Interview: Scarlett Hooft Graafland / Shores Like You

In Shores Like You Huis Marseille presents photographs drawn from the series that Scarlett Hooft Graafland (Maarn, 1973) has been making in recent years. For her latest works she travelled from Vanuatu to Peru, Socotra, Dubai and Sweden. Nicky van Banning, Collection and Exhibitions Assistant at Huis Marseille, interviewed her on her working methods, her new series, and the exhibition.

Shores Like You / Scarlett Hooft Graafland is on show from 10 September 2016 till 4 December 2016 at Huis Marseille, concurrently with In the Spirit of Nature / Spiritual photographs by Martin Gusinde, Rotimi Fani-Kayode and Mario Cravo Neto.

Nicky van Banning: For your photographic series you often choose distant, remote, unspoiled locations. How do you find such remarkable locations? And how do you make the right contacts when you’re there?

Scarlett Hooft Graafland: It depends, but the choice for a given location always comes up in an organic, spontaneous way, really. Often I’ll read about somewhere, or I’ll hear about it, and then I’ll look into it more deeply, and then I’ll go there. For me it’s always about authenticity, about the culture of a place.

It always takes a long time to find the right contacts. I start by asking my own circle of friends and acquaintances whether anyone happens to know someone at the location. Sometimes I’m in luck, but otherwise I just go, hoping to find people while I’m there. Mostly they’re local artists, because they’re often more open to my ideas; they look at the world – at their own environment – in the same sort of way.

I ended up on Socotra through a Jemeni war photographer I knew, Amira Al-Sharif. This little Jemeni island is difficult to reach and has no tourism at all. I’d already come into contact with the American photographer Beth Moon, after I happened to meet a Korean friend of hers in Seoul who showed me her photo book Ancient Trees. Portraits of Time (2014). Like me, she has a fascination for trees. She photographs remarkable examples all over the world, in black and white. She’d been to Socotra too, and shared her experiences and advice with me. She warned me, for instance, that the customs people often seize cameras. So I could take account of that when deciding what equipment to take and how to transport it.

NvB: On Madagascar you photographed the baobab, on Socotra the dragon’s blood tree, and in Sweden the oldest tree in the world. Where does your fascination with trees come from?

SHG: I grew up in the woods, near Maarn, a village at the foot of the Utrecht Hill Ridge, and I’ve loved nature ever since I was small. Trees have a special fascination for me. Their presence in the landscape is a long-term thing; I see them, in a way, as silent witnesses of the landscape. I look for rare specimens, or for trees that only grow in one place. They often have beautiful shapes.

NvB: You often work closely with the local population. How do those contacts work? How do they understand what you are trying to do and why?

SHG: I often make rough sketches of my ideas on paper, which explain what I’ve got in mind. And sometimes I bring along a few postcards of my work, to give an impression of what kind of photographs I make, and the kind of results I’m working towards. But I keep it simple; I don’t inundate them with images.

People generally find it enjoyable and interesting to work with me on my projects; they’re curious, partly because I’m a photographer, and a Westerner, and partly because I stage unusual scenes, and that gives them a break from their day-to-day lives for a while. It is a problem, though, to have to explain that I work with analogue methods, so I can’t immediately show them the results. Models and helpers are naturally very curious to see them. Once I’m back home in the Netherlands I usually try to send them prints, but since the places I visit are so remote, that doesn’t always work.

NvB: Sometimes you put yourself into the scene you create. Is this because you have to, when you have no models, or is it a conscious choice? And how to you then take the photographs?

SHG: For certain projects I prefer not to ask someone else to be the model. Because the concept is hard to explain, like a naked figure lying on a roof. Or because it’s physically demanding.

It’s really important to have the right contacts, especially if someone else is taking the photograph and I’m being the model. In cases like that I’ll ask a local photographer, often on a colleague’s recommendation. I’ll use a tripod to check the composition first, but for the actual shot I’m entirely dependent on the other person. The unpredictability makes it exciting; after all, I only get to see the results after I’m home.

NvB: The 18th-century British explorer James Cook was an important source of inspiration for your Vanuatu series.

