The point of departure from which the media-spanning work of Luxembourg artist Chantal Maquet has evolved is her own family history. In early drawings, she captured scenes from the lives of her grandparents who settled in the former colony, Belgian Congo, in the 1950s: This resulted in a book produced as her graduation project. In the process of delving into her grandparents‘ biography, Maquet drew upon private notes, photographs, and film material. Proceeding from her personal environment, she set out to trace collective forms and effects of colonialism and racism: themes that continue to impact the aesthetic practice of the artist, who moved to Hamburg in the early 2000s and has maintained her current studio there at the artist-run space Künstlerhaus Wendenstraße since 2017.
Photographs from family albums and from flea markets, as well as self-shot images still serve Maquet as sources for an in-depth exploration of repressed and hidden history, the role of the individual in the group, and the role of women in society. “How can I find my place in the world?” is a fundamental question that pervades her entire production as an artist. Self-perception and external perception as reflected in portraits and the habitations in which we make ourselves at home are recurrent subjects. Her analysis of the world and of reality runs along the interrelationships between yesterday and today, individual and collective existence, outward appearances and the truths underlying these.
The standardized patterns of living that have shaped and continue to shape our (western) societies through time are crystallized in Maquet’s depictions of housing complexes and private homes, which are at the center of various groups of the artist’s works: In these architectural “encasings, the packaging of human lives,” as the artist describes them, their inhabitants entrench themselves against supposed attacks from the “outside.” The critical, feminist examination of sexist role clichés, which even now define the patriarchal conception of women across cultures, is a further essential strand of her engagement as an artist. As is the investigation of the significance of departure and arrival, belonging and feeling at home, in the context of migration and displacement.
The visualization of ambivalences and contradictions is a central aspect of her aesthetic approach, which equally points to what is concealed and excluded, as well as to what reveals itself on the surface of matters and in the clichés of everyday life. Her mediums range from painting, which lies at the core of her work, to time-based media, performative and interactive formats, spatial installations, and a graphic novel that brings her back to her roots: to the investigation of the long shadows of colonialism that Maquet extends from her native Luxembourg to the broader history of Europe and the Global South. In doing so, she powerfully defies the common assumption that “this has nothing to do with me” as a denial and minimization of a profoundly brutal era with enduring socio-political repercussions.
An enigmatic undercurrent runs through Chantal Maquet’s paintings. Usually working in series, the artist investigates her respective subject matter through the interplay of repetitions, variations, and deviations: an approximation to historical and current realities from her personal and extended environment, accompanied by various forms of alienation and defamiliarization. These include the iridescent color palette determined by strong complimentary contrasts, a dangerously seductive radiance that often runs counter to the pictorial content. The intersection of past and present, figuration and abstraction, the idyllic and the uncanny, as well as other contradictory moods and compositional principles contribute to this as well. Thus, Maquets figures and architectural structures, group depictions and individual portraits, urban and rural scenes, frequently realized on the basis of photographic source images, simultaneously have maximum presence and an otherworldly character.
For Maquet, painting is an instrument of exploration and of deeper perception in her local environment as well as on journeys through the world and through personal and collective history. Whether the artist’s paintings venture into history, into Suburban Paradises, into the dynamics of interpersonal interactions, or into the socio-political frameworks in which female role patterns and misogynous, racist, or other exclusionary modes of behavior are perpetuated: the artist’s consistent approach is to look behind the phenomena of everyday life and to address the trans-temporal impact of the past on the present. Only in the exact recognition of that which is, lies the possibility of a liberation from cultural clichés and constrictions. Maquet employs painting as a medium of inquiry that draws the dark sides of reality into the light.
A young woman in a long, lace-adorned garment is slowly, deliberately crushing two raw eggs in her hand. In her video performance, What Will Be(2013), Chantal Maquet herself features in her video performance wearing her mother’s wedding dress. As is often the case in the artist’s work, the piece revolves around a critical reflection of female role attributions. The burst eggs allude to the refusal to follow the traditional path of marriage and motherhood leading to the Golden Cage of economic dependence in accordance with a male-dominated model of matrimony. Maquet has molded this cage in the shape of the wedding dress she is wearing—or in the shape of a headless clothes dummy—out of gold lacquered mesh wire. It is part of a spatial installation that the artist showed in Hamburg in 2014 under the ironic title Les Belles Images (“The Beautiful Pictures”). In addition to the video and the sculpture, this included the wall object Eiloser Zyklus (“Eggless Cycle,” 2013), comprised of empty egg cartons arranged like a sun wheel. A group of paintings depicted women and girls in different constellations and engaged in various activities: secretaries in an office; women with and without children chatting at a summer afternoon gathering; women at work and at leisure. The feminist writer and philosopher Simone de Beauvoir is also present, while standardized houses of a suburban settlement suggest a normed idyll of life: golden cages of another kind.
The source images for the painted scenes largely stem from photo albums of earlier times. The systems of reference in which they are embedded remain relevant. Maquet’s own origins and the paths that others have taken before her and that carry her into the future as a woman and artist are recurring themes in her work. These are also brought to bear in performative, time-based, and installation forms, which partially also include paintings. In the video Der lange Weg (“The Long Way,” 2015), the artist walks through a forest in a red party dress and red pumps, clearing a stone-paved path on the foliage-strewn ground armed with a leaf blower. The representation of family structures, in turn, is the subject of a family tree (verwandt und verschwägert, “related and inlaws,” 2017), which expands as a network of red threads and metal tubes into a widely ramified spatial web: part of Maquet’s exhibition uns verbindet nichts (“Nothing Connects Us,” Dudelange, 2017), which highlighted the complexity of familial bonds on the basis of sibling relationships and conflicts.
In the interplay between still life and moving image, the series of flower portraits Stay Gold (2019) unfolds, constantly changing colors in consistent golden frames: gradations of the color wheel produced with digital technique and LED lights. Still lifes of a different kind, based on the paintings of partially withered, solitary potted plants growing towards the light, form the visual core of the space-sound ensemble SOMA DIS TANZ (“SOMA DIS T/DANCE”). Created by the artist in 2020/21 at the height of the pandemic, it poses the question of closeness and distance, which became the central field of interpersonal tensions and forced distancing during the Covid crisis: statements on the subject resounded acoustically from the off when approaching the paintings. Interactivity is a recurring device used by the artist to incorporate the viewers as participants. This is also the case in the video installation One Dog and Tennisballs (2022), a montage consisting of 69 clips in which Maquet’s dog Diego reacts to the throwing of varying amounts of tennis balls: up to the tipping point at which the game threatens to turn into rigid or combative behavior patterns. The members of the audience were able to determine the speed and succession of the film sequences themselves: a deliberate departure from the corset of linear storytelling and a reference to the fact that each person has the ability to change the course of events—in both small and large ways—through their own actions.
The fact that one cannot escape one’s own history, however, is brought into perspective in the video essay Das Erbe annehmen (“Accepting the Legacy,”2021), assembled from found footage belonging to her grandparents. Here, Maquet once again revisits the colonial legacy of her own family history, casting a focus on the larger history and prevalence of racism, violence, and exclusion in our contemporary western societies. This “heritage” cannot be overcome through repression and omission. Instead, it is essential to take a closer look and to focus on that which has been excluded: This is what the artist repeatedly calls for in her work.
Belinda Grace Gardner
Published with the support of the National Cultural Fund, Luxembourg