Meijburg Art Commission winner getting ready to reveal her work

July 12, 2022

I visited the studio of artist and photographer Popel Coumou on a sunny Thursday morning. That was rather fitting, because light is an important element in Popel’s work. Since her show at Fotomuseum Den Haag, her work has shifted from static images to pieces that look different depending on the day and on how they are hit by the light, both from the front and the back. That’s why they never look the same. KPMG Meijburg & Co, partner of Unseen Amsterdam, selected Popel as one of the exhibiting photographers at Unseen 2021. As the winner of the Meijburg Art Commission, she was asked to create a piece for the Meijburg art collection. Her work will be given pride of place at the Meijburg & Co head office before the end of the summer. What does winning the Meijburg Art Commission mean for Popel as an artist and how did she go about creating the commissioned piece?

Ever since she was a little girl, Popel knew that she wanted to be an artist. “My dad was an artist and a director; he created his own sets. That’s how I came to be around art at an early age. I also went to a lot of museums as a child.” When the time came to choose a degree program, she had her heart set on attending the Gerrit Rietveld Academie, a university for fine art and design, in Amsterdam. After having taken a number of courses, she was sure that she wanted to be a photographer. “The first year in the Photography department was great. But I missed the craftsmanship aspect, the working with my hands. When you take a photo, you print it and you’re done.”

Between fiction and reality

When Popel got the assignment to turn a two-dimensional image into a three-dimensional image and then turn it back into a two-dimensional one, she started experimenting with clay miniatures. “My first still life in clay was an imitation of a still life painting of fruit. I photographed it and blew up the picture a good many sizes,” Popel explained. “You could basically still see my fingerprints in the clay, but the eye can be deceiving. At first glance, it looked like a real still life. So you need to take your time to see the image for what it really is.” This is how Popel discovered the power of photography and how she could use it to create her own world. “It was an eye-opener.”

Once she had figured this out, she started making two-dimensional collages with clay and paper, which she photographed. “When I photograph my work, it becomes real. That’s when it comes to life. It lets me operate at the interface of fiction and reality, between painting and photography.” The recurring theme in Popel’s work is that she creates her own reality. “I expose the essence of the things around me. In my work, I try to share with others how I view my surroundings. I reduce what I see to the bare bones in the stillness of images.”

Fascinating journey

In her pieces, Popel experiments with the question of how explicit a photographer and artist should be to tell a story. She’s noticed that there’s more room for interpretation if an image is less straightforward. “The brain doesn’t need much to recognize what it’s seeing. I’m fascinated by the particular point at which people recognize something when I’ve only given them the slightest clues. The brain will go on to place it in the appropriate box anyway.” Popel likes to play with the line between abstraction and reality. In her work, she tries to strip down as many elements as possible.

You can capture the best images where you least expect them”

At present, she mainly works with interior spaces to explore whether she can boil them down to their core. How much – or how little – do you need to evocate a space? “I start by creating the full picture. Then I start to peel off as many layers as I can. For example, a work with a few lines and a circle is likely to look like a horizon to a lot of people. That’s a fascinating journey to me.”

Work that breathes

This is not the first time that Popel has created site-specific work. She put together her first large installation for David Lloyd at the Art at the Schinkel exhibition in Amsterdam: she transformed the health club’s display window into a photographic lightbox. In a way, her subsequent show at Fotomuseum Den Haag was site-specific as well in that Popel used the space, the flooring and the light to add to her work. “I like working with the space and seeing what I can do with a building. I usually end up somewhere strange, like under the stairs. In my experience, you can capture the best images where you least expect them.”

Light is a very important element in Popel’s work. Since her show at Fotomuseum Den Haag, she has created images that are in flux, work that shows relief, that breathes. “I use lightboxes to illuminate my pieces from behind and that lends them an entirely new dimension,” she said. “My pieces look different every time. They can look a certain way one moment and a different way the next. You have to stop and let it resonate for a few minutes to really get what I’m trying to convey. My work instills quiet, a moment of reflection.”

No parameters

For the Unseen Photography Fair, galleries around the world are invited to put a candidate forward for the Meijburg Art Commission. Popel was first introduced to the commission via TORCH Gallery, which represents her work. “The year before I was selected, I was at Unseen when Marleen Sleeuwits won the commission,” Popel said. “I also work with people who’ve won or were nominated before. This is a really prestigious art commission in the photography community.”

Now that she’s won the commission, Popel gets to create a piece that is right up her alley. “I really enjoy photographing spaces and I tend to gravitate towards buildings. I try to find spaces that are interesting to me in terms of composition, light and color, and I look for ways to express my take on them. The great thing about this commission is that it gave me the opportunity to continue my development as an artist and photographer in my chosen direction – working with relief and lightboxes – without any parameters. The commission comes with a generous budget for creating new work. That makes it really exciting. Because I had room to experiment, I hit on something that really worked.”

Popel has some helpful advice for future artists vying for the Meijburg Art Commission: “stay close to who you are and use the commission to develop as an artist. The commission gives you scope to explore, for instance by trying out new materials. It’s an exciting opportunity and there’s a generous development budget attached.”

More than a photograph

Popel went to visit the Meijburg & Co office in Amstelveen to gain inspiration for her commissioned work. “It was a sunny day. This was intentional of course because I’m interested in how the light hits a space. I walked around for an hour or two to photograph the entire building. The light incidence is truly wonderful and the building has great staircases, large windows and a sizable garden. After my visit to the office, I started to play around with these elements.” The objects in Popel’s studio tell the tale of her experimenting: there are images with lots of details as well as a seemingly simple relief that only shows the bare minimum. “I get where I want to be by creating all kinds of different things. My experimenting helps me see things, like when an image is too busy – simplicity is what I’m after. The work I’ve created is another piece in relief. If the light’s off, the relief is white, but once the lightbox is turned on, you can see colors emerging.”

The work will be revealed at the Meijburg & Co office on August 25. “That’s kind of exciting. Normally I create a piece and if someone likes it, they buy it. But, with this commission, I’ve created something that I don’t know will be to Meijburg & Co’s liking.” The lightbox behind Popel’s artwork will be on a continuous cycle: on for 2.5 minutes and off for the next 2.5 minutes, and so on. This will change how it looks throughout the day. And when it’s dark or when the lightbox has been switched off, the piece will look different again. “I liked creating a piece that is dynamic rather than static. It’s more than just a photograph. Very exciting.” And, she said with a smile: “There’s nothing I can change about it now, because I’ve already sent it out for framing.”

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