The many faces of lockdown solitude: ‘54+1 Portraits’ by Valérie Barkowski

On facing mundane days in lockdown, Belgian textile designer Valérie Barkowski turned everyday things like leeks and buttons into faces, resulting in her photo book, 54+1 Portraits.

by Jincy IypePublished on : Dec 11, 2020

For textile designer and former creative director of lifestyle brand No-Mad, Valerie Barkowski, the lockdown brought bouts of artistic inspiration and a frenzied want to create. Facing a confined spring in Brussels, Barkowski let herself be guided by curiosity and prudence – foraging things from her own house and redesigning faces that were emergently getting masked around the world – carrot slices, a rusty nail, a few stray buttons and toothpicks resurrected from drawers mingled with rice noodles, asparagus stems and flower pistils collected on daily walks, to take the shape of eyes, noses, mouths and expressive headgears.   

01 min watch Belgium based textile designer Valérie Barkowski flips through her book, 54+1 Portraits | 54+1 Portraits by Valérie Barkowski | STIRworld
Belgium based textile designer Valérie Barkowski flips through her book, 54+1 Portraits Video: Courtesy of Valérie Barkowski

In this way, 72 portraits, free-spirited and cheerful, took birth. Barkowski froze each visage in time by clicking their photographs and sharing them on social media where they received a flood of likes and smiles. The love and appreciation received online were proof that her creations had somehow helped people overcome dull days at home and tough days at work, looking at the same things day in and day out, and admiring the way she turned the mundaneness into art. The portraits are warm, simple and free, and bring a familiar smile to your face.

Pages from 54+1 Portraits by Valérie Barkowski | 54+1 Portraits by Valérie Barkowski | STIRworld
Pages from 54+1 Portraits by Valérie Barkowski Image: Courtesy of Valérie Barkowski
Pages from 54+1 Portraits by Valérie Barkowski (Eye Candy, Aglaofotis)| 54+1 Portraits by Valérie Barkowski | STIRworld
Eye Candy and Aglaofotis Image: Courtesy of Valérie Barkowski

Barkowski proceeded to choose 55 of them for her first photo book 54+1 Portraits, signed and numbered, a limited edition of 250. “With every expressive face preserved on my smartphone, I ultimately turned them over for professional editing at the insistence of photographer and friend, Anita Calero. Immortalised with a Franc' Pairon layout and heavy grammage paper, this book is my way of sharing my abstract creations with the real world,” she shares.

Mr. Janis | 54+1 Portraits by Valérie Barkowski | STIRworld
Mr. Janis Image: Courtesy of Valérie Barkowski
Mr. Leek | 54+1 Portraits by Valérie Barkowski | STIRworld
Mr. Leek Image: Courtesy of Valérie Barkowski

These faces even got lovingly named based on the personalities they exhibited – Mr. Leek, Mrs. Agathe Power, Joker, Mr. Musashi, Mr. To Tem, Mr. Janis, Alban… The collection of portraits is also carefully curated into three families: Primitives, Ethnics and Kwanita. “In their distinct language, each tells a human story — also revealing the subtle power of imagination and how monotony can manifest into condensed, expressive, free-spirited creativity,” adds Barkowski.

A page from the limited edition book (portrait families) | 54+1 Portraits by Valérie Barkowski | STIRworld
A page from the limited edition book (portrait families) Image: Courtesy of Valérie Barkowski
Mrs. Agathe Power | 54+1 Portraits by Valérie Barkowski | STIRworld
Mrs. Agathe Power Image: Courtesy of Valérie Barkowski
Mr. To Tem | 54+1 Portraits by Valérie Barkowski | STIRworld
Mr. To Tem Image: Courtesy of Valérie Barkowski

Why 54+1? Well, all chosen ones fell into the three families, but one didn’t. So, it became a plus one!

Speaking of her favourite portraits (quite reluctantly as all of them are close to her heart), Barkowski shares that Sultan Walla tops the list (and also graces the front cover) as he relates to her work as a designer – he is named so because the measuring tape he has for a turban is reminiscent of a sultan and walla, or because he could be tailor and spends much of his time with textiles, like she does. Made from red onion skins, strands of soba noodles and an elastic band, Don’t Cry is another favourite, because of its androgynous nature and “probably because I like red,” she chuckles.

Don’t Cry | 54+1 Portraits by Valérie Barkowski | STIRworld
Don’t Cry Image: Courtesy of Valérie Barkowski
Mr. Buzz | 54+1 Portraits by Valérie Barkowski | STIRworld
Mr. Buzz Image: Courtesy of Valérie Barkowski

Barkowski mentions that one of her friends in Marrakech, Nicole Manfron, asked her to participate in an ongoing online initiative, called 'Meet My Wilson' by David Leppan, which curates faces made with things lying around, such as spoons, hairbands, a peculiarly shaped rock or vegetable, and posts them online in a bid to send love and strength to those feeling depressed during the pandemic, to let them know that they are not alone. The movement is inspired by the film Castaway, where Tom Hanks is isolated on a deserted island, and his character finds solace and friendship in a volleyball that he paints on and names ‘Wilson’. “I made my first one, Mama Wemba for #meetmywilson, and that’s how this started; I decided to create a portrait daily and here we are!” she shares.

“I didn’t really have a plan for them... I just made them. Just the pleasure of having a creative, feel-good routine every day. I challenged myself too, deciding not to spend more than 10 minutes creating each,” the Belgium-based designer adds.

Sultan Qaboos | 54+1 Portraits by Valérie Barkowski | STIRworld
Sultan Qaboos Image: Courtesy of Valérie Barkowski
Mr. Bunny | 54+1 Portraits by Valérie Barkowski | STIRworld
Mr. Bunny Image: Courtesy of Valérie Barkowski

What she is most proud of is the fact that all the faces came about quiet spontaneously. Mr. Manibota was literally conceived while cutting leeks for a meal, similar to Asparagus Mamma. “All of them came alive in a funny, unplanned way and brought smiles to the community who follows me. The fact that this manifested as prints and a lovely book fills me up with tremendous joy,” Barkowski comments.

Mr. Manitoba | 54+1 Portraits by Valérie Barkowski | STIRworld
Mr. Manitoba Image: Courtesy of Valérie Barkowski
Alban | 54+1 Portraits by Valérie Barkowski | STIRworld
Alban Image: Courtesy of Valérie Barkowski

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