There’s a new kid in town. On Diksmuidelaan/boulevard de Dixmude, Thierry Dubois and Bjørn Van Poucke have opened their Ruby Gallery, a new jewel in the crown of All About Things, the company behind the immensely popular street art festival The Crystal Ship in Ostend. Its ambition is to develop into a home for the boundless arts and people in the neighbourhood. “The fact that here and now, in corona times, hope appears in the form of art, brings joy to people. We can already sense that.”
“A lot of work? Now there’s an understatement,” Thierry Dubois says laughing. Over the past six months, the Brussels local and his Ghent-based companion Bjørn Van Poucke threw themselves into an obstacle course that has today resulted in Ruby Gallery, an artistic and creative hub that not only seeks to be a home for artists who in addition to expressing themselves on canvas also use walls and social media, but also for the neighbourhood around Diksmuidelaan/boulevard de Dixmude within which it operates. “We started the work in March, in the first week that Covid-19 hit Belgium, within the initial intention of opening in the summer. But the plans were delayed and then the summer began. In the end, the 1 September deadline was postponed to 15 October due to a few last-minute challenges, stuff to do with the windows, but that doesn’t matter. We’re here now. It’s ready!”
“It was not easy in these times,” Bjørn Van Poucke agrees. “The dream was to open a summer bar in July, to enthuse the neighbourhood about the project, but due to Covid that was obviously not possible.”
But your dream of opening your own gallery before your fortieth birthday did come true.
Bjørn Van Poucke: I spent twenty years reflecting on it, I think. I’ll be forty in February, so yes, I managed it right at the last minute! (Laughs) Thanks to Thierry, without him I would never have been able to fulfil this dream. But we are already thinking about what comes next. Sure, the space is here, but it will only be when the gallery becomes a hub in the neighbourhood and a home for the locals, for us as curators, and for the artists who exhibit here, that the dream will really come true. We are going to invest a lot of time and energy to reach that goal. Whether we sell a lot of artworks or not, is secondary. That’s what keeps Thierry up at night. (Laughs)
What is the relationship between the two of you at Ruby Gallery?
Thierry Dubois: We always say that I am his financial boss and he is my artistic boss. (Laughs)
Van Poucke: Since June 2019, we have both been the business managers of All About Things, the company through which we organize cultural projects, primarily for cities and municipalities. Up to that point, I had worked under the auspices of The Crystal Ship, our best-known project. I focus more on the artistic side and Thierry does, uh, everything else. (Laughs) We’ve known each other for about twenty years. From going out.
Dubois: We both have a background in organizing music events and underground parties, in Brussels and Ghent. We didn’t know one another very well at the time, but we were both part of the same nightlife scene. This project is our first professional collaboration. In June last year, I joined Bjørn’s project and we rebranded The Crystal Ship as a project under the umbrella organization All About Things. With The Crystal Ship and Ruby Gallery, we are making a collection of gemstones.
Street art takes place outside the four walls of a gallery, so why did you need to open a gallery?
Dubois: We think of the gallery as a creative home base, as our home.
Van Poucke: And it is not only our home. There is a whole generation of artists here who specialize in different media and who can express themselves just as creatively on a canvas or Instagram or a wall. Street artists who paint canvases at home, but also contemporary artists who don’t do street art, but who do yearn to experiment with different media. They are all welcome. That multidisciplinarity is also a leitmotif in everything we do. With All About Things, we organize street art projects like The Crystal Ship, but with Ruby Gallery we can now also organize exhibitions. We have come full circle.
“It was just a unique moment,” Thierry Dubois tells us. “Perhaps it came quite early in our joint trajectory, but when you find a building like this and it feels right, you have to take the leap.” That building is one with a turbulent recent history. A year ago, Derby NV, the company behind the Ladbrokes betting shops, applied to the City of Brussels for planning permission to build a new location in the building on Diksmuidelaan/boulevard de Dixmude, where Thierry Dubois lived. With a petition among his neighbours and the broader community – which ultimately collected 359 signatures – he was able to convince the city’s consultation board to reject the application.
