Stef Van Looveren’s work analysis of gender performativity proceeds in the labyrinthine realms and results in thoroughly explorational, gestural, and emotional artwork that is interdisciplinary in method and fluid in approach, questioning the limitations placed on bodies.
Be it melting wax figures, epoxy nickel-plated portable sculptures moulded on human genitalia, gigantic, looming nails or expressional video installations, Van Looveren’s work interrupts the sustainability of traditional value systems and poses a deeper, background inquiry in gender normativity, resulting in an original and thought-provoking look at the human body, “an instrument that we put into motion.”

“I am both a participant and a creator,” the artist says. Van Looveren identifies as gender-fluid. As much as their work on the wider scale challenges the arbitrary social constructions and outdated gender politics, Van Looveren’s practice is imbued with the responsibility to queer communities catalysed by their personal experiences. The silence of their grief screams in conceptual anarchy of colours and forms that defies gender and exists in the fluid domain, the substantiality of the conceptual framework allowing the artist to create work that not only challenges but evokes, protesting for freedom to exist, which is “a valuable and radical act in itself.”
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When and how did you realise that art was a platform that you could utilise to get across your ideas?
I’ve always been naturally drawn to keeping myself creatively busy, but it wasn’t until I went to art school at age 14 that I learned more about how to read visual imagery and art. I started out in audio-visuals. From taking staged self-portraits to understanding the performativity of gender expression through video, these elements became important tools of creating an image which translated my interests in gender theory and queer studies. These issues started to take a more serious turn later on while studying Fine Arts at Sint Lucas in Antwerp and Central Saint Martins in London. That’s when I truly discovered the power of visual representation and the influence art can have on people’s lives.
How do you think growing up in the suburbs of Antwerp – the city which is arguably the centre of avant-garde art and fashion – influenced your vision?
Antwerp is a small city that has a lot to offer. Growing up, I often went to these ‘underground’ parties where different creative scenes mingled and interacted, where the Antwerp ‘club kids’ lit up the night. This interaction opened a lot for me, it created a space to dress up, be wild, and meet incredible people. But most importantly, in a way, it became a space that felt safe to fully express myself. Living in Antwerp and being part of a subculture in a city with a history of avant-garde artists and creatives, I felt comfortable to highlight significant issues in my practice with a sense of humour, not taking myself too seriously.
There is a debate as old as time whether going to art school is worth it. Could you tell me a bit about your time studying Fine Arts at Central Saint Martins and Sint Lucas and how important these schools were in forming your aesthetic?
You don’t have to go to art school to make excellent work. But it makes it a lot easier if you do. Think about all the facilities and knowledge that are available there, what more could you ask for? I believe going to art school is essentially relevant because it provides you with time to search for the right mediums to express what you want and continuously fail at it. It’s a kind of magical, privileged bubble that silently bursts and falls apart by the time you graduate. That’s when you realise that being an artist means being by yourself most of the time.
CSM offered a lot of facilities, enabling me to master specific mediums such as moving image and video editing – realising images with an experimental and sensitive approach, giving rise to significant details, contributing to the visual language of my practice. On the other hand, studying at Sint Lucas helped me to find creative solutions with minimalistic means. Demanding a critical approach/thinking centred around the body, bodily forms and pigmentation, allowing me to digest the visual codes of female and male representations used in advertisement, fashion and art history, which in turn, encouraged me to use my own body as the instrument to communicate. My visual language has evolved by the intense combination of both Fine Arts programmes, emphasising the visibility of diverse characters through form and colour.
“I don’t think art should have a purpose at all. The freedom to exist and just be, whatever that ‘being’ might look like or evoke, is a valuable and radical act in itself.”
Your work is steeped in gender studies and challenges the discourse around normative views that still prevail in the allegedly gender-fluid world. Where do you start when you create art work?
