TUA: On your website, it says that you founded an organization called “The Hague Peace Projects".
What is this organization about and is it part of your artistic practice? Do they inspire each other?
Jakob: I founded The Hague Peace Projects in 2014 together with some friends and former colleagues. As the name suggests, the organization is -very generally said - about contributing to peace through dialogue. More specifically, it aims to bring together (primarily diaspora) communities that are divided by conflicts that take place in the countries they are located in. Conflicts like those in Rwanda, Congo, Burundi, Sudan, Bangladesh, Nicaragua, between the Kurds and Turks, etc. Communities from those areas live in constant distrust and fear of each other and their governments. This continues even after becoming a refugee and settling in a third country. We aim at bringing people from these communities together, encourage dialogue, and building their capacities as activists and advocates for peace and justice.
We have organized many events like conferences, festivals, cultural exchanges, exhibitions, and dialogue sessions, bringing together many hundreds of people from these communities who are longing for peace. Currently, most of this work is done -by necessity- online. I can’t really say it is part of my artistic practice because their way of working is very different: the art part is soloistic, intuitive, and imaginative, the other super social, concrete, and down-to-earth. However, both are closely connected for me. They come from the same source, so to say. This source is a combination of two opposing feelings: on the one hand a deep sense of worry about what we have become as humans: knowingly exploiting, killing each other, and destroying our only planet for short-term profits (of a few). On the other hand, a similarly strong feeling that we are meant for -and capable of - something better: with enough consciousness, effort, and attitude we can change the path humanity is taking in a more constructive harmonious direction. This is what fuels and energizes my paintings but also pushes me at times to want something more concrete and something more directly connected to reality (in this case the reality of survivors of wars and dictatorships).
[Anyway I could talk very long about these subjects, would be pleased to do that another time, possibly in person]
TUA: What is it like to be an artist nowadays? Why is it important for you?
Jakob: In my view, art has a capacity of not only showing things as they are but also as they could be seen. Art is a language, very different from spoken language. It works slower, less direct, in more dimensions, and requires lots of interpretation. However, at the same time, it is a language that reaches deeper and speaks longer, sometimes even beyond its own age, and seems to always have to say something new. That is why I need art. Making art is healing and provides a very intuitive connection with-, and view on the world we live in. In a sense, each artwork opens a new window on the world as it truly is and can be. But -as a matter of fact- ‘being an artist in the sense of; living this kind of lifestyle that people sometimes imagine for an artist, means little to me.
So while making art is super important, ‘being an artist is irrelevant.
Being a good human being, however, is important.
TUA: What would you change about the art world nowadays?
Jakob: I think the art world has changed already quite a bit due to Corona. In many ways the art world remains a mystery to me, and -apart from the art itself- I can’t say I am terribly interested in the side-show. The artworld has many faces, some more genuinely loving, others more opportunistically profiting. Like in many other businesses, money, politics, and power seem to play a central role. However, all that doesn’t seem to affect art itself that much, as there is an abundance of good art. Art will always find its own way.
TUA: Do you think art alone can provoke change?
Jakob: No, not art alone. And art is probably not meant to be so directly instrumental. A single artwork can, it is true, make a strong statement (for instance the Guernica by Picasso), and shake the consciousnesses of large groups of people. However, in my view artists cannot live alone on their artistic cloud if they want to have any social impact. They, and everyone else who desires to be an actor of positive change, need to connect to reality by engaging in person with victims and witnesses of all sorts of social injustice and work together with them as equals.
TUA: Is it important for you how the viewer sees/interprets your works? Do you like to explain your works? Is that necessary?
Jakob: It is only important insofar as people should not be able to interpret my works in contradiction to my intentions. Apart from that, everything is open. I don’t intend to make cartoons with a clear and simple message. The world remains complex regardless of my and anyone else’s views.
TUA: You mentioned that you want to initiate dialogues in conflict areas, how do you think ‘equal’ dialogues can start/keep on going? What is an equal dialogue?
Jakob: I don’t necessarily want to initiate these dialogues in areas of conflict. That is usually quite impossible when an active conflict is going on. It becomes possible though, once the armed conflict itself is over and the tensions remain.
I also mean dialogues between people who represent communities that are living in conflict with other communities.
Also; I can not do that on my own, but only collectives of people working together, like The Hague Peace Projects and other groups. Conflicts are diverse but most dynamics are usually the same. I cannot give a summary of conflict theory here but basically, a dialogue could start in the middle: between people of the two conflicting communities who do not belong to either extremist side. Dialogue consists of uttering grievances, mutually sharing the suffering that one experienced, expressing fears about the other, and finally making an analysis about the root causes and key actors of the conflict. In a long process, more people are informed of the dialogue process and engaged in these discussions. Till finally there is enough trust and courage between a leading group of people from both sides that they, as a collective, can confront the extremists and key actors who continue to fuel the conflict. They can be challenged in many ways: directly in dialogue but also by many other actions like peaceful protest, strikes, critical publications, awareness campaigns, lobby, and so on, until finally, these actors change their destructive behavior or lose their credibility and following.
