A Poison Tree

Kunsthal KAdE
25 September 2021 — 9 January 2022

Kunsthal KAdE regularly focuses its attention on outstanding individual oeuvres. In the autumn of 2021 we present two parallel solo exhibitions focusing on the work of Sadik Kwaish Alfraji and Natasja Kensmil: ‘In Search of Lost Baghdad’ of Alfraji and ‘A Poison Tree’ of Kensmil. While Kensmil has had previous shows in the Netherlands, none has presented a cross-section of her entire output. Alfraji has participated in various international projects but has had no solo show in the Netherlands since 2010. His expressionistic drawings explore his memories of and connection with Iraq and reflect on his history of migration. Kensmil produces highly condensed pictorial narratives in the form of contemporary ‘history paintings’, usually on emotionally charged subjects.

This is the first such extensive cross-section of Natasja Kensmil’s work ever exhibited in the Netherlands. Previous shows focused mainly on individual series. The highly detailed narratives with which Kensmil fills her large canvases draw on collective history and the artist’s own past. Her stories feature leitmotifs in the form of antitheses such as power and powerlessness, the earthly and the spiritual, and violence and sacrifice.

The title of the exhibition ‘A Poison Tree’ refers to a poem by the English poet and artist William Blake (1757-1827). In the poem, suppressed feelings of anger grow into a deep-seated hatred that takes the form of a tree on which a beautiful, but poisonous, apple grows.

From early works to recent series
The works on show in Kunsthal KAdE’s upper-floor exhibition areas will range from Kensmil’s earliest works, produced in the late 1990s, to recent series such as Martyrs Mirror. This is a series of silkscreen prints about the martyrdoms of Anabaptists (members of a Christian movement of the Radical Reformation). The work is based on an eponymous seventeenth-century book on the subject by Thieleman van Braght. Another such series is Sleeping Beauty, based on post-mortem child portrait photographs of the nineteenth century. Kensmil paints them in all their serenity. In a catalogue from the Stevenson Gallery of South Africa, she says:

“I believe that the soul lives on in the portraits of the dead. The spirits of the children wander; they try to escape their failed lives and to flee their loneliness. I explore the realm of the living that overlaps with that of the ghosts, the underworld…’’

In little over twenty years, Natasja Kensmil has created an oeuvre in which she presents history as an inextricable part of the present. Motifs – often based on concrete historical or art historical sources – are overlaid or emerge from thick layers of paint. At first glance black-and-white, her images are actually in blueish or greenish black with endless shades of grey. What at first seems monochrome is in fact full of detail and nuance.

Natasja Kensmil is represented by andriesse ~ eyck gallery. Her work has featured in a number of museum exhibitions in the Netherlands and was the subject of a 2013 retrospective at Dublin’s Royal Hibernian Academy. It is currently on show in the ‘Monument of Regents’ exhibition in the Amsterdam Museum wing of Hermitage Amsterdam and a new work by Kensmil will be on display from 11 September in the Fries Museum’s ‘Icons’ exhibition. The show at Kunsthal KAdE will be accompanied by a book on her entire oeuvre, published by Alauda Publications and Kunsthal KAdE.

The exhibitions are curated by Robbert Roos, director of Kunsthal KAdE and Lara Stolwerk, assistant curator at Kunsthal KAdE, in collaboration with the artists.