“Ria Pacquée’s Colour Walks” interview by Gawan Fagard, 2010

How did the ‘Colour Walks’ project begin?

Actually, it more or less started itself, like it was some kind of natural process. It was when I was in Harar in Ethiopia. Whenever I go somewhere the first thing I do when I get there is find a market. A market gives you a sort of instant ethnological snapshot of a people or a city. You’re plunged into the middle of something very alive. This time I actually had a view of the market from my hotel room. The colours were unbelievable; I just stood there, completely transfixed. I forgot about the people who were walking about, all I could see were the colours that were changing all the time, as if a painting by Hieronymus Bosch had come to life. Occasionally I’d start to film without really knowing why, except that I wanted to have it ‘fixed’. Then I went to look at the market stalls to see where all that colourful fabric came from and most of it was made in India. And then I was like, I want to go there.

When I got back from Ethiopia I had to go to the Muhka [Antwerp’s Museum of Contemporary Art] to be interviewed by a committee from the CERA Bank. They’d given me a grant of 20,000 euros and I had to explain what I was going to do with it. So I outlined my idea of doing ‘colour walks’, and that I also wanted to work with an anthropologist. They approved my proposal. So then I asked a friend if she maybe knew an anthropologist who could write a text for me. And that’s how I got to know Michael Taussig.

How much contact did you have with Michael Taussig during the colour walks project? What added value did it mean for you and for your work to work together with an anthropologist?

I’d already heard of Michael Taussig; I’d already read some of his stuff on the Internet. So I wrote to him to explain what the idea was: I wanted to follow people who wear colour in cities. Then we arranged to meet in Paris. That worked out very well because he’d just started on a book about colours, called What Colour is the Sacred?. Anyway, he immediately agreed to what I was suggesting. We got on very well; we didn’t even talk specifically about colours. Then he asked what I was doing in Paris, and I told him that I followed people wearing colour. I got up in the morning, and I followed someone wearing coloured clothes, like they were a sort of signpost. It was all quite random. I had no idea who they were or where we were going. If I could I took the odd picture. Through the colours I ended up in all sorts of neighbourhoods and then did a bit of exploring. Michael immediately understood what I was aiming at. I try to show in pictures the rhythm that’s in his book. Anyway, one way or another the meeting worked, without any academic bullshit. Later on he came to Antwerp, and then we spent two or three days together. Meeting Michael Taussig was very straightforward, all things considered. I didn’t know he was so famous. To me he was more someone who taught me a few things in a very personal way, as a human being.

He is also an anthropologist who in his own practice not only does intellectual work, but also very intensive field research.

Yes, indeed.

And so I wanted to ask you about that too, whether you also talked about particular working practices – seeing that your way of working seems to correspond pretty closely to the sort of fieldwork an anthropologist does.

Yes, well, I always throw myself into something heart and soul. But no, we didn’t talk about that specifically. But I think it’s obvious. I don’t do preliminary research, for example, unlike some other artists who have an exact plan when they go somewhere. To me it’s important that one thing leads organically to another. I like to follow my intuition. So the research itself happens at that time and in that place. It’s usually only in retrospect that the meaning emerges. The difference with Michael Taussig, of course, is that he’s much more aware of what’s going on. He’s an academic. But he doesn’t just stop at anthropology, he’s interested in what’s happening in literature and art. In that way he stands out; he goes his own road. He’s incredibly open to everything. And I think I’m the same – when I go somewhere, anything can happen.

There are actually two elements in your work, which are very different. On the one hand is the almost anthropological interest in the local culture as a whole, and on the other you have your colour walks, which are more formally oriented and make for a fragmenting of reality.

Yes. If you look at something as a whole there’s an awful lot to see. I automatically take bits out of that whole in order to make it manageable. I pick out particular, fairly abstract elements and let them guide me: it doesn’t have to be only colours – it can be circles, lines, surfaces, whatever… I’ve created a kind of new order for myself, to try to understand and receive the society I’m in. I’m genuinely very interested in reality. But in fact the more you step into that reality, the more unreal it becomes. You can’t tell a story about everything. You pick out certain details.

You could say that it’s a sort of control of chance.

You could, yes, or an ordering of chaos. Everybody does it, even in the most shambolic societies. You see someone arriving at a market in Yemen with a bag of eggs, for example; he’ll choose a place and automatically start to arrange the eggs. Same thing with selling clothes. Normally they’re just tossed in a big heap but people will start to put them in some kind of order. I think that’s really essential to people. You could say that my way or ordering is a way to understand people and society.