There’s no fixed routine. I’m not the type to sit around and wait for an idea. In a way, my work relates to a certain discourse and there are endless ways to express and translate this into art work. I either get triggered by reading something or I get inspired by just doing/creating work. For me, it’s really important to switch materials and mediums from time to time to be able to approach my work from different perspectives. It all goes hand in hand at the end of the day. One medium influences – and sometimes reinforces – the other and vice versa.
For example, a video speaks in a completely different language than a sculpture does. A sculpture gives you a frozen image and a 3-dimensional experience, while video gives you a moving image in a 2-dimensional screen. The combination of these two has always been a way for me to imagine new work. It’s really about thinking in an interdisciplinary way and trying to find solutions for what a fluid work could look like. For me, the excitement lies in the process and precise decision-making. These actions truly reveal what I’m trying to get across and what it means to me.
Your multidisciplinary work itself speaks of blurred boundaries between different art forms. But what would you say is the overall visual language in your cross-disciplinary practice?
I’ve always dealt with questions concerning gay shame, freedom of sexual identity and gender expression in relation to the human body. These questions led me to explore the performativity and social construction of gender, by transforming and manipulating my appearance and body, using makeup, clothing and editing software. Often applying vibrant colours and distorting human shapes, my visual language is mainly figurative, mirroring and mixing contemporary visual culture in carefully staged installations.
Photography and moving image enabled me to playfully generate new possibilities by, for example, producing a video installation shown at Gallery Sofie Van de Velde (Antwerp) portraying a generation featuring a lot of my friends freely playing with clothing, hairstyle and body posture. Scanning the results 360° individually using a photo camera and putting the images into motion with After Effects, created a gentle moving and turning character, seemingly CGI but only generating virtual shifts and glitches on their skin. Carefully placing all characters back together in a diverse chronology in front of an intense infinite blue background resulted in an endless looping video. This technique along with a sculptural life-size bent screen assembled time and space, allowing the spectator to see the details. It was about honouring all kinds of people, it was about the different facets in which the spectator had the opportunity to look in and see the humanity.
Could you tell me a little bit about your project Radical Hope? What were the main ideas behind the project and how did you go about conveying them through the video, casting, and the exhibition at Hole Of The Fox? 
“Drawing on Hannah Arendt’s view of action, yet revising her claims about the role of the body in politics, Judith Butler asserts that embodied ways of coming together, including forms of long-distance solidarity, imply a new understanding of the public space of appearance essential to politics.”
– Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly

Radical Hope is the title of a video piece and the title for the exhibition at Hole Of The Fox (Antwerp). The short film was shown on Art Viewer’s Screen section, whereas in the physical space, I laid out the props and clothing featured in the film, bringing forward new associations and turning these elements into relics of a past event. The spectators were asked to simultaneously watch the video on a smartphone as they walked through the exhibition in an attempt to intertwine our virtual and physical experiences and create an interaction with the props. Thus, the space becomes a familiar surrounding and the idea is that you start to feel part of a whole. The film portrays stages of life, stages in society, stages in emotion and feelings. Each look – styled by my love Rachel Alvarez – represents one of those stages titled: Sadness, Anger, Desire, Happiness, Resentment and Terror.
The twenty-five characters navigate within those stages, in which they are completely themselves. I am both a participant and a creator. The individuals, in the end, are or become a group. They become one as a phrase is chanted during one sequence: “Will you gracefully gather yourself to dance with me, until we are home, together, I hope, not in silence.” It is about mimicking our social conducts, along with visual culture, reliving and recreating aspects of life in a surreal gesture. A radical hope for the future.
What were the main ideas behind your 2019 work Sharp as Knife?
I created Sharp as Knife for the group exhibition In Real Life at Everyday Gallery (Antwerp). It’s a reflection on the attributes placed upon the body, extensions like clothing and makeup that determine the way we are perceived and the position our body will be placed in. For this project, a fake nail represents one of these extensions, questioning the possible transformation they hold in relation to our body, playfully mirroring nail styles seen in today’s pop and queer culture as a metaphor for an advanced gender-fluid and non-binary future. Through colour, they become visible.
