A game of combative aspirations

by Wilma Sütö About the work of Kalliopi Lemos: The braid in Rotterdam , 28.05.2021
photo Otto Snoek

The statue stands on the quay like an immense sundial; the shadow casts a jagged line ahead. It is a new beacon in Rotterdam: The braid by Calliopi Lemos. The statue reaches up on the Westersingel, like a triumphal column or obelisk, but with feminine contours. The hair strands elegantly twist around each other. Their joining forces are six and a half meters high: a stream of energy that defies gravity and that makes you walk faster, whether you come from Central Station or from the Westzeedijk opposite. The braid marks the axis and extends to you at a distance. When you get closer, the details take over, with a miraculous effect. Where you just involuntarily straightened your own back with The braid as an example, you are now seduced by a wavy pattern of fine lines. The braid is more than a silhouette. Countless long, thin steel wires have been cut, curved and bundled; every hair is one. Their interplay contains a lot of relief and dynamics. And also heat. The light dances over the brown hair, shining on the surface, glimmering in the depths. First you are drawn to it; then directs The braid you around. The devil is in the detail – you even notice a ruddy glow.

How can a clipped braid stay upright? What is naturally soft and flowing and supple, here revolves in revolt towards the light. Kalliopi Lemos has transformed 14.000 meters of steel wire for it. The braid , the color of her own hair, is now armed: a totem with its drop shadow. That magical reversal is exactly what Lemos is after. In a play with mythical and fairytale powers, she takes a stand against the unequal treatment and oppression of women. Born in 1951 as the eldest daughter of a sea captain in Greece, she wanted to become a naval architect. No, said her father, who would have preferred a son, "You can't climb that ladder as a woman." While the port, with the cargo ships and the cranes, was her world too. 'All those ships, the metal, steel, iron and the color of rust, those robust materials and their size, I became familiar with them through my father. When I started making my sculptures, he was no longer there. Yet it is as if we meet each other now that my work is in Rotterdam. My father often docked in Rotterdam to unload cargo and fill up with oil. Through the port he called in and my work in this city of all places, our lifeline has become entwined after all.'

Lemos has lived in London for decades, where she started her own family and went to art school in 1992, when the children were at school. She studied at Byam Shaw School of Art, University of the Arts in London and Central Saint Martins. First she profiled herself as a painter with large-sized canvases, then increasingly as a sculptor, performance and installation artist, with monumental work in public space. "Like the eruption of a volcano," she says, of the development of her work. 'The trigger always lies in the realm of the subconscious. My work is rooted in the conflict; the dark sides of existence. Intellectual reflections, poetic associations and the construction of sculptures, together with a team of people and large machines, are all of later concern. Reasoning and calculating are preceded by experiences that have to do with the imbalance in the human condition and all the feelings that go with it – directly from the gut.' The imagining of those feelings, or, as Lemos says, drawing them out, is a sensory play of tilting and turning; a bending, kneading and arranging of twigs, reeds, wood and pebbles that she collects in her studio between abstract figures of clay and plaster. However, this game has a double bottom. It is loaded with combative aspirations.

Just as a rotating crane in the harbor has a function, the artwork at Lemos has a pivotal function. It gauges, calibrates and recalibrates the position of women in society. The braid is not her only measuring instrument with an activist slant. It is the sixth sculpture in a series of images about social role play, under the ambiguous title Tools of Endearment. In Dutch you would say: tools of affection, or stronger: weapons of affection. These images are beautiful, but also dangerous. They all play with symbols of feminine embellishment and sensuality: from long hair and high heels to butterfly bra straps. Gigantic enlarged and sharpened, they manifest themselves in the urban landscape. In addition to an aesthetic function, these works of art also have a pronounced ethical function. They form a three-dimensional rectification on the pretense of billboards that present the same, voluptuous pin-up role model to all women. They also radiate a warning against abuse of power and loose hands.

For example, Lemos placed a mega-pump in the center of London with a flashing dagger as a heel – stiletto heel. And so she also installed free-lying lingerie that has armored herself: a bra with steel straps, next to a corset with gluing edges that stands stiff at his waist, straitjacket and harness in one. A gigantic necklace rolls across the square, but turns into an ornamental weapon, with beads like bursting flower buds or fruit boxes teeming with thorns. These beads are seeds and jaws, recalling the mythological representation of the vagina dentata – nightmare of all men and those with an unwelcome erection in particular. There is also a classic handbag, size XXL, which appears to be made of supple ostrich leather, but is also forged from steel. The content remains a mystery; the bag is closed with a golden padlock: it is the domain of female secrets. Full of gadgets and desires, perhaps, but possibly also of fear. Speaking of size and scale, Lemos casually remarks, “My handbag is big enough to hide myself in. If necessary, I can completely disappear into it.'

In art, hiding is the last thing Lemos does. She conjures up personal experiences and memories and stands up against threats, with a combination of female strength and power. Her Tools of Endearment arise tactically installed in the outside world like the flak of a giantess or Fates. The braid (2020), the most recent image in the series, is an ode to the strong woman. First of all, her own grandmother. As a girl, Lemos wore a braid herself. When she was fifteen, she had it cut off and gave the braid to her grandmother, in a ritual of belonging, but also of coming of age and autonomy. Since the death of her grandmother, she keeps the braid for her children. The powerful work of art that resulted can also be read as an ode to the heroines who have to fight for their beauty, safety and freedom in fairy tales and mythical stories. Like Rapunzel, who lets her wavy locks hang out of the tower room as a ladder for the prince, after which the evil witch cuts them off. Or the mermaid, who sheds her tail for love. And Daphne, who turns into a tree to escape her assailant. Not to mention Medusa, whose curls grow into a swarming mass of snakes, turning everyone who looks at her to stone. “The feminine and the fighter come together,” Lemos says. 'We have to stand up for ourselves and our convictions.'

The braid is a beacon of courage and a benchmark for upholding gender equality. It is not without reason that the statue was unveiled on International Women's Day 2021 in Rotterdam, thanks to the Droom en Daad foundation, which donated it to the city. It is worth realizing that there is some catching up to do here: The braid is the very first work of art made by a woman on the sculpture terrace on Westersingel, since the quay was set up as an open-air museum for international sculptures twenty years ago. It will hit right away, that's for sure. The braid from Kalliopi Lemos towers over the surroundings, very erect, but also extremely refined, like the needle of a compass for the future.

Wilma Suto, April 26, 2021

The quotes in this piece are based on a conversation between the artist and the author on April 15, 2021.

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