So how do you go about it, practically speaking? How does this kind of colour walk work?

I get up early in the morning and start walking and I keep walking till the sun goes down. I can only work during the day. So I’m often walking for more than twelve hours at a time. You get into a kind of trance. You become part of the environment. People see you, of course – I’m not a magician, after all! But there’s that drive that pushes you past tiredness and that actually changes your relationship with reality. You forget yourself; you disappear. You make yourself almost invisible. To me it’s that performance element again, that somehow still creeps in that work without my being very conscious of it.

In your notes you describe your inner thoughts in making images as a sort of authorial responsibility. So you’re putting your own subjectivity right in the foreground, but with the aim of disappearing into the environment. You write: ‘As an outsider, I blend into the surroundings.’

Right; that’s exactly it. You’re always an outsider, since you can never be a part of them. I’m not part of my neighbours here in my own street. I wouldn’t ever try to be the other. It just wouldn’t work. On the other hand I do have respect for the other so I can easily adapt to a different environment. That responsibility when taking photos, that’s very important to me. I don’t have to take the picture. I’m not a reporter. If I see that it’s not appropriate at that time in that place, I won’t take any pictures. I mean, if a colourful person is walking in front of me and there are ten starving kids behind me, then I’d rather turn and focus on the kids and take them to a sandwich bar than follow that colourful person and take pictures.

It’s not a matter of the journalistic value of the photos, of course, or capturing particular events.

No, I like taking photos, I like it a lot, but it’s absolutely not professional. I only carry a tiny camera that does photos and video, and a little device for recording sound. That helps me to disappear. I have got a professional camera but I rarely take it with me. I feel like I’m being an annoyance with it. I simply take the picture I need. The fact that a picture might not be well framed or is a bit out of focus is really not a problem. I can easily detach myself from something, ‘it doesn’t have to be, but if it can, then yes please.’

In fact as a photographer your standpoint is ethically motivated.

Yes. For myself as well, I think. We need reporters to report on things. They go to a particular country to record poverty or prostitution, for instance. That’s not what I’m doing. That might creep into a photo now and then; sometimes that finds its way into in the work, but it’s certainly not the main aim.

So your stance is rather detached from the representative value of your images. It’s actually much more about examining the way that images operate visually and interact with each other.

My work is not about representing reality but bringing different elements together. The series of people wearing colour, for instance. I bring them together: one photo in the east, one in the west. That east-west opposition-unity always recurs. For instance you see more and more that immigrants of Arab or African descent here in Antwerp go out in their colourful outfits. More people have come and thus more colour: headscarves, caps, turbans, whathaveyou…

In fact you can use the colour photos to design a kind of visual anthropological study on migration in Belgium…

Maybe so, but that was never the idea; that’s something that has crept into it. I didn’t plan only to photograph non-Western people. But of course they wear more colour than Westerners do. I don’t know why western people wear so little colour. Here people tend not to put colour on their houses, while in Eastern countries it’s quite pragmatic: maybe you’ve got a pot of yellow paint lying around or one paint is cheaper than the other.

Taussig writes about that too, referring to a passage in Goethe’s colour theory: the poorer people are, the more they’ll be attracted by bright colours, whereas ‘people of refinement’ prefer pastel colours.

Yes, the poorer people are, the more colour they use. Those photos from Darfur [in the newspapers], for instance, they always stand out. Those people live in direst misery but the colours they wear are incredibly attractive. Of course, the light has a lot to do with it. When you’ve got all that sunlight the colours are also much more vivid. Without light there’s no colour at all.

You talk about colours like a painter, like you see colour as a substance. Why didn’t you become a painter?

I’m not a painter, but I see reality as a painting. As an artist I carry that legacy with me: I visit exhibitions, I’ve been taught by painting. But I’m not someone who could paint all day in a studio. I couldn’t sit in front of a large white blank to think about something. I need the outside world. I’m a street rat, if you like. The painting surface is too limited for me. The walking, the motion, the speed, sounds, the snapshot, and chance, randomness… Those are all really important elements in my work. To me the outside world is one big stage set. That was already the case in the 1980s, in my performances like ‘madame’ and ‘it’.

In fact your work has not essentially changed since then: you still embody the performance figure that shows itself in public places.

Yes, as an observer. I put myself in videos quite a lot too, to make a complete storyline. I’m not the ‘madame’ or ‘it’ figure anymore. Now I’m me with a hood on. I call it something between a street rat and a pilgrim. It’s almost a kind of cartoon character.

