Exploring ‘Back to Business’ with artist Floris Boccanegra

Belgian conceptual artist Floris Boccanegra explores the refugee crisis through his visualisation of human resilience.

by Manu SharmaPublished on : Dec 06, 2021

Floris Boccanegra is a Belgian conceptual artist whose popularity on the internet is beginning to boom. His work has a strong focus on the hidden, the veiled and the insidious elements of society; rather, the aspects of human nature itself that we choose to turn a blind eye to. Disarmingly simple in their construction, the visual force behind Boccanegra’s work comes largely from the associations one begins to make with ideas and concepts in their mind. What comes next is the concept of the piece itself; the revelation, and here is where the artist’s work materialises in its full.  Boccanegra explains the importance of using a two-pronged approach to practice, telling STIR, “Art needs to have a combination of a good story and a powerful image. Art is like boxing; you need to go left-fist in and then follow-up with a right-fist. The first punch is what you show the spectator; what they see immediately. The spectator is at least intrigued now. The work doesn’t have to be beautiful, nor ugly, because what really matters is that it captures their imagination. The right punch is the story behind it, and that’s what completes the combo.”

Another shop shutter by Floris Boccanegra, this one looking rather like a target | Floris Boccanegra | STIRworld
Another shop shutter by Floris Boccanegra, this one looking rather like a target Image: Floris Boccanegra

The artist was born in Roeselare in Belgium, which is a relatively small city, and grew up as an avid reader of war history. His parents ran a bookstore wherein he would spend his days poring over the photographs and accounts of historical battles. What added to his fascination with war is that Roeselare itself is located in an area known as the ‘Left Hook’, which was the site of many brutal engagements during the First World War. Discussing his early plans, Boccanegra tells STIR, “I wanted to be a photojournalist. I enjoyed the yearly books of the world press photo. An image really can say more than a thousand words. I find it amazing how much you can tell with one good photo.” The artist would not end up pursuing photojournalism, but his drive to visualise the darker aspects of society remained. He continues, saying “At 18, I studied English and History at Artevelde in Ghenz. Eventually, I became a teacher, and after that, I began to create my own art as well.” The artist considers himself a “late-bloomer” in that he has no formal artistic background and so it has taken him longer than some to become a practicing creative. However, this is no indication of Boccanegra’s works’ quality, and as early as Machete Season, which was his first project, a certain tenebrous force is palpable within his practice.

Detail showing Boccanegra's intervention | Floris Boccanegra | STIRworld
Detail showing Boccanegra's intervention Image: Floris Boccanegra

Discussing this piece, Boccanegra explains that his first art project was a sculpture themed around the Rwandan genocide. He explains, “I got great feedback and was motivated to continue.” The work itself consisted of Machetes that had been sourced from Rwanda, and stuck to a large frame; similar to what one might find inside the model kit for a toy airplane. As his website explains, the artist stuck these blades to the frame with magnets, in order to create the feeling that one could simply remove them and participate in acts of violence, as was the case in Rwanda in 1994. The site reads, “All of a sudden this piece of art could change into a lethal weapon. You could be a victim; you could even turn into an aggressor.”

One may only imagine the violence these shutters have borne witness to | Floris Boccanegra | STIRworld
One may only imagine the violence these shutters have borne witness to Image: Floris Boccanegra

Boccanegra’s latest offering, Back to Business, takes on after his previous work Out of Business, which was undertaken by him in 2017. He explains, “These works are about the ongoing refugee crisis. In Belgium, people don't like refugees, and I wanted them to see why these people are fleeing their countries. In Western Europe, there hasn’t been a war in 89 years, and so I wanted to show people that this is what war does, these are the kinds of people that are most affected by it, and this is why they are fleeing. I worked with an Iraqi-Belgian artist and we found nine shop shutters that I used to symbolise normal, working-class people. These shutters were completely destroyed with bullet holes and shrapnel.” The artist Boccanegra worked with has an uncle in Mosul, where he had gone in order to source the shutters. The gentleman told Boccanegra that they have a junkyard of ordinary, everyday things that have been ruined by war, and the artist sees this site as an ode to the resilience of people who have lost everything, yet still find the strength to rebuild. Boccanegra continues, saying “I collected the metal plates going back there, and I recreated those shutters. I made the patterns myself inspired by what I saw and covered the holes with bullet casings. I put these back together in order to symbolise that same ingenuity and resilience.”

The artist’s shutters stand solemnly, as both sentinel and witness | Floris Boccanegra | STIRworld
The artist’s shutters stand solemnly, as both sentinel and witness Image: Floris Boccanegra

The artist’s work is coming at a point when talk of refugees drowning in the ocean and being forced to live in internment camps is becoming increasingly commonplace in the Western world. Works such as Out of Business and Back to Business act as empathy-building exercises, and even in times such as these, where social strife, war and disease rage on, remind us not to despair. After, all, the refugees haven’t. So, what comes next for him, I asked. Boccanegra is certainly preoccupied with increasing his exhibition output. He finds it to be a challenging task, not the least of all because of what the pandemic has done to the art market. He explains, “I work largely on my own. I don't have a gallery or a museum. The energy comes from within and I am very lucky to have met the people that have helped me along the way. Now art places are picking up again. My work is not very sellable. Galleries are not very fond of. Yet, I continue to create as this is my attempt to show people things that matter to me and deserve more attention.” One recent exhibition Boccanegra was a part of is called Nobody is an Island, which was a group exhibition and was curated by Jan Moeyaert. The artist interprets the other practitioners he exhibited alongside as a community of sorts; his community in fact, and above all else, hopes to be able to once again exhibit alongside them, along with other artists as well.

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