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Raoul Balai

The merchant
always wins, unfortunately

It is a text that cannot be overlooked. A total of 53 letters along the canal between the municipal office and the water board building. Each letter three metres high. Combined, they are about one hundred and twenty metres wide. Hollywood-like proportions, says Raul Balai. In the sense that his text calls for attention just as conspicuously as the ‘Hollywood Sign’ near Los Angeles. The font is exactly the same as that of the iconic sign referring to the film industry in America.

After much deliberation, he named his work of art ‘Mollywood’. A big wink to ‘Hollywood’, ‘Nollywood’, ‘Bollywood’ and any other derivations that may exist. He considered ‘Zollywood’ for a while, with the Z for Zeeland. But he ended up deciding on ‘Mollywood’, with the M for Middelburg: ,,Molly is a code word for XTC in the United states. That’s why I chose ‘Mollywood’. Just as religion is called opium for the people, so are popular (film)culture and everything that has sprung from it, in a way.”

We have now been talking about the letters themselves. But those letters form words and the words form a sentence: ‘HOW OUR EXPLOITATIVE STATE OF MIND FRAMES THE SHAPE OF THE WORLD’. This brings us straight to the core of Raul Balai’s artistry

Again, in more ways than one. You cannot really call his installation for Façade graffiti, but the way in which it is drawing attention is similar. The artist considers Amsterdam’s graffiti scene, in which he grew up in the 1980s en 1990s, his ‘creative birthplace’. When he was guest curator of an exhibition at CBK Zuidoost Amsterdam in 2019, he said: “Being a part of the hip-hop culture, its strong connection to the Afro/Latino/Caribbean founders, has always given me an element of empowerment. In addition, the DIY (Do It Yourself) culture that goes with it, and the ‘fuck the system’ mentality have shaped me as an artist.”

‘How exploitation shapes the world’ – the text along the canal freely summarized. Exploitation is a core concept for Raul Balai – in his art, in his life.  He demonstrated this, for example,  in his installation #Ishouldloveyoumorethanpizza at art platform Nest in The Hague two years ago. There, he used cardboard boxes to build a chapel with an altar and an offering table where you could light a candle. On the back wall, on which saints are depicted in churches, he had painted three young package deliverers.

The artist feels completely at home in Middelburg: “The more I studied the location – Middelburg, Walcheren – the more interesting it became to me. From the perspective of my interest in history,  I find it strange that Zeeland doesn’t occupy a far more central role in Dutch history. It contains so much history: Watergeuzen (sea beggars), VOC (Dutch East India Company), WIC (Dutch West India Company), Second World War. Because of the Randstad navel-gazing, the province is being pushed aside a bit, just like Groningen – sorry Groningers. I’m interested in history. This interest stems from my Surinam roots. Having ancestors in China, India, Africa, I feel compelled to look at my roots. My mother is Dutch, descending from farmers in the Haarlemmermeer polder. Thanks to her, I know the countryside as it is in Zeeland. My Surinam father is a historian, he writes about slavery.”

The artist has placed his letters in front of two office buildings which he calls ‘disproportionate’ for Middelburg: “Here, it is about prestige. In my opinion, the buildings are monstrous. Which doesn’t change the fact that this makes it an interesting place. You can see the system of exploitation being reflected. The canal as a connection to the other side of the world refers to colonialism. My work often touches on that theme. But I don’t want to link exploitation only to that. Just have a look at this location. A little further down the road, there used to be Philip’s lamp base factory Vitrite. It was relocated to a low-wage country, with all the consequences that this had for employment in Middelburg. There are two archetypes in Dutch society: the merchant and the minister. The merchant always wins, unfortunately. Power and lobby are more important than citizens. We must move towards a system in which money isn’t being put over people.”

Raul Balai (Amsterdam, 1980) works as a designer, exhibition maker, curator and artist. In the 1980s and 1990s, he was influenced by the hip-hop and house scenes. He went to the Utrecht Hogeschool  voor de Kunsten HKU (University of the Arts). He creates works about cultural exchanges, mixtures and clashes. He does so in many disciplines: painting, graffiti, graphic design, illustration, photography. In recent years, he exhibited at Contour Biennale in Mechelen (Belgium), Biennale Dak’Art in Senegal, M HKA in Antwerp, Galleri Image in Aarhus (Denmark), NEST The Hague, WM Gallery Amsterdam, Black Archives Amsterdam, Rembrandt Museum Amsterdam.



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