Bianca Severijns, is a contemporary artist who transforms paper into complex works of art that have a unique visual impact. Severijns is known for her original and distinguished paper language with which she aesthetically arranges hundreds of hand-torn pieces of paper into visual tapestries, murals, and reliefs. Her works explore subjects such as displacement, uprooting, and re-rooting, as well as other social themes.
Severijns was born in the Netherlands in 1964 and currently lives and works in Israel. Uprooting from the Netherlands was her free decision, and her experiences as an immigrant creating a home in a new country are the inspirational base from which her paper artworks originate.
For the exhibition "Personal Structures - Identities" during the Venice Biennale of 2019, she created a wall installation of two large protective blankets and a video that she used as a metaphor to convey fundamental human rights and the universal need for security, protection, acceptance, respect and freedom.
Severijns presented her first solo exhibition at the Periscope Gallery, Tel Aviv. Her Protective Blanket can be seen at the first TLV Craft & Design Biennial 2020, Eretz Israel Museum. In 2020 Severijns became a member of the IAPMA (The International Association of Papermakers and Paper Artists).
Photographer: Sigal Kolton
Uprooting is interwoven in several layers of my family. Both my parents were born in Indonesia and moved to the Netherlands. My husband Gil came to the Netherlands after we met in Israel, his native homeland. Gil's mother is English, and his father is German, they moved from Germany to Israel after the second world war. Together with our daughters, we moved again from the Netherlands to Israel.
Having a different background and being uprooted, means that you sometimes feel isolated. You are not very familiar with the culture and values that apply to the country. Especially in seemingly small things. When we are together with friends, they can communicate on a certain level, because they have gone through the same experiences, for example in their youth, through which they share common ground. I didn’t spend my youth here, which is why I miss parts of the conversation. When I say Pipo the Clown (Dutch television character), you probably immediately get an image of him and you may have associated memories. I do not share parts of Israeli’s common grounds, and they don't share mine.
Another nice example comes from my father when he came to the Netherlands. The weather was colder and he did not have suitable clothes. So he went to a store and bought a nice pair of very comfortable white pants. He proudly walked around with the pants until he was arrested by the police because he had apparently bought long underpants. These are examples of common little things that can make one feel totally displaced.
Now that I am an immigrant in Israel I better understand what it was like for my father. That feeling won’t change, it is the position that I accept.
How did you end up in Israel?
The Jewish foster mother of a friend told me that her friends were looking for an au pair in Israel. I was 19, didn't know what I wanted to study and it seemed like a wonderful opportunity. When I arrived, I was in shock, because it was such a different world. Gil lived next door and it was love at first sight.
After I finished my HBO-J studies in the Netherlands and Gil finished his photography studies in Israel, we traveled for a year and a half through Indonesia, Thailand, Nepal, and Australia. We went back to the Netherlands, although we didn’t really decide to live there. It more or less happened. Gil had a lot of European contacts in the diving world, he is a professional diver. I made small jewelry and wood objects, which I sold as a street vendor in Haarlem. I was approached by a woman who had a store in The Hague, she wanted to sell my objects in her store if I could make them larger. Together with Gil, we made playful wooden objects which she purchased, and it became a big success.
That's how we started our company designing children's concepts. We made prototypes for BamBam, Esprit, Mercury, and Happy Horse and they took them into production. In Israel, the world of design turned out to be quite different, so we completely changed track. Gil picked up his diving career, while I had to find a new path. I decided to make designs with no commercial purpose.
I had to get used to letting go of the commercial aspect of my work. Gil stimulated me to do my own thing, he helped me realize that I wanted to give something else to the world. I completely let go of the commercial aspect and decided to give something valuable to my audience. I used to focus on utensils and mass production, and now I give my art eloquence as a means of communication.
Did you feel very lost when you came to Israel?
I certainly did. I expected it would be difficult for my children, they were 6, 8, and 10 years old when we moved, but the opposite was true. We had a wonderful life in the Netherlands, yet we had been playing with the idea of moving to Israel for a long time. It just didn't happen, until my eldest daughter suggested to try it for a year. The noncommittal way of looking at it for a year opened a door, it gave space.
We kept our house in the Netherlands and took a sabbatical year. That first year was great, we could do whatever we wanted and had time to explore. The children had a limited knowledge of the language but they adapted easily and discovered the advantages of the country. At the end of that year, all three of them wanted to stay in Israel, so that made the decision clear.
