One of the best and most unexpected things this blog has brought me is the interaction with interesting and inspiring people all over the world. One of these has been Anna Stolyarova, a Ukrainian-born girl who’s been living in Amsterdam for 15 years now. A few years ago she decided to give up her glamorous career in advertising to start an ambitious street art project. Now she is the director of the successful initiative Street Art Museum Amsterdam (SAMA). Earlier this year Anna gave me a private tour around her open air museum which currently covers over twenty murals in the streets of Nieuw-West, a lesser known area that is hardly explored by tourists or even by Amsterdam citizens for that matter.
Here is a recap of that day, but I’m afraid my words aren’t able to do justice to Anna’s passion and enthusiasm. Consider this article a taster and simply book a tour with Anna for the full art experience. A 3hr tour costs only €15.
Living the Bridget Jones lifestyle
One of my first questions for Anna was what she did before she started SAMA. Her simple and surprising answer to this question was: “Shopping.”
Anna has a background in advertising and she used to “live the Bridget Jones lifestyle”. Anna: “On Fridays we used to go to the pub and drank champagne. My weekends were filled with parties and shopping. For work I went to New York, Tokyo, Buenos Aires, and all I saw was Zara.”
Anna has worked on big advertising projects featuring icons as Alicia Keys and lived in Brussels and London before settling down in Amsterdam. At a certain point she started to get enough of the advertising world and decided to take a sabbatical to travel around the world for a year.
I danced with Kylie Minogue in a friend’s house and had no idea who she was. Having grown up in the Ukraine, I had never seen any of her music videos before.”
During her travels she connected to many different cultures, especially to the culture of street art which she recognised in different countries all over the world. Once she returned to Amsterdam she didn’t understand why such a scene was still missing in this world city.
Inspired by the worldwide street art movements, she started to write a blog and hoped to write regular articles for Time Out. Despite encouraging words saying her writings were nice, her articles couldn’t be published as she didn’t write about things that were actually out there, but only about what was NOT in Amsterdam. Anna realised that it was time to change her role and to stop shouting ‘Why isn’t anything here in Amsterdam like in cities all over the world?’ and instead start to make it happen. Together with Dianne Riley, Nicole Blommers, Wendy Caris, Boris de Jong, and Miriam B. set up the project ‘Tales of the Nine’ and their aim was to have nine murals in this burough (stadsdeel) of Amsterdam.
The social aspect of street art
Fast forward to four years later and we see the museum has almost thirty artworks in their collection. Each work has its own tale and strong connections to the neighbourhood. That’s the essence of this museum: each work has a different theme that reflects the issues in that particular area or aims to start an open dialogue between artists and residents, among residents or between residents and local councils even. These dialogues are especially valuable in this part of Amsterdam. Nieuw-West is a fairly new borough, it was created in 2010 as a merger of three former boroughs. The majority of the residential neighbourhoods however, were already built in the 1950s, mostly to house the immigrant workers (gastarbeiders) who were invited to live and work in the Netherlands as there was a shortage of workers at that time. Now Nieuw-West is the biggest of all Amsterdam boroughs. It consists of nine neighbourhoods (wijken) and is populated with 133,000 people of 122 nationalities. Most of the houses are council flats/houses and some areas in the borough are about to get demolished for renovation, this will take at least five years. During this process also some of the murals will be destroyed.
Anna about the woman in the mural Tolerance by Argentinian artist Alaniz: “At first the woman in the work was me, cupping my breasts and looking over the neighbourhood into the world. However, this wasn’t appropriate for this neighbourhood as it’s a predominantly Muslim community. The woman was changed into Dianne holding her newborn baby who she carried around all the time at that moment. Her eyes were closed to change the powerful independent woman in a more serene, and docile, figure. The woman wears seven snakes around her neck. Dianne has snakes so that makes sense, but it was actually the pet shop just down the street which inspired the artist to make a connection with the local community. On top of the woman’s head you see many figures such as the man who lived in the building and the grandmother who passed away just a few months ago. But you can also see me, Dianne, her baby, her dog and some of the local residents on the woman’s head.” Interesting to know about the artist’s technique is that he didn’t spray paint any parts of the piece, he just used paint (and mixed the colours himself).
