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'Coincidences are a crucial part of my way of making art'

© Ivan Put

Birds play an important role in the artistic work and first film of the Dutch artist Annelein Pompe, but that is more or less accidental. In her second film, she once more allows herself to be led by the unexpected. “It is important to be well prepared for coincidences.”

Who is Annelein Pompe?

  • Because of her father’s job, she was born Dutch in Indonesia in 1988 and briefly lived in Pakistan. Grew up in the Netherlands and then lived in Belgium, first in Ghent, before moving to Brussels
  • Has been painting bird portraits on commission for years, inspired by her clients
  • Made the fable-documentary The Shadow Workers (2021), with the pigeon Lukaku as narrator (voice of Brussels film-maker Eric Pauwels) and in the leading role the shopkeeper-poet Usman
  • Working on her second film, with the working title Faby Books Is Lost, St. Anthony! about her search for a female music pioneer in Ghent

The interview with Annelein Pompe takes place in her studio in the Squares district, in an art nouveau building belonging to non-profit association SB34 that she herself calls “the haunted house”. The atmosphere in her own studio is rather more fairytale than ghostly, with walls crammed with her portraits of birds. For more than five years, the Dutch artist has been painting commissioned portraits of fictitious birds, inspired by the client's personality. “I don't base my portraits on the person's appearance, it's purely an impression of the atmosphere,” Annelein Pompe explains. When she paints, it is not about the bird, but about the person she is dressing up in feathers. Has she already made a self-portrait? “No, but I think I would be a goose, because I am quite a bourgeois type,” she smiles.

Pompe is not a bird-watcher, but she finds the formal characteristics of the animals particularly interesting. “Their natural 'costumes' can sometimes have a dramatic effect. Another special feature is the fact that their eyes are on the side of their heads, meaning that they look straight at you in profile. That combination of a sideways glance with direct contact gives them something mysterious.”

At the root of her “bird practice” is a whim Pompe had while waiting for an acquaintance for several hours. “We had agreed to have breakfast early in the morning, but he only showed up late at night. To have something to do, I started doing a bird portrait on a whim. The response I got was so enthusiastic that I have continued to do it. But I don't want to limit myself to just birds, my aim for the future is to paint people.”

That ambition is on hold for a while, though, as her focus is currently on moving images. Last year, Pompe released her first film, The Shadow Workers, and she is currently finishing her second. The Shadow Workers is a so-called fable-documentary, in which birds – specifically pigeons – again play a crucial role.

Pigeon lukaku
The story is told from the perspective of the upside-down-pigeon named Lukaku to be precise. “Lukaku is a pigeon with an abnormally curved neck, which means it looks backwards constantly. That makes it the ideal storyteller, because it always looks back at what has happened. It was only afterwards that I learned that the abnormality was actually the result of a virus.”

In the film, Pompe enters the world of pigeon fanciers, although that was not actually her intention at all. She wanted to make a documentary about a shopkeeper who is open at night and ended up with Usman, a Pakistani man from Ghent of whom she heard that he wrote poetry. Pompe, who herself writes poetry and briefly lived in Pakistan as a child, was immediately intrigued. He then also started telling about his passion for pigeon racing, which is also popular in Pakistan. “Pigeon racing and poetry are two important aspects of Usman's 'shadow work'. Besides his job as a shopkeeper, he is actively involved in various other things, including chess and philosophy.”

Twists of fate
Annelein Pompe also plays herself in her film, under the alias of “the Good-for-Nothing”. She is a saleswoman in a honey shop, but is mainly occupied with dreams as shadow work. “I am a very skilled dreamer,” Pompe says. “As a child, every morning my father asked me what I had dreamt and that's how I developed the ability. I also have dreams about Indonesia (where she was born, ed.) and Pakistan, although I have no memories of my short time there.”

A special anecdote from the film: Usman has been a great admirer of the influential Flemish pigeon fancier Jules Ryckaert ever since he lived in Pakistan, and when he read about Ryckaert's ideas, he even felt his “spirit come into him.” When he opened a night shop in Ghent, Ryckaert's grandson turned out to live opposite him.

Such twists of fate strike a chord with Pompe. “It is important to be well prepared for coincidences,” she says. “That's a crucial part of my way of making art.” Her next film also stems from a very chance encounter, with a customer in the Ghent honey shop where she spent time behind the counter. It turned out that this woman, under the stage name Faby Books, had been a pioneer in music made with a Hammond organ. “But before I could ask her about that, she had disappeared.” To find out about her story, Pompe goes in search of the woman, enlisting the help of Saint Anthony – the patron saint of lost causes. The short film about this search, with the working title Faby Books Is Lost, St. Anthony!, should be ready in the spring of 2023.

ANNELEIN POMPE: THE SHADOW WORKERS
2/6, 20.00 (in NL, subtitles in FR), Cinema Nova, www.nova-cinema.org

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