Cheeky lot, aren’t they? I am not from Antwerp so no sweater for me but I think the slogan hits the spot. Why? Because Antwerp is a crucible of ”complementary contradictions” which in itself I find a cool made up term. Let me elaborate.
In Antwerp, economic power is challenged by political power: the second largest port in Europe, among the largest container ports in the world generating enormous amounts of hard cash, Antwerp should be the capital of the province of Flanders but was stripped of the title in benefit of Brussels, which actually is a region and not a province, i.e. it belongs neither to Flanders nor to Wallonia. Don’t worry if you are confused, so is everyone else! Going through the complex Belgian politics/constitution is a challenge requiring extensive use of grey matter or, in famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot’s terms, our little grey cells would have to work overtime. Back to the power game, Brussels being host to a number of major league players such as the European Institutions, NATO, international conglomerates, lobbyists and NGOs, having already been declared the de facto capital of Europe, the decision of Flanders is quite understandable. As long as we all know where the money comes from, Antwerp is cool with that.
A city where religion is bedazzled by the brilliance of [hopefully non conflict] diamonds, a trade until recently controlled exclusively by the Jewish Orthodox community, but thanks to globalization a number of new, eager for a piece of the pie, faces infiltrated it, mainly Indian. A secret world, unseen by mere mortals who will never cross the heavily secured booth at the far end of the jewelry shop, leading to the office upstairs where the real business is carried out: exchanges of mind-blowing magnitude and cash amounting to multibillion dollars in yearly turnover. As long as diamonds are your best friend, Antwerp is your cool Mecca.
Here tolerance co-exists with the xenophobic immigration policies of Vlaams Belang, partly responsible for steering unrest in the Jewish Orthodox and Muslim communities, and I won’t even touch the subject of gay rights. We are stepping here on sensitive ground where, hopefully, logic and the legendary Antwerpian cool will prevail.
Antwerp is home to the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, the oldest of its kind in Europe. An institute for Fine Arts, Architecture and Design, it incorporated in 1963 a new course: Fashion Design. So from the Old Masters like Jan van Eyck, Hans Memling, Peter Paul Rubens, Anthony van Dyck or Jacob Jordaens there is a continuous artistic flow reaching to Vincent van Gogh (student at the Royal Academy), Panamarenko and Luc Tuymans; which in a slight shift of direction gave way to ”The Antwerp Six”: Dirk Bikkembergs, Walter Van Beirendonck, Marina Yee, Dries Van Noten, Dirk Van Saene and Ann Demeulemeester, a group of designers that brought their fresh, individual styles to London Fashion Fair in 1986, stirred the contemporary fashion scene to the core and managed to bring Belgian fashion on the map, in a single move. Their impact is felt to this day.
Antwerp is a city where culture meets sub-culture. Take the docklands, for instance; historically Antwerp’s red light district, now constantly shrinking to give way to an ambitious reconstructive face lift. Combined with tight police controls in an effort to beat human and drug trafficking (proving quite successful), the development plan is bearing fruits. Gone are most of the rows of neon windows showcasing exotic sirens that lured (willing) wandering travelers inside, with a sexy pose and the promise of a five-minute satisfaction, gone the infamous, entry-at-your-own-risk, musty bars and cafes, drenched in smoke and alcohol. Those in the know are now shifting to Brussels, around the thriving Gard du Nord. For prostitution is perfectly legal in Belgium; on the other hand keeping a ”house” is illegal. So, because of some loophole in the law, being a pimp is fine but being a matron is not? Good luck trying to draw the line between these two in a legal case.
Back to that face lift, results are starting to show: besides the stylish brasseries, apartments and designer hotels, adding to the transformation was the inauguration of the stunning new Museum Aan de Stroom (MAS), in 2012. MAS was built to host collections of the Ethnographic, the Maritime and the Folklore museums that closed down. It also hosts temporary collections, like the current one celebrating the 350th anniversary of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts. A mish mash of works from old masters like Rubens, Jordaens and Teniers next to those of more recent artists, former students of the Academy.
Antwerpse Handjes (Antwerp Hands): Legend has it that the giant Druoon Antigoon demanded high tolls from the ships that passed by on the river Scheldt. Those who refused to pay had one hand chopped off. The Roman soldier Silvius Brabo challenged the giant to a fight, killed him and threw one of the giant’s hands in the river. Today the hand is a symbol of free waterways.
Part of the MAS’ collection are 18 cranes, 12 of which stand on the quay of the River Scheldt. Reading from their website: […. the largest museum collection of port cranes in the world. The oldest crane on the quayside dates from 1907, the most recent from 1963. Built by 15 different well-known manufacturers here in Belgium and abroad, they beautifully illustrate the rapid technological evolution in port activity in the last century. You can see the cranes on the Scheldt quay (Rijnkaai, near Hangers 26 and 27)].
An overview of the temporary collection:
My favourite was this sculpture by Jan Fabre:
Ominous in their own ways:
Does art have to be beautiful? Is art a trade or a science? Are you born an artist, or can art be learned? And is there really such a thing as Antwerp art? Food for thought by Fashion designer Walter Van Beirendonck and museum curator Paul Huvenne, the fellows behind this exhibition.
After the exhibition, The Vista: the roof offers a 360° view over the city and port. It merits a visit all of its own and, if you skip the collections, access is free of charge.
Next, I’ll be walking around on- and under-ground; hope you join me again!
Antwerp, 26-28 October 2013
Images by Konstantinos Implikian