Well, it is a whole science actually, and I could talk a lot about this!
TUA: In your paintings, you create peaceful worlds that represent the horror? Why do you depict the peaceful instead of the horror? Do you think we are more capable of change if we are confronted with hope rather than hopelessness?
Jakob: In regards to the last part of your question: definitely! I do show the horror but not in a way that you want to turn away in disgust.
I do that for two reasons: first of all, I think we need to be able to look frankly at (our very own) horror in order to get a deeper understanding of the causes of horror because without knowing the cause we will never be able to find solutions. However, we often find it too hard to look at traumatic things as they are, because then they continue to traumatize us. Therefore they have to be transcended into things that you actually want to look at. Second of all, it is about energy. The horror we have to deal with takes away energy. It literally depresses and makes me passive. If I were to copy this horror literally into my paintings, I would only double the existing misery by giving viewers a bad feeling. People suffer enough in reality, they don’t need to suffer extra by viewing art. A depressed feeling will not encourage any creative, optimistic, energetic spirit of change that is needed.
TUA: Your paintings show a strong contrast between nature and human-built cities/ the light and the dark. However, the cities that you depict never seem like they are harming nature, it almost feels like they coexist peacefully? Is that your personal utopian view? If yes, do you believe that this peaceful coexistence is possible?
Jakob: I believe it is, once we collectively change our attitude towards nature and the planet. Still, too much of our thinking is deeply stuck in this ancient human-centric mindset that nature is men’s opposite: nature as something to be conquered, something to be subjected to our will, exploited and manipulated to increase our benefit. We still have not realized collectively that we are only an outcome and part of nature, that we grew out of it, but that we cannot exist without her and that we continually need to find a balance between ourselves and all other life on earth.
TUA: When I first looked at your work I was fascinated by the fantasy-like architectural structures you create, what do they represent; human concepts?
Jakob: Yes, basically they represent human endeavors, both positively and negatively. Both the incredible power of human inventiveness, will and the incredible hubris and lust for power. Especially medieval cathedrals evoke such a double feeling in me: they are equally astonishingly magnificent wonders and at the same time intimidating spectacles of dominance of a dark religion.
TUA: What is happening behind the windows in your work, what stories are being told by the humans who live in your worlds… Are there even humans living in your worlds?
Jakob: They are there, haha! They just rarely show themselves.
TUA: Your work “horizon” reminds me of the bible story “the tower of babel”, as well as the Studio Ghibli films! Are these sources of inspiration for you?
Jakob: That is very well spotted. Yes, it is very much also a reference to the Tower of Babel. And yes, I love those Ghibli and other Japanese movies and the whole anime atmosphere. They touch upon an unironic, unapologetic romantic feeling that Westerners rarely allow themselves anymore to enjoy or produce. But I love it.
However, I will never fully go into fantasy because fantasy is just that: fantasy. It seems too otherworldly and fantastic to relate to our own lives and their struggles.
TUA: How do you start creating? Do you have specific techniques?
Jakob: I start by identifying a feeling and energy that I wish to express. Then with a more general concept that I would like to translate. Then with some themes that I wish to include: either concrete things from the news or more random images, ideas, dreams, or citations. Then I start sketching. Eventually, one sketch will make it to a painting,
TUA: You also talk about ‘useless violence’, when does violence become useless? When is violence necessary?
Jakob: Useless violence is a pleonasm of course. At least for me. These are big questions of political theory but I am largely a pacifist in the sense that I believe violence to always be wrong. Yes, one can rightly argue that in self-defense or in protecting your loved ones, or when fighting genocidal dictatorship violence is the only right thing. However, even granting that this is true, one cannot build a theory in which violence has a positive meaning as something good or admirable. Also in the above-mentioned cases, violence is wrong, regrettable, and tragic, even if it is a necessary wrong.
In reality, these ‘self-defense’ theories are always manipulated into offensive strategies (see for instance the ‘"re-emptive attack" argument used to attack Iraq, or the "responsibility to protect" rule used to destroy Libya). Therefore it is most accurate to say that violence is never good.
TUA: Birds seem to be a recurring symbol in your art? Is it a symbol of freedom, hope, power?
Jakob: Absolutely, all of those. Already since I was a kid I have been super amazed by the weirdly wonderful world of birds. Especially the many species of extravagant and colorful tropical birds of which the general public only knows a tiny fraction. Of course, I don’t really think the bird world is perfect, but their colors and shapes seem to come from another planet; a lost paradise. They are flying artworks. There is something elusive and mysterious about them. It never ceases to excite me that we share the same planet with these beautiful creatures -although living far away from most of them in cold Holland.
TUA: What do you have to say about the "morbid" undertone in your works?
Jakob: It is the dark atmosphere that is often there, despite the sunlight. The indefinable tension that one could feel while looking at some odd object, color, or view. The feeling that everything looks nice at first, but something feels off.