Delicate intimacy in Maria Baoli’s photography

Last September, Antwerp’s photography-centric museum FoMu launched it’s sixth edition of .tiff magazine: their annual celebration of young rising talents, seeking to propagate them to the forefront. And amongst its ten strong artists, one in particular caught our eye. Since her formal training and brief stints in amateur theatre and stage production, Madrid local Maria Baoli (1984) ventured to Brussels in 2012, and has set base here ever since. The photographer and all-round visual artist breaks down her .tiff project Chez moi loin de chez moi as well as previous works for us, and revelas some future plans to come.

At its core, what is your work about?

Chez moi loin de chez moi, or “Home far from home” maps the African House, a particular spot nestled in the Brussels neighbourhood of Matonge. Founded in 1961 and originally designed to accommodate Congolese students, the African House eventually opened to the whole world and now hosts over 25 nationalities, including Asian students.

What is its starting point and statement?

This photographic series is an encounter with the world found within these buildings and their inhabitants. An exploration of everyday moments and intimate places in the heart of the house. Who are these residents? What is happening between the walls?

I wanted to explore the fears and hopes of the students, to provide a deeper understanding of their passage through this place of transition. It became essential to understand this state of being, and to recognize that this condition is actually something quite natural. It was then that I wondered how the students live: confusion, questioning, nostalgia, adaptation, a sense of failure or success.

Can you talk to us about your approach in general? What characterises your work?

My approach has always been to approximate my pictures to my actual personal vision or perspective – how I see things in reality –, and bridging worlds that would remain hidden as long as they’re not brought to light. I’m particularly interested in subjects related to intimacy, and wandering through the 80 rooms of the African House proved to be an intense experience, full of fascinating scenes of the personal and ordinary.

The physical processes of creating images and experimenting with old techniques are also part of my practice. I love the playfulness involved in creating a picture; from the first moment of loading the film, to staging and framing the picture, right down to the printing process.

I like to keep a physical and temporary distance from the images: it’s “mentally healthy” to let the pictures come and go in your mind, and to take as much time as you need.

How do you actually work on a piece, from start to finish?

I always start by writing down ideas and notes into a small book – or any scrap piece of paper I happen to have on me, really. It’s a long and quiet process that allows me to shape the project in a serene way. I also do a lot of research, diving into archives or roaming the Internet, watching anything that could be relevant to the project. Once I get my hands on the actual creative process, I allow myself the space to make mistakes, and repeat the process until I’m satisfied – although I never am! Additionally, I like to keep a physical and temporary distance from the images: it’s “mentally healthy” to let the pictures come and go in your mind, and to take as much time as you need.

Who would you say was instrumental in shaping your artistic practice?

I used to love Nan Goldin, Ed Van der Elsken and Sally Mann when I was studying, but I don’t think I’m necessarily technically or aesthetically influenced by them. My influences mainly come from painting and cinema: I’m a big fan of Felix Vallotton, and Robert Mulligan’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

What are your impressions as an artist working in Belgium today?

Belgium is a generous place to grow as an artist. There’s a dynamic art scene, with a large community of artists, galleries, museums and creative spaces all crammed into a small territory. Also coming from Spain, I truly appreciate the wide education offered in the art scene – there’s practically a fine arts school in every neighbourhood in Brussels, along with many art-related (and often free) activities and spaces open to the large public thanks to spaces like RECYCLART or Ultima Vez.

Though I’ve been in Belgium for five years already, I feel that I’m still not entirely aware of the contemporary art scene. I’d like to think though that I’m contributing to questions related to identity and memory through my work.

Talk to us about the people around you, your local scene. To what extent does it inspire and influence you?

Of course, the perceptions and thoughts of my friends and fellows are crucial – but sometimes the thin line between trust and self-confidence can be over-blurred, at the risk of being overly influenced.

Contemporary art can create a space for introspection and give a visible presence to the invisible.

What does success look like to you?

If you read van Gogh’s letters to his brother Theo, you can see how difficult it was for him as he was unable to make a living from his work. He was poor, always dependent on others and no one was interested in his art during his lifetime. Yet nowadays you would hardly call him a failure, would you? To be “successful” in art is very subjective.

To you, what role should contemporary art occupy in the community?

Contemporary art should raise more questions, rather than provide answers. It should help others understand and learn about the world and see things differently. Contemporary art can create a space for introspection and give a visible presence to the invisible. It’s also an entry point for the community to dig into relevant topics.

Which Belgian artists do you follow, look at for inspiration?

I was galvanised by Michaël Borremans’ paintings and drawings during his show at BOZAR. Although he might not be considered an artist, I also really like Thierry Struvay’s amateur photo collection – they make me laugh and have this weird, domestic aspect to them which connect me to the vernacular imagery. Panamarenko and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s works are also among my favourites.

On a more personal note, how does your everyday inform your work?

I’d say that a lot of my practice involves following my gut instincts and capturing something that inspires me in the moment. Additionally, being close to nature, hiking in the mountains and swimming in the sea are very rewarding moments.

And what do your parents, your family, think of what you do?

My mother, who is already retired, appreciates and supports my work – even if being an artist equals uncertainty. My brother works in real estate, and raises more questions related to the financial aspect of my career rather than work-related.

What you are up to in the months to come?

I’m currently working on my first book of photographs entitled Vague de rêve, which will be published in 2018 and focuses on the triangular relationship between humans, nature and animals.