Alternative baby photo album
Alaniz’ mural is not the only work in the museum that depicts Dianne’s daughter. One year later her face was used for the paintings Reflection by Mexican-born artist Stinkfish on both ends of a skate ramp. In the first photo you can see Anna holding a magazine article about Stinkfish’s collaboration with Prada. He was initially contracted to do the backdrops for the fashion shows, but later also designed the prints for the dresses.
A print of the baby’s foot was incorporated in a massive work by Spanish-born artist Skount called The Tree of Life: Destiny (more pics of this work further down in this article).
So how does one start such an ambitious venture of putting up public artworks in an area where art expenses aren’t necessarily a priority for the residents? Anna: “First thing we did was go talk to the woningcorporaties (local councils). Then we spoke to residents and shop owners about our idea. Next step was to talk to the municipality (gemeente), but they weren’t in the position to make any decisions in this. When 80% of the residents had said yes, we started to contact artists. We asked for their budgets for materials and basic expenses. We made clear that we didn’t have the money for a commissioned work. We showed sketches to residents, went back to the local council and eventually we got the green light for our first wall.”
Resident participation and engagement is evident in many of the works as you can tell from Alaniz’ Tolerance and also in these following works by Pau Quintanajornet & Skount and Alaniz. When you look at the detail photos you can read the names of local residents who supported the artworks in their neighbourhood, either by giving their approval, their walls, food or help with sourcing materials.
Interesting fact about Alaniz’ Safety: it’s painted on a 12m high wall, but the scaffolding didn’t go any higher than 8m. The top of the wall was painted by using a 6m long paintbrush. Street art connoisseurs might recognise a touch of the legendary Faith47 in this work. Alaniz indeed used some of her tricks for this mural.
While Anna led me from one artwork to another and told me their tales, she was frequently on the phone coordinating new PR activities, new commissions and two artists who were painting at that very moment. Anna had hardly slept the night before as she was up working till very late in the night. It’s clear that this project is her big passion and it’s great to see that all the hard work of this ambitious woman is being rewarded. SAMA often features in printed and digital articles and photos of the museum pieces are used in brochures published by local councils. The organisation is recognised by local councils as an initiative that makes a significant contribution to the city.
When we sat down for coffee Anna spotted Dogan Oorthuis, a coordinator for the borough of Nieuw-West (wijkmanager stadsdeel Nieuw-West), who has supported SAMA from the very beginning: “I was interested in the project because it wasn’t only original, but also contemporary and it was something that was immediately visible in society. I supported Anna and advised her to start small with one or two pieces. Once she had established herself a bit it would be easier to receive support from both local residents and local councils. And now they’ve reached the point they make this happen independently. I call them my babies, but they’ve reached the stage of standing on their own feet by now. After the first piece there was much resistance. Everybody had an opinion, both positive and also negative. I don’t mind if there are negative opinions, just the fact that people have an opinion or that there’s a discussion counts actually.”
Parallels and juxtapositions
Continuing our walk, we caught some live painting by Dutch artist Bart whose painting appeared adjacent to the piece by ZAS (who is a member of the APC crew, like Stinkfish). These two pieces had been carefully curated by SAMA, juxtaposing two different types of artists and artworks: Bart is a Dutch middle-aged man and painter while ZAS is a young girl from Colombia who does graffiti. What their art has in common is that they are both 3D works.
It happens quite frequently that two artists are working side by side. Sometimes it’s a coincidence, sometimes it’s done on purpose. Sometimes it’s because the confirmation from one artist is needed for the involvement of another (older) artist.
Top: Dimension by Spanish artist Btoy, featuring the ambiguous representation of a Nieuw-West resident who could be either boy, girl, black, white, Asian or Latino. Bottom: Dutch Girl posing in front of Museum by Uriginal, featuring two Dutch icons: footballer Johan Cruijff and painter Vincent van Gogh.
A picture is worth a thousand words
And that is why I conclude this article with a photo gallery. Go to the Street Art Museum Amsterdam photo album on my Flickr page to see high res versions of the photos in this article, and many more.