The Raven: Jeannette Ehlers
SARAH WALKO: How do you usually start your day?
JEANNETTE EHLERS: I start my day making breakfast for my kids and after that getting ready follow them to school. When they have left the house I normally start working in my studio i.e. behind the computer in my apartment. I used to have a studio with other artists but never really used it for anything else than storing stuff and to socialize. Being an artist one sometimes feel very isolated. But the isolation is also what I love about it – I work much better that way. It’s a double-edged sword, because I also like the idea of having a connection to others, to talk and get inspired by others.
SW: What have you been listening to this past week?
JE: I’m a huge fan of Prince’s music so I listen to that almost every day. He’s such a multifaceted musician with an amazing variety of sounds and styles. He’s got some great stuff for all kinds of moods – his body of work, from the 70’2 up to today, is simply amazing. But the past week I have been preparing a huge party of mine so I was trying to make a cool play list with all types of great danceable music, old and new. In general I listen to a lot of groovy stuff. But I’m also really keen on for example Kate Bush, she’s so crispy. I was just introduced to the music of Abbey Lincoln and I’m very fascinated by her voice as well. It’s somewhere in between the sounds of Nina Simone and Billie Holiday and still her own of course. And I love Grace Jones! And so many other artists, bands and styles; from Calypso to Rock ’n’ Roll. Music is essential to me and has always been. Actually to me it’s the greatest art form above all.
SW: What are you currently reading or recently read?
JE: Having young kids and working as an artist my time is quite limited. I don’t have many hours to read other than literature related to my work so that’s what I get to read the most. Currently I have been going through a book about great African-American speakers and speeches. It’s very powerful and inspiring reading. I got some really important books from friends and Family for my birthday that I can’t wait to read, among more The Black Jacobins about the Haitian Revolution and The Book of Negroes. I also got a few books on Prince’s music that I’m dying to dive into as well. And a few days ago I’ve been attending a fantastic workshop run by the Dominican thinker and curator Alanna Lockward, where she introduced a text about The Idea of “Race” in Kant’s Anthropology. It’s was an eye-opener!
SW: When did you begin to make art?
JE: I began drawing and painting in high school but I was first introduced to contemporary art on a serious level years later at a preparation school for the Art Academy. It was quite unfamiliar to me since I’ve been very much involved with other art forms like dancing and music from a very early time in my life.
I wanted to become a painter for a long time but soon realized when I attended The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, that I had to struggle too much with painting, and actually didn’t find interest in the questions related to painting furthermore there were so many painters at the academy much better than me, so I started working with moving images and instantly felt at home working in that media.
SW: Who were a few very strong individuals or specific influences (people, places, experiences or things) that may have served as thresholds or break through moments in the evolution of your practice?
JE: When I was around 12 or 13 my best friend at that time made me rediscover drawing, which I hadn’t been doing for a long time. Immidiately I knew that I somehow wanted to be in the arts. Another great moment was around 6 years ago when I was in Ghana and realized how much Denmark was involved in the Transatlantic slave trade there. I’m half Danish, half Trinidadian. My father is a descendant of African slaves. It was a crucial experience being in Ghana. History just hit me right there and has been my starting point and drive ever since. I’m very concerned with issues related to this experience in History both in my private life and in my art making. In Denmark these issues are unfortunately not really taken seriously, because there are so few visible reminiscents from that era left here. There’s an atmosphere here as if it never happened! But it does not mean that the society structures are not shaped from this era – because they sure are! Denmark just managed to sweep it under the carpet, leaving behind terrible ignorance when it comes to questions related to this topic and issues like everyday racism etc. It’s really heart breaking sometimes to follow debates in the media here – but it also gives me a drive and convinces me that there’s a need for me to keep on working the way I do.
SW: Could you talk a bit about the role that healing/catharisis might play in your thoughts/working process (if any) as you make decisions on materials, transformation and symbolism?
JE: Related to what I just described I feel that my works have a great justification because they process a really important and often repressed theme that needs to be cared for much more than it is especially here in Europe. So in that sense catharsis has a great deal of importance to me – on a personal as well as on a broader level. I’m part of the Berlin based project BE.BOP (Black Europe Body Politics) conceived by Alanna Lockward. In BE.BOP. we deal with issues such as spirituality and healing, theoretically as well as artistically in relation to de-colonial thinking.
SW: Are any of your pieces self portraits?
As mentioned my starting point is very personal. I won’t say my pieces are direct self portraits, but my starting point is always something that touches me deeply, something I can relate to somehow or want to understand. I try to weave historical events with personal experience or relations. One could call it indirect self portraits.
SW: What is one current project you are working on?
JE: I’m working on making a video version of my first art performance that I performed for BE.BOP. in Berlin back in May this year. The piece is called “Whip it good”. I’m intending to show it at my solo show in NYC next year Spring at Kianga Ellis Projects,that just opened this month.
SW: Do you spend a lot of time in the studio alone or need a lot of think space alone time? What is your balance of the need to retreat into a reclusive state to continually reconnect with your individual voice and then also be out in the world working with others, exhibiting, performing, lecturing etc.?
JE:I definitely need much time alone in my working process. In some ways I’m a very seclusive person. I’ve had different studios though with other artists,because I like the idea of and also need having access to a network, but I always work better by my self. My boyfriend and I share a working space at home and that’s fine because we both work with computers and we support each other and discuss our work.I also had a beautiful experience collaborating with the Surinamese/Dutch artist Patricia Kaersenhout last fall. I was invited on a residency in Amsterdam by the Dutch curator Sasha Dees. Patricia and I were asked to work together on pieces for The Black Magic Woman Festival. I learned a lot from that process.It was a great success, we became very close friends as well and we definitely want to work together again some time in the future. When it comes to exhibiting, lecturing, meeting new people etc that’s crucial to me. And I love to travel. I need all of that like a car needs gas.
SW: What kind of bird are you?
JE: Sorry don’t think I can answer that question, since I feel more like a human ;) Do you mean early or late bird ? I’m definitely a late bird forced into being an early bird because of parenthood ;)
SW: are you land or sea? why?
JE: I think I’m both – I feel I’m flexible most of the time, I can be quite moody at other times. AND I can be very gentle BUT also very harsh once in a while. I guess that’s pretty human. On the other hand I think I’m somehow grounded, at least that’s how I think people perceive me – I don’t know…..there’s just a few people who have access to the inner me anyway.
SW: Comedy or drama? Why?
JE: I LOVE a good laugh but I’m not really into comedy as a genre. I love good humour. Drama contains both comedy and tragedy – Drama has so much potential – on the other hand comedy does too, depending on what kind of comedy off course. It is possible to canalize very seroius and critical issues through comedy as well. Again I guess one can’t really divide the two of them.