“The funny thing is that it was the fact that Ladbrokes wanted to open a betting office here that got the ball rolling,” Bjørn Van Poucke says. “I have lived in many different places,” Thierry Dubois continues, “but over the last eight years, I have always stayed in the Quays District in the centre. This is just a really fun neighbourhood. But it is also an area with a precarious social balance that might have become disjointed with the arrival of a betting shop. This street is home to one of the biggest markets for people who work in the black, as a result of which there are many socially disadvantaged people in the area. Opening a betting office here is asking for trouble.”
Did you already know that you wanted to open a gallery here when you launched the petition?
Dubois: I alluded to it, yes. The previous owner was already making plans with Ladbrokes when he sold the building to the present owner, who inherited the Ladbrokes dossier. As soon as we heard about it, we launched the petition. We were lucky enough that the owner wanted to hear my side of the story and that is when we told him about our plans for the building, which were still very vague at the time. He was immediately charmed, and ultimately even decided to support the transformation. Incidentally, he stopped by with some friends yesterday. He was happy, very proud.
So Ruby Gallery was born under a lucky star.
Dubois: Everyone remembers that it was touch and go here. The fact that here and now, in corona times, when everything seems to be going wrong and the world seems to be standing still, hope appears in the form of art, brings joy to people. We have only just opened, but we can already sense that. The neighbours and shopkeepers in the street pop in, passers-by stop in front of the window, comment on things…
Van Poucke: …and either tell us that we are insane or that it looks really fantastic. (Laughs)
Dubois: And one thing leads to another. We have already met other entrepreneurs who want to open a coffee shop-cum-art café in the neighbourhood. We are now helping them to get set up. The owners in the area are all supporting this project.
Brussels turns out to be fertile soil?
Van Poucke: The city is an interesting melting pot of cultures, languages, and people. That is what attracts me to Brussels more than anything else. Thierry already lived here so he didn’t need convincing.
Dubois: The evolution from The Crystal Ship to Ruby Gallery, expanding our horizon from Ostend to Brussels and beyond – we are also making plans for something in Wallonia – is a breath of fresh air for Bjørn, I think. He is already thinking about moving.
Van Poucke: I was born in Ghent but did not grow up there. I have lived there for the past twenty years, though. Ghent is changing so much; the city is increasingly turning into an open-air shopping centre. All of the local uniqueness is disappearing. Brussels still has tons of character and I don’t think it will disappear so easily. As a Belgian, I have always been proud of that local, artisanal, cosy hum. And in Brussels that is still very much alive. Yesterday I went to a fabric shop here, Le Chien Vert. You know that there is a fucking ship in the middle of the shop?! (Laughs) Amazing! So who knows, perhaps I will end up here at some point. But at the moment I would miss my friends too much. And they are very valuable in times of corona.
A SENSE OF BELONGING
You hear an echo of that in the leitmotif that runs through “Ruby & Friends”, the exhibition with which Ruby Gallery is presenting itself to the world in the Brussels microcosm. “Due to Covid, we have had to analyse and evaluate our existing friendships,” Bjørn Van Poucke says. “We have had to decide who to include in our social bubble and who to exclude. You recalibrate your life, as it were. Good friends suddenly appear to have grown apart, or vice versa: acquaintances you only knew from the pub suddenly become your best friends.”
It is a fine metaphor for what is happening here artistically. The international group of artists that has come together here represents very diverse, fluid practices and gets entangled in an extended experiment with bubbles, borders, and distancing. “Ruby Gallery is my attempt to remove the discrepancies that exist between artists with a street art background and artists with a contemporary background,” Bjørn Van Poucke emphasizes. “The work of the Ghent-based Joëlle Dubois, the Portuguese Instagram phenomenon Wasted Rita, or the Peruvian, Ghent-based Shirley Villavicencio Pizango has nothing to do with street art. That of the Dutch duo Telmo Miel, the once Brussels-based Galician artist Isaac Cordal, and the German artist Case Maclaim is right at home there. In America, those different backgrounds don’t mean anything. You can’t walk into a museum there without seeing work by Shepard Fairey, JR, or Banksy. But those partitions are still very much present in Europe. I would like to see that change. Just as I would like to see a change in the gender inequality running through the art scene. If you look at the lack of female artists being featured in exhibitions and art institutions, or the fact that women only represent 2% of the art market, I find that shocking. So we deal with it in the only way that will lead to anything: by doing it ourselves.”