The year after the final move was difficult for me. I had to find my place and start living in this society. I gave myself time to recover. I came from such a different culture while Gil came home, so for him it was familiar territory. Several times it happened that I couldn't read the text fast enough at the ATM, causing my credit card to be swallowed. That made me feel small. All the differences, the various clashing religions, the smaller sense of freedom, the incomparable holidays, big and small things.
The children's first birthday that we celebrated; we served the cake upon arrival. The children looked at us disappointed and asked if the party was over already. In Israel, you eat cake before you leave, not when you arrive. Gifts are not unwrapped in front of the visitors in order not to embarrass anyone.
It also has to do with personal identity, for example, I am not Jewish and that is quite challenging here. Israel is a country of extremes; it can be at war while people are enjoying the beach. Those are bizarre contradictions that Dutch are not familiar with. My mother-in-law told me that I would get used to it, but I will never get used to war.
At that time, I was very attracted to nature in a state of decay, nature in mourning. When it's Autumn in the Netherlands and the leaves fall from the trees, it's still summer in Israel. Summers are dry here, so almost nothing grows or blossoms. It was uprooting; I was pulled out of a piece of earth and was put into a different piece.
Does art have the same meaning for people in Israel, as in the Netherlands?
Art is very popular; it was a cultural loss when museums and galleries had to close because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The level of art in Israel is high. It was difficult for me to get recognition as an artist, because I didn’t complete a traditional art education. My work is now exhibited in the museum here, four years ago I couldn't imagine coming this far.
But you started to focus, kept believing in yourself, and persevered?
That's right, I was convinced that this was my path. It's what I jump out of bed for, I work passionately in my studio and what I do makes me happy. Sometimes the paper is too slow for my ideas. For my first artwork, The Earth Skins, I used nature as inspiration. I had lost a lot but on the other hand gained so much more. What was normal for me was largely gone and new things came along that I had to make my own. I started to wonder what home actually is. It's a place where you feel safe and secure.
The different layers of the earth renew themselves, new layers are born, they breathe, age, and old layers are lost. Back in my studio, I started abstracting the layers of earth and skins in the paper. This showed me the renewal I experienced through my immigration.
What was your thought behind the headgear for the series Sisters?
My daughters are also uprooted from the culture in which they grew up. They started to wonder who and what they were; Jewish? Christian? Dutch? Israeli? In Israel certain population groups are discriminated, we talk a lot about this subject in our family. It is important to me that they know that you can be 'different'. I wanted to make an artwork that would connect my art with my daughters, and that has no ties to either the Netherlands nor Israel. The neutral sculptures stand on their own and I used my daughters as a canvas. I wanted to give them the right to be who they want to be, that's important to me. Do not let yourself be labelled. I didn't want to make them prettier than they are. My youngest was wondering if she would put on makeup, but I wanted her to be natural.
Together with my eldest daughter and her boyfriend, I made a short video in which they wear the blanket I created for the Venice Biennale. Working with my children gives a certain intimacy to my work. Otherwise it remains paper objects, now it gives something human to it. I didn't want to attach any cultural value to it either.
Two of our daughters finished their army service and the youngest is currently serving. I postponed the realization that this would come for a long time; I was convinced that we would be back in the Netherlands by then. Our daughters assured me that they would never join the army, nevertheless it became part of their reality. The middle one worked in the control rooms in the occupied territory of the West Bank. She was on duty one week then one week on leave at home. The youngest completed her high school art education and is now training to be a mechanic of Apache Helicopters.
The Army process begins during the last two years of high school with psychometric testing and several interviews to find out what a person could and would like to grow into and to stimulate thought about positions. Soldiers spend two to three years in the army, so they can take this opportunity to complete a study. You're not obliged to join the army, you can also opt for civil service, in which case you'll help in care.
What was it like to be asked by the ECC for the Venice Biennale?
At first I thought it was a joke. When it turned out to be serious, I was so happy that I ran around the room with joy. But I had to think about it for a while, there was also the financial aspect. My best friend told me to take on the adventure, I'm not afraid of risk, I've shown that before. I started a crowdfunding project so people could participate in the project. I organized lunches where I spoke about my work, sold my works and invested the money. I’m very happy I went for it; it was a wonderful experience.
Quite a lot of people have influenced your life. The owner of the store in The Hague asked you to make the works that you sold along the road into a large scale, so together with Gil, you started your business in design. Your daughter who proposed to go to Israel for a year, the friend who stimulated you to embark on the adventure of the Venice Biennale. That's great to hear.
