Blog | In Joëlle Dubois’ studio

Blog | In Joëlle Dubois’ studio

In ABSoluut 27, the magazine that we make on behalf of ABS bouwteam, we visited the studio of the Ghent-based artist Joëlle Dubois. With her figurative, colourful and provocative paintings, Joëlle has taken the art world by storm. Things are going fast for this Ghent power artist. With barely 33 years of age, her record of achievements already includes two solo exhibitions - in Belgium and Germany - a retrospective exhibition, her current solo 'Private Parts' in the art centre “Kunstencentrum Ten Bogaerde” in Koksijde and the all-embracing coffee-table book 'Future Nostalgia'. A deep dive into her oeuvre calls for an encounter in her familiar surroundings in Ghent.

We meet Joëlle Dubois in her studio in Ghent. Dog Milo is there too. Her artistic habitat is on the first floor of the former infirmary of Het Klein Begijnhof. This beguinage from 1235 is the best preserved before the French Revolution. "Beguines lived here in an independent commune and were actually really rebellious. Often they were lesbian too," opens the young artist. "It just so happens that I also share this studio with only women. I love being here, there is a special vibe, positive but also mystical.”

Artist becomes midwife
That rebelliousness is also regularly portrayed in the figurative woman Joelle so often portrays; explicit, raw, strong but also vulnerable and colourful. When asked how she developed her style, she answers that she is an autodidact pur sang. With a bachelor's degree in graphic design, Joëlle initially worked for a variety of clients, but was not quite satisfied in terms of her own style. It was only later, during her master's degree in painting, that she immersed herself in painting and taught herself the techniques. She developed her typical figurative style, despite criticism from her school that it was not abstract enough.

How did her art gain such momentum after that? "I still think it's crazy myself, but that's probably typical Flemish modesty. After my studies, I signed up for as many competitions and open calls as possible. I had a goal in mind and felt an enormous drive. It was then or never. After winning the audience prize in the SMAK's 'Coming People' competition in 2016, things really took off for me." Joelle's work was subsequently shown in numerous exhibitions in Belgium and Germany. Her first solo exhibition 'Forget Me Not' followed in 2022 in Cologne and then at home at the Keteleer Gallery. The title refers to her mum who is suffering from Alzheimer's. Currently, her second solo exhibition 'Private Parts' runs at Kunstencentrum Ten Bogaerde in Koksijde. There, she has planted a large installation, like a life-size viewing box where you walk into a painting, as it were. “I made a cast of my head and recorded my voice. It really is an immersive experience. I want to work more often with installations and have the idea of working with ceramics and video, as a follow-up to my solo exhibition 'Forget Me Not'," she says. Asked what else she dreams of, she replied firmly that she dreams of having her artworks displayed in museums. "Dream big, surely?" And although uncertainty quickly rears its head, as does the thought that it could be over in an instant, she counters: "Fear is not a good counsellor. Should I not be able to live from my art one day, I will become a midwife (laughs). My best friend gave birth this summer and I was allowed to be present at the birth. I even assisted in the delivery. That was a special trip. It reminded me of painting, because you are totally in the moment doing something so pure." It brings us seamlessly to spirituality, as this is another subject that finds its way in the Ghent-based artist's work. When asked how spiritual she herself is, Joëlle replies that she meditates because it brings peace to her chaotic life. Joëlle Dubois once made three paintings and ten drawings for an exhibition by Keteleer Gallery in collaboration with Woning De Beir in Knokke-Heist. "That was just after an Ayahuasca trip, where you take a highly hallucinogenic drink under the guidance of a shaman during a ceremony rooted in ancient traditions of indigenous tribes in the Amazon rainforest. I depicted everything I saw and experienced during my trip in those artworks and against my expectations it was received very well.”

