Museum Belvédère – ‘Friezen om utens’, 2006 – Fronique Oosterhof

Recollection of a warm summer: in our bedroom on the ground floor my sister and I cannot catch sleep. Clouds of mosquitoes have come in from the bushes outside our bedroom window. In the gloom they remind me of a pattern of a finely-decorated wallpaper, but their insistent whining and vicious bites tell a different story. Stringent measures need to be taken, so our parents arrive with damp washcloths and a Sniffy dustbuster to get rid of the bloodthirsty pests. The evening turns into a hilarious free for all and ends with us finally going to sleep.

Never expected a childhood memory could be so strongly evoked. But that is what happened upon seeing Elma Alkema’s ‘Bedstead with stabbing gnats’ (2005). Elma Alkema produced this image in pencil and pastels during her student years at the Academy of Fine Arts ‘Minerva’ in Groningen (Netherlands). Her thesis shows that a similar experience played a role in its conception:

"I’ll have at least three hundred second thoughts before I spend another night in Biberach! (…) What was that earsplitting whine? I threw the light switch and saw a mass of mosquitoes! My wild swatting proved futile, they cloned on the spot. I’d prefer to be locked in with three snoring men any day…”

But Alkema wouldn’t want such autobiographical notes to predominate. Of her own life – a childhood spent in Bakkeveen in Friesland, odd jobs working as a tailor and oriental dancer, her contacts with gypsies, and living in Dublin with a crazy landlady – merely a fraction come alive in her drawings. She prefers letting her imagination run wild, surprising both herself and the viewer with new images, new tales.

Apparently these come to the surface during the evening and night. A studio with large windows that let in the even northern lights wasted on Alkema. She works at home, in a back room, at a small table, surrounded by her boxes of pastels, conté pencils, sketchbooks and mats in various sizes. Artificial light lends color to her memories and warms her imagination, while the music she listens to influences the pace and rhythms of her drawing.

During those lonely hours a white goat on a woodland track takes on the mythical quality of a unicorn, and beside Granny’s home a sudden vision emerges. Fantasy co-exists with reality or, reality keeps putting on a different face. Alkema masters drawing to such a degree that she can make grotesque creatures shimmer through a drawn surface, a bit like the now-you’re- there-now-you’re-not Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland. In ‘Talbot Street’ (2006) not a soul is to be seen. You think it is merely a deserted, innocuous Dublin street until you take a better look at the houses. A skeleton can be seen on the left and behind it a dog and two merged faces, while on the right fairytale figures seem to come forward and a big cat strikes out its claw. You can ignore these beings and take the drawing for a representation of an everyday scene, but soon all the leering mouths and hollow eyes impose on you. Then there is no escape; you and your recollections are ingested into Alkema’s imaginative world.

"Author André Bralts formulated a simple definition of the phenomenon ‘Fries om utens’: a person from Friesland who lives anywhere but in Friesland. He or she may be plagued by an everlasting sense of nostalgia, allowing the "heiterlân” (homeland) to become more paradisiacal with the passing of time, or even when happily living elsewhere, ever proud of the Frisian roots.”

Ernst Bruinsma, ‘Friezen om utens’, Museum Belvédère, November 2006

Bedstead stabbing gnats,
pastel and pencil on paper, 16,5" x 21,2" (42 x 54 cm)

Granny's home,
pastel and pencil on paper, 16,5" x 21,2" (42 x 54 cm)

Talbot Street, 2006
pastel and pencil on paper, 25" x 18" (42 x 54 cm)

  © 2016 Elma Alkema