You encounter people for a reason, I believe that everyone comes into your live for a reason.
At the Venice Biennale, I showed two blankets, for me a blanket represents a basic need. Not only are you wrapped in a blanket after your birth, in Israel, this also happens after your death. An aluminum blanket to keep warm is the first thing refugees receive when they arrive in Italy or Greece. I took the blanket as a base.
Health care is a kind of luxury ‘blanket’ that we have in the western world, but it’s not guaranteed for everyone. My husband and I are a protective blanket for our children, we give them a basis and opportunities. In this way, the blanket became more and more important to me and it became a metaphor for so much.
The beauty of a blanket is that you can give it to someone else but you can also receive it. It appeals to us as social beings, the reciprocity. One of the blankets I exhibited, I made like an animal skin. Animal skin blankets were the first prehistoric blankets used to stay warm. The other blanket was more modern, I wove a lot of paper in it. I wanted to show that in this world of technology, intellectuality and fast communication, equality is still not obvious. We are so vulnerable as human beings, that was my focus. There is also a lot more on the subject, I am not finished with it yet.
What is your dream for the future?
A dream is that one day my work will be exhibited at the MoMA in New York. For me, that is a kind of respect or ultimate recognition.
Would you emigrate again if you could do it all over again?
That's a tricky question! I think so, even though I probably would have said no five years ago. I think I have grown through the process; it has certainly allowed me to flourish as an artist. The subjects that occupy me are an inspiration for my work. There are many people who had to emigrate because of the danger in their own country, not out of free choice, as I had. They also have to rebuild an existence in another culture, often fighting for their rights and freedom.
The village where we now live was built by mainly German immigrants, who came to Israel before the Kristallnacht. Many people ended up here in Israel because of war anyway, they all had to build a new life. The intriguing thing is that most of them have endured the same process. Everyone has their own story and do it in their own way. I study what it does to people when they have to build a new life in a new country, or in a new culture.
Why do you work with paper?
Stone and mosaic attracted me, but it was too hard for me to work with. I wanted to work with my hands. By tearing paper, I discovered what a fantastic material it is to work with. Paper is fragile, it has a history, a memory also. If you fold or wring it, it holds its shape. On the other hand, it is hard, it also has strength. You can stand on some works made of paper. Sometimes paper seems almost petrified because of its shape. It is versatile, lively, and dynamic, it amazes me how many possibilities it offers. I also keep my waste; I want to make pulp out of it. That will probably take me on a different path in terms of technique.
You feel which way you want to go, and it comes into being?
I hardly ever make sketches, sometimes when I work for a commission, they ask for a plan. That is difficult for me, I work from my belly and the work comes into being during the process.
Do you notice that the emotion you put into the work, is received by the viewer?
Certainly. Tearing paper has a kind of emotion, my works are synchronized with my process of emigration. I come from the Netherlands, from a fixed pattern, where everything was known to me. Something new blossoms out of the parts I tear from the blank sheet of paper. Like my building a home in Israel. I take something away, but I also give it a new meaning. I love rhythm, patterns, the texture of the paper. That is perhaps palpable in my works.
Do you also like patterns and structures in your life?
I discovered that during the making of my works of art, I also get to know myself. One of my works is called Tension and Chaos. In the Netherlands, most people are unfamiliar with chaos, with disorder of things. The Dutch live in such a structured way, a lot is fixed, that's how we grew up. The strength of the Israelis, is that they are good at improvising, they think in solutions, people are flexible, I learned a lot from that. In Israel, things are still wild, raw with rough edges. Those rough edges can also be seen in my work, you have to learn to live with those raw edges.
What would you tell yourself, if you met yourself just before you emigrated?
That I shouldn't feel so vulnerable. In Israel, people say clearly and straightforward what they think of you or your work, but I don't have to involve myself in that. It's about someone's opinion, and everyone is allowed to have one, but that doesn't mean I have to change anything.
My father had to adapt as much as possible. That was the feeling, to be ordinary as soon as possible. Whereas for me so much strength lies in being different, which also brings a lot of pleasure. Believe in your own strength. My grandmother told me when I was young that I was born for a dime and would never become a quarter. This sentence has so much impact, even if you don't realize it as a child. You can't be successful, there is no need to try, you don't have to do anything, because you never get to where you want to be. That is for the benefit of others only. But every human being is unique, everyone has their own talents, qualities, and powers. Go for it to develop your talents during your life. Maybe my wish to see my work in MoMA has something to do with that!