Speaking of that DIY spirit, Bjørn: you have dedicated your life to street art and singlehandedly founded The Crystal Ship, an exceptionally well-loved, internationally celebrated street art festival. What is it about street art that appeals to you so much?
Van Poucke: To me, art is always a social thing. Even as a teenager, when I was just starting to get interested in street art and any art, in fact. My gateway drug to art was Banksy. I was myself a Banksy hunter for a while, scouring internet forums to find out where precisely his latest works were. Narrowing the field based on the appearance of the street or the bricks. It was that atmosphere, that excitement that got me started. I thought the way Banksy dealt with social and political issues with so much humour was phenomenal.
Dubois: What I find remarkable is how the creative process takes place in community. It is great to see how these street artists dialogue with passers-by and how the work sort of grows before your very eyes, impacting both the work and the viewer. That deepens the effect it has on the soul.
Van Poucke: That is our unique selling point: we primarily do projects with important participatory sections, like a kind of preparatory phase with the neighbourhood, the locals of a potential new artwork. What do they like? What do they want in their neighbourhood? That’s our thing, that is what we really live and work for.
Dubois: Art is the highest form of hope, and that is especially relevant today. And art creates a sense of belonging. In Ostend, for example, residents no longer refer to their street, but to “that block by Paola Delfín.”
Art grows into a geographic point of reference, a place on the map?
Van Poucke: Precisely. I remember that seven years ago, we made a mural near an abandoned little field in Roeselare with David Walker. That field now has a playground and a few benches because there was so much traffic that the city eventually became ashamed of their “potato field”. Street art has changed a lot over the past few decades, you know. There is a big legal circuit, with works that no longer end up in backstreets and dirty alleys, but in the middle of the city, where people live and work.
How do you bring the neighbourhood inside at Ruby Gallery?
Van Poucke: We are planning workshops, film screenings, artist talks… To make people feel as though they are welcome just to pop in and out. If the pandemic hadn’t intervened, we would have done that already.
Dubois: Like with the summer pop-up bar, for example. The people from the former Damejeanne were going to take care of the catering side of things, while we made the art programmes. We would still like to create a space where people can drink coffee and feel close to the project, to one another. And we also want to involve people who are less advantaged. We have a few left over spray cans and thought we could take them to the Klein Kasteeltje/Petit-Château detention centre…
Van Poucke: …so that the residents could let loose on one of the walls, along with some of our artists. That’s important.
So the area can come in here, but you must also be looking forward to going out.
Dubois: Absolutely. I can imagine that an artist who comes to do a solo show here might cause some “collateral damage” in the neighbourhood. (Laughs)
Van Poucke: We have already spoken to the neighbours about what we’re doing, what goes on in Ostend, etc. Geneviève, our next-door-neighbour, is completely sold on the idea. She has already given us permission to use her walls. (Laughs)
Can you imagine something like The Crystal Ship mooring in Brussels?
Van Poucke: Well, we’re open to the idea, but I think that the city would have to take the first step. The problem is that Brussels comprises twenty-one…
Dubois: Nineteen! Don’t make it worse than it already is… (Laughs)
Van Poucke: Right, nineteen municipalities, and it is very difficult to get them to cooperate together for cultural projects beyond their borders. But Brussels does already have a really good range of street art.
It also hosted a street art festival a few times in the past: the Kosmopolite Art Tour.
Van Poucke: One that toured from city to city, yes. The guys at Farm Prod organized that a few times. In 2015, they asked me if I wanted to take over the next edition. But I was working on something big in Ostend at the time… (Laughs) They don’t do it anymore, and I get that: it’s a hell of a job. All those subsidy applications, conversations with cities and municipalities… It is intensive to combine that with an artistic career. I am completely unable to draw or paint, but I can organise. That has become my thing. You know, there used to be a show on the East Flemish regional television with Roger the Handyman. He always said: “If you do something yourself, you do it better.” (Laughs loudly) That has become my motto.
RUBY AND FRIENDS
> 31/12, Ruby Gallery, www.rubygallery.be