SHG: Cook’s journeys intrigue me; and the fact that he undertook such an enormous voyage, from Great Britain to the Pacific, at a time when the whole area was more or less uncharted. There’s something adventurous about it, something enigmatic and wonderful. Cook was genuinely interested in how other kinds of people lived; he was sociable and empathetic. In his travelogue, A Voyage Towards the South Pole, which was published in 1775, he describes – always with the date in the margin – the nature and the people he encounters, and how they reacted to his arrival.

When Cook sailed along New Caledonia, his attention was caught by the trees on a nearby island: a species of conifer that can grow to as much as 60 metres in height. The story goes that in trying to get a closer look he almost shipwrecked the ship on the island’s coral reefs. He went ashore, together with the ship’s botanists, and the ship’s artist William Hodges made drawings of the landscape, some of which were later included as illustrations in Cook’s travelogue. Cook named the island the Isle of Pines. The tree Araucaria columnaris, which grows only on that island, is also known as the Cook Pine.

In 2015 I planned my own trip to New Caledonia, but when I got there it turned out to be a tourist hotspot: a popular honeymoon location for Japanese couples. It was commercial, and not very authentic. It was difficult to make contact with the local population, too. So I travelled on, to the Vanuatu archipelago. On one of the Maskelyne islands south of the larger Malakula island I met the current tribal chief, who was a descendant of the tribal chief who had welcomed Cook to the island in 1774. This historic meeting still lives strongly in their minds and is seen as having been a positive experience. Once I was back in the Netherlands I started searching for Cook’s descendants, but all of his six children turned out to have died young. Quite by chance I came across someone who turned out to be an illegitimate descendant of Cook’s, and I went to Lima in Peru to meet him.

I’d brought along a replica of the Resolution, the ship in which Cook had made his second expedition to the Pacific between 1771 and 1775. Once I was in Lima I decided to paint it yellow, because that worked better from a visual point of view. So on the beaches of Maskelyne and Lima I shot two portraits of young descendants of the tribal chief and of Cook, each holding the model ship in their hands.

NvB: Is a project ever obstructed, for example by the local authorities? I can imagine that it might have been difficult to make Burka Balloons happen on Socotra.

SHG: It wasn’t hard to find models for Burka Balloons. The Jemeni photographer friend I mentioned earlier is one of the women in burka, and she found the two other women. In their daily lives they sometimes wear a burka, but by no means all the time. I wanted to be on the beach in the early morning because of the beautiful dawn light, so we left the house very early, when it was still dark. Once we arrived at the location it took quite a while before the women were ready; they wanted to do their make-up first. I was surprised, because the uncovered area around the eyes is so small that you can hardly see the mascara and eye-liner against the black of the burka.

I’d brought the long balloons along as a prop, because I was interested in both the formal similarity and the colour contrast with the figures hidden in their burkas. Some people have interpreted the picture as an erotic allusion; I don’t mind. In the West the burka is a controversial article of clothing, one that calls up certain connotations. But for me, in this work, it’s principally about the visual poetry, the visual effect. It’s certainly not intended to be provocative.

NvB: You’re currently working on embroidering the photograph Rock, which you made on Socotra. How did this embroidery experiment begin? And how does it work from a technical point of view?

SHG: When I studied at the Royal Academy of Art The Hague, my choice of monumental art specialisation was ‘autonomous textiles’. I have an affinity with fabrics; thread and pieces of fabric often appear in my work, as a prop in the staging, or as material in the work itself. In 2012 I had a solo exhibition called Domestic Marble in Piet Hein Eek’s gallery in Eindhoven, which included photographs from the Red Mill series. That was the first time I had experimented with embroidering a photograph. I embroidered red thread on the windmill’s vanes, by analogy to the red rope I’d wound around the actual vanes of the De Hoop windmill in Gorinchem when I staged that photograph. But after a while the embroidery thread lost its colour.

For Rock I want to use embroidery thread in a variety of colours, like turquoise, gold, ochre and brown, to emphasize the colours of the rock. I use a thin drill to make tiny holes in the aluminium to which the photo is glued, and pull the thread through.

