Different normalities: How Jean-Samuel N’Sengi accepted and freed himself through art

This summer, BOZAR is hosting Somewhere In Between, an exhibition which celebrates the vast array of art practices in Europe and tells the stories of anyone who’s someone in the diverse world of European contemporary art. Spread across different venues within Belgium and constellations further afield, it showcases the artistic dialogue taking place in the continent today.

As part of BOZAR’s ambitious show, Brussels-based curators Romuald Demidenko and Hélène Jacques have prepared Fremdkörper: Non-normative body and voice mapping, a group exhibition of voices both upcoming and established, to explore the elusive boundaries between physical corporalities and abstract identities. For the occasion, we’ve invited five of the signed artists to showcase their works.

Currently studying at l’Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts de Bruxelles, Jean-Samuel N’Sengi’s (1994) passion for art stems from a fascination with fashion and music. As is exemplified in his displayed series Lipstick Phase, the young Brussels-based photographer explains how frustrations with society can become catalysts for creativity.

At its core, what is your work about? How would you describe it?

I’m still exploring and searching, but my work is increasingly coming from an obsession with bodies of all different types. Naked or not, I have a need to showcase them. Saying that, I’m also trying to re-work gender issues, which is also related to the body in some kind of way. When working with my friends, or their friends, and models, I want them to feel free, just as much as I free myself with my art.

What is its starting point and statement?

Justice for all, I guess. As a gay African boy based in Belgium, it’s not easy to be accepted the way you are, or even to accept yourself. So my work really is inspired by that frustration. Then I ask myself questions such as why is that, or why do I feel like this, why am I not “normal”? And what does normal even mean? Who has the authority to decide what it means?

Can you talk to us about your approach in general?

I try to transform this previously mentioned frustration into something beautiful and nice to look at, using codes and techniques mostly derived from fashion photography. My biggest influences are Robert Mapplethorpe, Helmut Newton, Ren Hang, Rineke Dijkstra and Cindy Sherman.

What characterises your work?

I don’t really know, I think most people can see or feel that my work is honest – whether they like it or not.

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

I start by taking notes, then talk about it to my friends, who often have to push me into realising the idea, as I’m not confident enough. Then I start shooting!

What series and / or project are you currently working on?

Right now I’m still working on Lipstick Phase, the three-photograph series showcased at BOZAR for the Somewhere in Between exhibition.

What are the challenges you face as an artist working in Belgium today?

Well, it’s really hard to say this, but the financial aspect…

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

Most of the models I use are my friends or people that I hang out with. They inspire me a lot, they make me who I’m. We’re all different and act in our own ways and accept each other. We’re all fighting to be heard.

What does success look like to you?

Success for me would be the potential to make a little difference in the world – even if it sounds a bit cheesy, that’s exactly how I see it. I want people to see my work and question themselves, or question what’s going on around them these days. In the end, it’s all about questioning! Because when you look for the answers, an adventure begins.

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

Contemporary art should remain open to everything. I mean it should be open to new ideas or movements, and it should reflect everything that is happening globally.

Which Belgian artists do you follow or look at for inspiration? Either from the past or the present.

I don’t really know, but I would say I’m really amazed by Jan Fabre’s work. Every time I see it, it puts me in a trance; taking me somewhere else. I love his audacity.

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

Most of them don’t really know what I do to be honest. But my sisters are really proud of me!

Somewhere In Between, and Fremdkörper are on display at BOZAR until Sunday 19th August.