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Valérie Barkowski: 54+1 Portraits

Feb 28, 2021

Valérie Barkowski brought to life 72; 54+1 have been selected for a special album. TLmag sat down with Barkoski to talk about this intuitive project.

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Where some people felt drained in lock-down, artist Valérie Barkowski (and her many friends) took matters into their own hands and used the opportunity to be creative. Made from carrot slices and tooth-picks she found around the house, 72 portraits came to life; 54+1 have been selected for a special album. These witty and instinctively composed faces now found a place in the exhibition 54+1 PORTRAITS, at Peinture Fraîche, opened on February 18 and ran through until February 27. TLmag sat down with Barkowski to talk about this light and colorful project.

TLmag: it seems like 54+1 PORTRAITS very much connected to the current situation to pandemic COVID-19. And I was wondering if you could maybe give us a personal reflection on how this work came about.

Valérie Barkowski (V.B.): well this work wasn’t planned. Friends invited me to make a portrait following David  Leppan’s Instagram project Meet my Wilson. I went to my kitchen, opened my drawers, and pulled out a few things. I made a picture with my phone and published it on Instagram and that is how the first portrait was born. The next day I was getting something from the kitchen and a portrait appeared in my head. This went on and eventually, I made 72. portraits of which 54 + 1 are published in the book. The book is divided into three families and there is one that you cannot put in any of the families, that’s the nonidentifiable one. 

TLmag: so how did the characters come to life? And what do you think was the effect of it on people?

V.B.: characters came to life spontaneously, on the spot. So for example, there is one for which I used three matches, the joint of an Italian coffee machine and 2 seeds. When the pandemic started and we were locked up, somehow I felt free because I suddenly had a lot of time and freedom. And so this portrait making became like a little challenge but I decided also that I will not spend more than 5/10 minutes to make them. It was something really impulsive.

When I was making them in the beginning, I just made them for the sake of it. I posted them every day at 5 pm, between five and seven. Over time people started to follow me and even wait for the posts every day. And that’s why I continued because during the lockdown. Somehow it was like a little bit of sunshine in their everyday life. It is quite strange. 

TLmag: so it was also a way of bringing people together, interacting?

V.B.: that was really the initiative. It was following Leppan’s initiative, and overtime the project made for more collaborations and connections. It started with interaction in response to the posts, but then my friend and photographer Anita Calero pushed me to do something with it. 

TLmag: yes, I understood that your friend jumped into this collaboration with you?

V.B.: Calero told me: ‘’you have to do it’’. And so she proposed to edit my pictures with her editor since the quality of my iPhone was not high enough. And then there was another friend of mine, Franc’ Pairon, who created the fashion department of La Cambre school in Brussels who wanted to make the composition of the book. I sent her my hard drive and she did exactly what she wanted. So she came up with these 54+1 portraits and the layout of the book and then we named the characters together. It was a very nice moment.

TLmag: it’s quite interesting how this project came about and started on Instagram and now it found shape in a book. How do you see the choice of a book, actually?

V.B.: because it was a way to have a souvenir, to give them life altogether. It feels like a testament to the current times, how we can find each other even though we’re isolated from each other. And as a finale, these photographs and the book will be exhibited in Peinture Fraîche. I’m very excited because it’s the first time that I will meet people around this project.

TLmag: is there a final word you’d like to mention to our readers?

V.B.: what I really want to mention is that for the last maybe 20 years of my life, I’ve been creating a lot on demand. And what was very special about this project, is that it was like a ‘free’ exercise. There was no target or pressure. There was not even an idea of what it would become because there was no planning involved. It was a lot of joy and lightness.

The book (signed and numbered limited edition of 250), the photos in limited editions (series of 7) are on sale at the book store Peinture Fraiche in Brussels.

Cover image: Portrait Valérie Barkowski, credit Tania Panova.

Mr. Janis by Valérie Barkowski
Mr. Bunny by Valérie Barkowski
Mr. Stone by Valérie Barkowski
Ms. Marple by Valérie Barkowski
Mrs. Copacabana by Valérie Barkowski
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