Rosa Verhoeve

Rosa Verhoeve, from Paysage Particulier

For many years, the Dutch photographer Rosa Verhoeve lived an idyllic life in rural France, reading, writing, walking, chopping wood, and photographing. That period of contemplative observation seems to have set the tone for all of her future projects, whether she photographed the ritual celebrations in small towns and villages in the Netherlands, or the amazing troupe of Ethiopian dancers, all of whom had been living on the streets of Addis Ababa, abandoned by families, who now found community, hope, and joy in the discipline and structure of modern dance. Although Verhoeve has worked primarily with a medium format camera, her images are not characterized by the isolation that shape can sometime convey, instead I am reminded of the mysteries of Kertesz.


Rosa Verhoeve, from Salto Vitale


Her project Salto Vitale (Vital Leap), documents another recent Ethiopian phenomenon, the training of poor and homeless children to perform acrobatics for small circuses. Initiated in 1991 by a Canadian performer to get kids off the street and give them something rigorous and meaningful to do with their time, the idea has spread and now circuses have become very popular, often performing in soccer fields and village squares around the country. Not content with simple entertainment, the events have become expressions of civic engagement, as opportunities to spread information about AIDS, female genital mutilation, and children’s rights. Verhoeve’s photographs are elegant and precise, evocative of the lure and legend of the circus yet alive with youthful abandon. We see children contorting their bodies, juggling impossible numbers of balls, spinning though the air as if dancing among the clouds while the faces of rapt audiences glow with wonder. If nothing else, privation sweeps away distractions and superficialities to reveal what is essential, the images in Verhoeve’s Salto Vitale capture and burnish the irreducible miracle of human vitality.


Rosa Verhoeve, Kopi Susu

Her recent book, Kopi Susu, is a more personal meditation exploring her family’s history and the echoes of colonialism as it manifests in the memories and blood of her Dutch / Indonesian heritage. Verhoeve begins the short introduction to her book with the story of traveling on a crowded bus in Indonesia when an old woman approached, touching her gently on the nose, asking “Kopi Susu?” The term means ‘coffee with milk’, in other words, was she mixed-race? Other passengers on the bus become interested in how Verhoeve might answer this question—which of her ancestors was Kopi? She tells them about her Javanese grandmother and Dutch grandfather, how they and her mother nearly starved to death in prison camps during the Japanese occupation of the Dutch East Indies. A generation later, Verhoeve was born in a barren and antiseptic suburban neighborhood in the Netherlands, yet the interior of her home was filled with decorative artifacts from Indonesia—statues of bare-breasted Javanese women, her mother’s batik skirts, teak furniture.


Rosa Verhoeve, from Kopi Susu


Rosa Verhoeve, from Kopi Susu


As might be expected, the colors of Dutch subjects are muted, cool, and ordered, while the Indonesian images are looser, warmer, fecund. Yet Verhoeve does not rely on a simple binary comparison—she understands that relationships, be they cultural or temporal, are more complicated than that. Among the pages, distant atmospheres and gestures signal to one another, as if the past and the present might communicate through her images. Particular page spreads stand out, for example, in one image a large group of women in white burqas face away from the camera, among them a single figure is sheathed in pink, they occupy a public space in ways that are sculptural and theatrical as well as religious. The image on the opposing page shows an old stone statue leaning against a white wall, potted plants and other detritus, inexplicably co-inhabit the frame. This diptych evokes unexpected symmetries between the animate and the inanimate, between the religious and the secular, the individual and the group, the choreographed and the improvised. Further on in the book, another diptych makes compositional and chromatic correspondences— a red bucket glows in angled sunlight while thirty or so turtle hatchlings scamper in an inch of water, in the second image, another red bucket sits on tiled counter while a pair of hands prepare red peppers and tomatoes for a recipe.

The center of the book contains a sequence of old snapshots, printed on a different paper stock that is lighter, whiter, almost transparent. The scalloped edges of the photographs tell us the images have traveled in time, from perhaps a half-century ago, to appear again like ghosts, in our present moment. Verhoeve is a visual archeologist, digging through photographic fragments from another time, presenting them in a new context, among contemporary images, to suggest that the past is incomplete, a story never fully told. With one foot in the Netherlands and the other in Indonesia, Verhoeve’s subtle and nuanced color photographs toggle between continents and cultures, giving us glimpses of rooms, landscapes, and people that are thousands of miles apart yet are connected in large and small-scale ways. Kopi Susu is modest in scale but not in ambition, it is not a manifesto or a critique, its power is to be found in the contemplative and the quietly suggestive, it whispers its secrets.


Rosa Verhoeve, from Kopi Susu