The ceramic group of sculptures by Boris van Berkum call to mind totem poles: stacks of animal and human figures. Coloured water trickles from some of the sculptures while others rotate slowly. Van Berkum transforms elements from the world’s great cultures into dynamic contemporary sculptures.
Boris van Berkum (b. 1968) is an artist who has already left his cultural stamp on Rotterdam. He was, for example, one of the founders of Showroom MAMA in the Witte de Withstraat and he transformed an old clubhouse on the Brienenoord Island into a new sanctuary for visual art and ecology. From Saturday, 12 February 2011 he exhibited his life-size ceramic sculptures in Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen. Four sculpture groups were being in the display cases of the museum’s so-called Cloverleaf. There they revolved on their axes and leave visitors dumbfounded, because Van Berkum’s sculptures are hardly your everyday ceramic sculptures; they are sculptures in which diverse world religions are fused – think Buddha’s belly meeting Greek gods and goddesses, Janus faces and less familiar religious figures, such as those from the Kingdom of Ife (part of present-day Nigeria).
Turning to the materials, casting in bronze and the use of ceramics are nothing new to artists. However, in the summer of 2010 Van Berkum added 3D printing to his repertoire of skills and he recently decided to follow a course in cake decoration, so now his life-size sculpture groups are covered in a thin layer of sugar, chocolate and fondant.
When we asked Van Berkum which of the world’s cultures he most admires, his answer was comprehensive: ‘I’m obviously terribly fond of the classics such as the Ancient Greeks, with their veneration of the human body, but I also intensely admire less familiar cultures, such as that of the Kingdom of Ife. During British rule in West Africa, archeologists unearthed a treasure trove of 17 bronze masks close to the former Royal Palace in the city-state of Ife. These works are unique in character and were produced using a complex casting technique that rivals the more familiar art of Ancient Greece.
‘People did not believe that Africans were capable of producing such magnificent objets d’art, and the bronze masks also lacked the features of African art to which people were accustomed; they were geometrical and expressionistic. People therefore speculated that they were of Greek or Portuguese origin. However, they turned out to be sculptures from the period 1200 to 1400 that were made by the Ife people themselves, portraits of their Oòni (King), a direct descendant of the god Oduduwa.
‘When I saw the exhibition at the British Museum in London last summer, I was deeply affected by the intensity of the Ife bronzes. It felt as if I was in direct contact with the makers of the sculptures, even the whole community. I try to convey that creative energy in my work, in which you can also find elements of this Kingdom.’