In your work you see a lot of photos of people who cover their face in various ways: headscarves, hoods, burkas, masks, make-up, and so on. Michael Taussig also has a book on that subject: ‘Defacement’.

I’ve been taking photos of stone portraits on tombstones for a long time. Erosion has almost turned the faces back into a stone shape. Wind and sand give the stone a new anonymous identity. ‘Madame’ was also about anonymity. I wanted to create a mass figure, an average figure that can be put anywhere. I think that’s why I’ve wandered around the Arab world so much – it’s very strange to see how the women there make themselves anonymous with their veils. Without losing their individuality under their burkas. In Yemen I bumped into a couple of Japanese women who were wearing the niqab so as to be as inconspicuous as possible. It was very strange. Everyone looked at them, even more than at me. They stood out a mile with their slanted eyes! It was entirely at odds with the reality of the local community. They thought they were invisible, but I’ve never seen anyone so visible. Consciously trying to disappear never works, it’s completely absurd. You’re always ‘the other’.

In your video ‘Vox Clamans in Deserto’ you make your own disappearance very explicit. You shrouded yourself in black from head to toe. You disappear into the picture, as it were.

That’s exactly right: in this case I vanish into the image itself, not the social mass. This time I just set up my tripod in a place where there were no people. I make a kind of theatre for the camera: I put something on the stage. Unlike my walks, where I put nothing on the stage.

There’s a point where you write: ‘Spirituality lies in reality.’ What does spirituality mean, in your view?

[Hesitates, searching for the right words] Yes… it says it all, ‘spirituality lies in reality’… [silence] In India for instance, that whole experience of colours and sounds that hits you… Even if you’ve no connection with Hinduism you’re still touched by something. That’s an extreme example. It can happen at any time in any place. Even here in this room. You look at the speck of sunlight that falls on those books, for example… sometimes that can be very ‘beautiful’, and then you’re touched by something. Yet it’s pure reality. Something comes up that I can’t put a name to, it’s not God, but it opens something in me that I don’t know. To me, that reality is spiritual. It’s almost like taking a photo. You get caught by something, by a snapshot. You can’t describe it but it goes beyond the normal. It’s a sense of connection with the source, with everything, with a whole; something inexplicable. Everyone who’s involved with spirituality is looking for something, and sometimes you have one second in your day in which you’re touched. You can very briefly say, ‘there is something’ – but what, and how, you don’t know.

That spiritual perspective puts your work in a very pleasing context. You could almost say that your work is a personal religion.

Yes, but in my own way I also find my personal religion in all major religions. At times I can easily identify with a group of praying Hindus or Muslims. And when I leave again, the magic is gone. I like looking for that type of moment. Then again, you can also get the same feeling at some perfectly ordinary moment in some perfectly ordinary place. It’s always in reality that spirituality intervenes.

Would you say that art is a new way to experience spirituality? In the sense that in a predominantly atheistic society like Western Europe, people search for a new meaning via art?

There are artists who work in a very spiritual way. But I’m not sure that art is a necessary element for a spiritual life. Art is an important element for me, of course, but I visit far fewer exhibitions now than I used to, for example. Now I’m much more interested in travel, in life itself. I also think that many people who go to see art do so with a shopping mentality; they head for the art fairs and biennials. In fact artists are some of the few people who still really look at art. I do think that there really are people who by looking at art have gained a different outlook on life, or who begin to see beauty in very everyday things. I think that sixty percent of people see art as an investment, or to be ‘in’, but I believe that there’s still forty percent who actually get something out of it.

The ritual element is extremely strong in your work is, because of the very simplicity of the process. You sensibility is very infectious. If you look at your work, you immediately begin to notice colours in daily life.

Yes, I can also only see and explain my work in a simple way. I don’t have an academic background. That’s my way of bringing something out. I’m fine with that. I’d hate to go on a trip without a camera, without all those projects in my head. I’d be lost. For a while I probably wouldn’t know what to do. It’s become a kind of way of living. I need that awareness of always being ready to take pictures. It’s my protection. I also need a dialogue with the other. It’s important to me to come from outside with my work. There are many people who take pictures, and much better than me, but who don’t bring it out in public. I need those exhibitions and performances.

Your work also has a very repetitive nature: walking, taking photos, arranging them, and so on.

Yes, the walking is very important – it’s almost a ritual. That control or the lack of control over my own movement in space is very important. It’s never preconceived or planned. Anything can happen at such a time. The more openly you look at things, and the more you focus and close your field of vision for yourself, the more it opens up to the other side – if you know what I mean. It’s like a rite of passage.