City as source of inspiration
At the age of 33, Dubois has already built up a fine oeuvre. According to her own words, this has come about through hard work. Inspiration fortunately comes naturally as soon as she ventures into the city. Ghent and its inhabitants are a great source of inspiration. The digital age, sexuality and femininity are also themes that endlessly intrigue the young artist. In order to translate these themes into a painting, symbols become her ally and alchemy is the way to study them. "Alchemists were obsessed with eternal life and the prints from their books inspired me to paint vases," she says. For the origin of that inspiration, Joelle goes back to her childhood. "I've always had a fascination with that world. I grew up with it. My mum did palm reading and my dad was a Zen Buddhist. They taught me about tarot cards and imagery." And although Joelle still wants to evolve a great deal as an artist, ironically for her it feels almost uncomfortable when her signature style becomes too recognisable on a panel. "I like to experiment with different media and techniques because I want to be challenged and because I want to constantly reinvent myself. Good work comes from the uncomfortable, the labour and the suffering. And as I work my way through that, I experience thousands of thoughts. Including the thought of finding it ugly. But I have to go through it if I want to approve of my work at a later stage.”

Joelle describes her creative process as a kind of chaotic collage of clippings, sentiment, colours and experiences. She then lets these loose on a piece of paper that she then prefers to throw away again, against the advice of her gallery. "There is less pressure on my sketches if I scribble here and there," she explains. She paints on wood, just like her biggest inspiration, Colombian painter and sculptor Botero. Some works she creates in a day and a half and some take months or even a year. "I believe everything has already been done. 'Steal Like an Artist' by Austin Kleon is a nice book in that respect that really helped me. As a student, I was so much focused on who I am as an artist. Now I have found my own style, but I don't want to get comfortable with it. Where is the line, however, between inspiration and plagiarism? And what about AI?" Joelle decides she finds AI quite scary and the requests she gets to make NFTs downright appalling.

Her ability to play with bright colours and create combinations that almost hypnotise the viewer was instilled in Joëlle Dubois as a child. Her mother loved colour. "At home, every wall was in a different colour," she recalls. "From turquoise to lilac, and that combined with a vinyl floor made of coloured puzzle pieces, a collection of Cécémel enamel signs and neon lights. We were also allowed to scribble on the wall.”

Artists such as Botero, Bendt Eyckermans, Otto Dix and Shunga art (Japanese pornographic prints, editor’s note) trigger the Ghent native. She is not eager to hang her own work at home. She prefers to swap works with artist friends or buy a work as support. Thus, in her flat she hung works by Nina Van Denbempt and prints by Frida Kahlo, Paul Gauguin and David Hockney. "I can't even afford my own work," she laughs. In her studio, automatic writing songs by Robert Ashley often play in the background, or true crime series. Like her mum, she can binge those too. Passion, as she calls it, is subtly woven into her work, somewhere between tristesse and melancholy. A colourful lot, but those who zoom in read another story of dichotomy that also resides in her personality. "The folksy and human side fascinate me as much as alchemy, and the nude depicted is about purity rather than sexuality, because it is our most vulnerable form," she says. Man's psyche intrigues me immensely.”

Female lead actor
The protagonists in Joelle's work are often women. It is the perspective she is familiar with, but somewhere it also has to do with insecurity. The women she portrays are mostly powerful women whom she looks up to. Whether she is a feminist, she is then asked. "There is still a certain taboo around strong portrayed women, but there is a feminist in me anyway. Male artists on the same level earn three times as much as me. I hear from female colleagues that we have to prove ourselves much harder and justify our work more. Art is still a man's world and the world is bursting with anonymous female artists. Anna Boch, one of Belgium's greatest impressionist painters, despite her gigantic oeuvre, is only getting an appropriate solo exhibition now. And even then, she grew up in a privileged, white class. How absurd?”

The enthusiasm with which Joëlle Dubois narrates is as engaging as the brightly coloured, unfinished panels and illustrations that fill her studio. She quickly takes another bright pink Future Nostalgia, signs her book with a word of thanks and pushes it into my hands. When I am about to leave, she whispers 'Just take your time’, Milo suffers from separation anxiety and starts barking loudly when he senses wetness.’

(Text: Leslie Vanhecke - Photography: Alexander Popelier)

SAVVY x ABS BOUWTEAM: ABSoluut magazine.
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