On being Vlaemsch

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Hans Op de Beeck take a deep dive into Flemish identity and investigate how it relates to past and future. What does ‘being Flemish’ even mean? Who can give an answer to that? We asked Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui.

© Koen Broos

What does the word Vlaemsch mean to you?

Vlaemsch to me conjures up an image of an old, faded newspaper. As if you are looking at a faraway past and something close by at the same time. The newspaper may be only a hundred years old, but a lot has happened in a short period of time. So it mostly reminds me of the contrast between youngsters on Instagram or Facebook today, and the time when communicating about identity – about being Flemish – was done through newspapers or other forms of propaganda.”

“On the one hand there’s a current form of Flemishness, and there’s a Flemish mythology. Much of the latter is down to our education system. You are steeped in a sort of indoctrination at school: you are being fed a certain aesthetic, a certain way of thinking about yourself and your surroundings. It’s a framing of your own culture in which you are drawn along to such an extent that it starts to resemble self-aggrandisement. That means you don’t question it at all. Only much later do you realise: what price do I pay for this? And how much of what I thought was true about our past, actually happened?”

“Because the reality is of course much more complex: some painters may have worked in Flanders, but perhaps learned all they knew in Italy, Spain or the Netherlands. So although Europe was very interconnected in terms of art, and those connections could reach quite far, in Flanders we feel a need to say: “No, that came from ‘here’!” It has to be wrought from Flemish clay. While in reality our entire culture was completely shaped by foreign influences.”

Do you think the Flemish identity could rather be a symbol of cross-pollination – of being open to other things, instead of that narrow definition of ‘here’? Because after all even the Fiamminghi were Dutch, right?

“I think for me ‘being Flemish’ will always be connected to geography – you are here. But in a port city like Antwerp, for example, you always have the image of boats sailing in and out. And Brussels is also a place where many people come and go. We are surrounded by other identities like Germans, Dutch and French. So you automatically get the feeling we are a sort of centre point of diverse impressions. And I think that we in some way have to deal with all of those identities as a matter of course, that we have to function as a sort of go-between – between France and the Netherlands, between Germany and France, … between those different energies. If you approach identity in that way, it becomes a lot more interesting. Because it means that you are interconnected rather than isolated. And that’s a real danger today.”

So ‘Flemish’ is really a fluid identity?

“I definitely think being Flemish is a fluid state, just like any identity. Just look at the UK, where people – despite Brexit – adopt tons of cultural elements from overseas. Because what is really English anyway? Even tea comes from abroad. The appropriation of certain elements from foreign countries that are connected by some complex history is a given. So I do see that as a constant transformation. Sometimes I am a bit weary of the direction we currently seem to be going in. We forget a lot of our history and do not face up to certain parts of it. I think it is necessary to go back to the past every now and then, to search for your roots and to disentangle them where necessary. That way you can face the future without all that tension.”

With a last name like Cherkaoui, people don’t easily label you as Flemish, even though I definitely am.

"You encounter a lot of expectations. ‘Hans Op de Beeck’, that immediately sounds Flemish or Dutch. With me that’s more complex, it generates a certain tension. Despite the fact that I was born in Antwerp and grew up in Hoboken, and probably have a much stronger Antwerp accent than Hans or anyone else. It’s always been something that I have had to deal with, to make people understand the real range of identities that can encompass ‘Flemishness’. I do not allow myself to feel excluded. It just isn’t an option. You always belong, despite the fact that people will happily shove you aside.”