By Eric Jan van de Geer, column BK informatie 10th November 1999.
There was just one in Groningen. Every tuesday I ate there with a friend, until one day the toko had closed unexpectedly and disappeared not long after. I still don’t know why. There were plenty of customers. Why is it that such a place disappears?
I’m glad to be back in Rotterdam. Two years in Groningen and the advanced course in painting have been very fruitful for me as an artist, but the town is just too cosy. Give me cold and imposing Rotterdam any day. I really feel at home here, a city without that suffocating cosiness. There’s sociability here alright, but it doesn’t wrap itself around you snugly like a warm jacket. And that’s exactly what I don’t want, to always be comfortable, to always feel snug.
Rotterdam is full of toko’s. (Toko: in the Netherlands, snackbars offering a mix of Indonesian, Surinam and Chinese food). There was one in my neighbourhood when I came to live in Rotterdam in 1991. A little shop, wedged in between a launderette and international calls shop. I think they’d begun with the idea of getting a really good toko started. But of course, financial means were limited. And so the toko looked just like its competitors:frugal, shabby with fibreboard lining. I suppose that’s not exactly promoting your business, your toko should stand out, at least by appearance, to have a chance at all.
Luckily I now have a basic grant. Without that, .... I don’t know what I would have done. Having worked for six years without any form of support, I’m glad the government is now helping me out. It has an enormous stimulating effect on me. You do need money after all; where else would I have gotten ten thousand gulden for investments. I just needed that grant. Now I have my computer, slide scanner, laser printer and copying machine. All the basics are there. The view onto the motorway from my studio is a stroke of luck. Where would you find such a view? It’s an inspiring environment for me, a real prime location (to put it in economic terms). My studio looks like an office space: clean and business-like, with a computer and a copying machine. Oh, and lots of paper strewn across the floor, those times anyway when I’m busy making graphic manipulations of photographs. What’s really great is that I can stay here for a few years, at least preliminarily. Provisionally, of course, but still. Finally I don’t have to move studios every year, like I had to at the beginning. What could stop me now?
The food was great: home-made sambal, delicious baras and the roti was fantastic.(typical Surinam food) It was all being made by the mother of the lad who took your orders at the counter. If you had to wait for your meal for a little too long, the lad would offer you a bara with fresh sambal: “Sorry, it’ll take a bit more time”, glancing apologetically towards the kitchen. Through the half open door you could see his mother preparing your meal with dedication. Perhaps it’s all just projection on my part, but I really think a toko like that deserves a place among its competitors.
I am lucky. My artistic life got an enormous boost through the MFA painting study, at the Frank Mohr Institute in Groningen. My attempts at painting had been rather futile before, but there I got the knack of diverting them towards photo-graphic work that still brought out the painter in me. Being a painter is no longer of importance to me. I now make photographs, which form the point of departure for my photo-graphic work.
Crazy really to start a toko at all these days. The competition ... killing. What gets into them to even try it?
It’s an advantage, though at first I didn’t realize it, to have come such a long way. (First the teacher training in drawing and crafts, then Art College, oh and two years of PABO(teachers training college), and then recently the MFA study in painting). I now work more purposefully, I’m conscious of the repertoire that I use and can be more efficient this way. My choice to be an artist isn’t based on the fact that I cannot help it. I could, but I wouldn’t want it any other way. What used to be tedious slaving away, is now energetic beavering away. The ‘playing’ that used to make me feel tired and dejected, now feels agreeable and meaningful. I’m no longer the romantic artist I once was. The ‘struggle’ is just a load of nonsense. Get rid of naivety! I think that the profession of the artist is a fantastic one. I find it to be full of variety and challenges; all my faculties come to the fore in it. Yet I wouldn’t want to describe myself as a businessperson. That would be selling myself short. My focus is not on the customer who is king. As an artist, I feel attached to what I produce and I want it to find a good home. I don’t produce works that only serve to satisfy a need of the consumer. I’ll find my way alright. I’m not selling yet, that’ll come in time. It takes time to make artworks. My production rate isn’t high, my working process causes delays, it’s as if I didn’t accept the everyday reality of photography. I look for good locations for my work. Taking care over that takes time, but I have time. I don’t have to break even yet.
A business plan? No I don’t suppose they had one. They probably simply started. Off income support, working hard and hoping to become self-supportive with the toko. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out; I happened to see the friendly boy from the roti shop one and a half years later walking around in the blue uniform of the assistant town guards, a government job for unemployed people.
It’s going well. At the end of my advanced studies and the final presentation at ‘Arti et Amicitiae’ (a well-known art space in Amsterdam). I was nominated for the Kamper art prize for photography. At the moment I’m taking part in the exhibition ‘Tegenfase’ ( ‘against the grain’) at the Minerva academy in Groningen. It’s good to see your work outside of your studio, hanging amongst others. It makes it clearer for me what I want. At the exhibition in Groningen, I tried to present my work in a different way; I combined my photo-graphic work with an installation with two beds. It referred to a situation at my parents’ home that I had photographed before. Now I isolated the beds from reality by placing them on a blue and grey platform. A step that opens up new possibilities.
Ming Kie is a very well-known toko. The shop is packed, especially at weekends. The two boys who take the orders handle them efficiently and in a friendly manner. Still, you often have to wait in line. They even have a top ten of favourite dishes. Roti isn’t one of them, they’re more oriented on Surinam and Chinese dishes. Their excellent peanut sauce, with bits of peanuts in it, isn’t in the top ten either. Even though the Hindu girls said there wasn’t a better one around, at the pharmacy where I worked for a while. Strange, it really is an excellent sauce. Maybe peanut sauce just isn’t a top ten thing.
I can’t complain: I have no reason to feel down. I don’t have to enter any hitparade and seek to please like Frans Bauer and Marianne Weber (well-known performers of sentimental songs), the ‘small’ daily events in the songs of by Bram Vermeulen is more my thing. (Bram Vermeulen is a singer-songwriter of Dutch pop-folksongs) I’ll stay optimistic for a bit, for now. Next year, the new century? I’ll see.