Amber Andrews, Flâneuse
13.01—18.02.2024 Nieuw Zuid
For her third solo presentation with gallery Sofie Van De Velde, Amber Andrews has developed a new body of work under the title Flâneuse. Rarely encountered under this female rendition, flâneur is a term first coined in 1585 but popularised in the 19th century, referring to a wealthy man who could ‘wander aimlessly’ and later developed to mean ‘a man who likes to do nothing’. In the Antwerp dialect, it connotes men who take to the street with the intention of being noticed.
Narratives around walking have repeatedly disregarded the female experience; but flâneuse is not about making a woman fit a masculine concept, rather to redefine the concept itself . For Andrews, it acts as a framework through which to gather observations and formulate reflections.
She brings us into an imagined reality where real women from her life turn to stone, and statues come to life cloaked in fur and wearing shoes. By means of her paintbrush, she erects sculptures as a claim to public space. Guided by – and playing with – instances of duality, she seeks the still moments that derive from walking; she contrasts solid material with lush fabrics; and keeps her statues in plain sight, propped on plinths or sheltered by balustrades for safe distance.
But when the door shuts on us, all that vanishes. The shell-like covering which our souls have excreted to house themselves, to make for themselves a shape distinct from others, is broken, and there is left of all these wrinkles and roughnesses a central oyster of perceptiveness, an enormous eye.
With Flâneuse, you continue to explore a concern with how women have traditionally been portrayed in the arts, this time pointing to their status as immobile, inactive.
A woman is not only incredibly active, but is simultaneously multitasking in her mind. She knows everybody’s agenda. And yet, If you look at the Disney stories we were raised watching, women are scripted as beautiful, inactive characters. They wear nice gowns, they can sing, but their sole purpose is to seduce their male co-stars who have to climb, drag, fight the dragons… These are some of the initial considerations that led me to the theme of the flâneuse; a word that I was also horrified to learn referred to a kind of lounge chair with its first female gendered translation. So not just to a domestic object, but to one that insinuates idleness.
If we turn to the act of walking, there is an interesting paradox whereby not only is there a slowness inherent to walking, it also invites a sense of stillness. It’s the only gesture that invites us to actually stop and observe.
By walking, one engages in a different awareness; our eyes are wide open and we can take in surroundings otherwise unnoticed. Statues in public space is one of the main sub-themes I have explored in this new body of work. Most erected monuments we encounter on our city walks are of men who accomplished honourable achievements; whilst female statues have historically depicted symbols, muses, religious figures or of nude women remained unnamed. So I ran with the idea of figuratively reclaiming the streets by placing women in them; and to draw attention to their real-life absence.
There is a quote from Virginia Woolf’s essay Street Haunting that resonated with me; she describes this instance where she sees a bust of a woman, and immediately wonders what shoes she may have been wearing. That’s exactly how I would have reacted. Of course the woman would have considered how to present herself and shoes are an important, missing piece of the story.
What does it mean for you to be a flâneuse?
I’ve been reflecting on how walking makes me cautious, alert; and what catches my attention. It’s sad that many people choose their phones over looking where they’re going. Nowadays, everything remains at surface level; our daily lives require things to go at the fastest tempo, there is no time left to chance. There is no time to tell a story. The only way for me to do that is in the function of my paintings. So navigating the world with the flâneuse mindset means I start seeing with intention, noting the small, simple things.
We also seem to have developed a fear of getting lost, relying heavily on navigational tools whether at home or walking somewhere new.
We need journeys to be seamless, and to be told where to eat, drink, and be entertained. There’s no space or time to make discoveries anymore. And in my opinion, platforms like tik tok have completely ruined any chance of discovering a hidden treasure.
This is a good segway into the notion of anonymity, to appear or disappear on the streets. While the flâneur has the freedom to pass unnoticed, the flâneuse must be streetwise. How have you addressed this in your work?
Women who take the streets are still today dominated by the male gaze. Clothing therefore becomes an armour. For my last show, every female I painted was nude because I wanted it to be as pure as possible; it needed to be about the woman and nothing else. Fashion is just an extra, a façade. I didn't want anything else to interfere with it. But now, almost everything I painted includes clothing. There is another moment in Street Haunting where Woolf writes about a woman who wants to be incognito on the street. She becomes shell-like, which brought the Renaissance, ‘Birth of Venus’ type image to mind.
So I started depicting two female figures carrying this shell-like object out of which another woman emerges, as a metaphor for grooming oneself with the purpose of going out, having fun. I see shells like protective layers one can wrap around oneself; but they are also beautiful natural elements we adorn ourselves with. So that was a nice duality. In fact what I really liked about the Flâneuse thematic is that there are many opposites; pros and cons; pluses and minuses; which is also so important for me as a painter. A painting is all about contrasts: If you put something very thick on canvas, there should be something see-through as well. If there is black, you're going to need something light. But each element needs the other to achieve balance.
This conversation took place in December 2023 during an aimless stroll around the Dansaert district of Brussels.
 Elkin, Lauren. Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London. London: Chatto & Windus, 2016
 Woolf, Virginia. Street Haunting: A London Adventure. San Francisco: The Westgate Press, 1930