I did a few test pieces first, on small prints. The final work is quite big, 120 x 150cm. A large format like that is less manageable; I may need an assistant to do the embroidery, with me in front of the print and the assistant behind it, so that we can pass the thread through to one another. That’s also the method used by the visual artist Berend Strik, who regularly embroiders his photographs.

NvB: You recently went to Sweden, to photograph the oldest tree in the world.

SHG: In 2015 I had a solo exhibition called Look Cook Look! in the Landskrona Konsthall in Sweden. I gave a talk there, at which I also mentioned my fascination for trees, and someone in the audience told me about a tree in Sweden said to be the oldest living tree in the world. Old Tjikko, as it’s called, is a 4-meter spruce that sprouts a new trunk when the old one dies, usually after about 600 years; but its roots are 9500 years old.

I went there not long ago. The tree is located in a national park and is hard to reach; you have to have a guide. The tree is not actually that impressive to look at. I’d brought along a piece of bright pink fabric, one I’d used earlier in the Dubai desert, and a big white hemisphere, and I used those props to stage several different shots. Huis Marseille has a world first with photographs from this new series.

NvB: The title of the exhibition in Huis Marseille is Shores Like You. What’s the idea behind this title?

SHG: The poem L’invitation au voyage by the French poet Charles Baudelaire, which was published in 1857 in his collection Les fleurs du mal, has a verse that we adapted:

L’invitation au voyage

Mon enfant, ma soeur,
Songe à la douceur
D’aller là-bas vivre ensemble!
Aimer à loisir,
Aimer et mourir
Au pays qui te ressemble!

[…]

Pays qui te ressemble. Shores like you. I like that kind of title: it speaks directly to the viewer. It suits the content of my work; I travel to distant places, and often to islands, like Madagascar, Vanuatu and Socotra. It’s particularly appropriate to my Vanuatu series, which were inspired by Cook’s voyages of exploration. The shore, whether it’s a beach or a coastline, is where you make landfall, and it’s the first part of the land you get to see.

At the same time the title links to today’s migration problem, with people fleeing from violence or climate change, and boats full of refugees who drown or are stranded in Europe. These are things that concern all of us. I travel to remote locations because of their untouched, idyllic character – but there, too, you come across problems like those at home in the West, especially with regard to climate change and environmental issues. There’s no escape.

NvB: In the same period, work by Mario Cravo Neto, Rotimi Fani-Kayode, Zanele Muholi and Martin Gusinde will be exhibited, with which your own work will be in a sort of dialogue. What do you think of these combinations?

SHG: I feel the closest kinship with the work of Mario Cravo Neto; we both make an appeal to the imagination, to magic and to nature. I think Cravo Neto’s imagery is powerful and evocative.

NvB: Including an egg and a model of an elephant bird in this exhibition was your own idea. How did that come about?

SHG: On Madagascar I heard about the existence of the elephant bird (Aepyornis maximus), an animal that probably became extinct in the 17th century. Up to 3.5 metres tall, and weighing 500 kilos, this flightless bird was the largest bird that ever lived. The eggs were enormous, too – 30 centimetres long and 20 centimetres wide, on average, with a shell 3 millimetres thick.

Through the parents of a Malagasy friend I managed to obtain an egg, made of fragments glued together. The model of the elephant bird comes from the collection of the Museon in The Hague.

Douze Douze Douze, a photo I made on Madagascar, shows three men holding large, round balloons over their heads, a reference to the elephant bird’s colossal eggs.

NvB: Lastly: together with the exhibition in Huis Marseille, you’re bringing out a new photo book through nai010.

SHG: Yes, nai010 is publishing a retrospective photo book, designed by Irma Boom, which contains about 60 photographs from my oeuvre. The philosopher Maarten Doorman has written an essay for it, and so has the Danish economist and political scientist Gert Tinggaard Svendsen. Svendsen is a specialist in the subject of trust; on its economic effect within a society, and between different societies. I thought it would be interesting to have someone from his field look at my work and working methods. Trust is essential, after all; the success of my projects depends entirely on the help and hospitality of local people.

© Huis Marseille and Scarlett Hooft Graafland, May 2016