´ or being split up. Generally I express this theme in the positive, as a celebration of the 'diverse' or ´multiple´.
In my own life I feel ´split up´ all the time, and particularly in relation to the spiritual, partly because I grew up in a culture where life isn't so categorised as it is in the Netherlands, but also because this is a more materialistic society.

My feminist views and being a mother of young children also contribute towards this general feeling of being 'split up'. However in my work I often express more optimistic perspectives, and that is probably why I am a Bahá'í. The Bahá'í Faith is an optimistic view of the world. We believe all people have the natural desire to do good, but what hinders this is ignorance or illness.

In the work, Replaced text, a text taken from the Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie, asks the viewer "what kind of idea are you". It illustrates that no matter how small the idea is, if you have conviction and will, in the end that idea can change something. At the same time it also raises questions: how does one know when to compromise or not, and is there a wisdom in this?

The book is about bringing oneself to account, about examining one's own ideals, in the lives of the two main characters. But unfortunately, that theme seems to have been overlooked, for socio-political reasons. So here his book did make an impact on the world, but not, I would think, in the way the author intended.

Ideas are not independent of the world, of history, so it is all well and good to have conviction and a good idea, but how we present it is just as important and how we are affected by the forces of society is also an important factor. Rushdie's book also brilliantly weaves these sorts of issues throughout the book, so it what has happened is both unfortunate and ironic.

Here I've taken the text and reset it in another framework. The film mirrors slightly, giving the viewer a fuzzy reflection of themselves.

postcard of artwork by Sonja van Kerkhoff  

Another work called Shadow visualizes the theme of how history is always there.

A dark shape, a shadow or phoenix form rises out of the double pages of a book on feminist theology by Mary Daly.

The shadow form ambiguously occupies either a positive or a negative space, but it is definitely in the foreground. I wanted to show that history is always there but that is not something passive, more like a metamorphizing shadow that always hovers over us.

I believe that the more we can see this, through being exposed to all sorts of ideas, then our history is less restrictive. I've used a gradation of blue to purple color in the background to suggest a changing sky or background. 

>> view the postcard of this work

Another work, I tend to see the world as one also ambiguously plays the light-hearted against the deadly serious.

Above are the words:

I tend to see the world as one, despite its differences

The text underneath reads:
the theology of providence begins
with the doctrine of chance.

The baby-joker is telling us that things are OK, yet it was a response to my awe and confusion at being a mother, complicated by a hostile art school environment.
The work presents a positive view, a bit like turning the other cheek. The baby is calm. But there is a twist. The text turns on itself just as a card is turned and reshuffled: fate and providence.

I tend to see, silkscreen on cardboard, 1992.
I tend to see 
 18.5 x 26.5 x 1 cm 
 silkscreen and layers of 
 Edition of 27

Larger view (42KB)

To part four of the story. To the top of this page zoek iets anders over mijn kunst