Using highly reflective materials that adjust to light and space, the wild and organic shapes visualise enlarged nails, establishing proud entities that stand strong and claim their position. Variously expressive and present, extending a part of us and protecting a part of us, these attributes or extensions have the ability to become tools that are as powerful as a weapon or as sharp as a knife.
Which of your projects has been fundamental in establishing the visual and conceptual codes in your work?
I believe it has yet to come. For a few years now, I have been working on a fictional character that is supposed to tie all my video and sculptural works together. This character is called Oblo, originating from the word ‘obloquy’.
How did the collaboration with Amsterdam-based fashion brand Ninamounah come about and where did the concept of the DPA bags originate?
The concept of my Dick Intersex Pussy Ass bags originated back in 2018 when AAIR Antwerp – a non-profit organisation supporting young artists – asked me to present my work in the Antwerp Art Pavilion. Before this exhibition, I had made moulds from a variety of real body parts and genitals from a diverse group of people for a video installation called O, which functions as the other half of the video installation Hir I made in 2016. Both sculptural screens fit into one another like a puzzle.
How come?
In Hir, I transform myself into fourteen different characters using clothing and props, embracing a gender-bending loop of self-representational role-play. Despite the deeply erotic nature of the sliding and turning choreography, I kept the pornographic aspect at distance by avoiding full nudity. Instead, I playfully focused on the joyful exploration of fluid sexual identities in the context of a visual culture dominated by self-presentation.
The video installation O, shown in 2018 at Barbé Urbain gallery (Ghent) was built using the same scanning technique, carefully constructed chronology and tension in movement and speed. Here, however, the focus wasn’t on the clothing placed upon the body, but the body became the clothing. By taking these two different focal points through the same system, it started a dialogue between gender expression and body politics that birthed my DPA bags.
The fusion of these two video installations lay at the core of the silicone portable sculptures that celebrate diversity in inclusiveness, representing the spectrum from female sex, intersex to male sex in different shapes and colours. It made sense to turn the Antwerp Art Pavilion into a ‘fictional fashion showroom/pop-up shop’ where people could walk in and out. Performers were showcasing some of the bags while other bags were presented onto the walls. The Pavilion looked like a vitrine with big windows on opposite sides. On these windows, I placed stickers with several statements, one being: ‘I carry a Dick bag. This does not make me a man neither does it make me a Pussy. But if you disagree, it does make you an Ass,’ supported by a big logo to stimulate the illusion of a showroom/pop-up shop, where the launch of a handbag collection took place right in the middle of a touristic area at the foot of the MAS museum.
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That’s so cool! And the project has kept evolving ever since.
Reflecting upon my portable sculptures and the dialogue they created with the audience, keeping in mind the idea of our bodies being an instrument that we put into motion, I felt the need to elevate the connection between the sculptural bags and the audience more. I pursued the potential of adding a functional value, giving the spectator a concrete reason to interact and experience the interchangeability of our ‘sex’ by being able to wear the bags outside.
The nature of the bags supports the vision that ‘sex’ should be seen as a wearable accessory, something that the wearer can play around with; challenging you to rethink the meaning of your own body while celebrating the distinction between ‘sex’ and ‘gender’. These new functional bags took on different shapes in epoxy and introduced silver hardware, embodying the visual codes and characteristics of a classic handbag. They were first shown as part of the group exhibition Digestive Disaster, Lucky Star, curated by Marion Denné and Maurane Colson at Stems Gallery (2020, Brussels) along with a neon sculpture stating Eat Me Out, closely followed up with new pieces that were shown at Base Alpha Gallery (2020, Antwerp). The DPA bags are made by hand and should be treated as sculptures. They are unique pieces and come with a document of authenticity. They either differ slightly or drastically from one another.
This gets me to the collaboration with fashion brand Ninamounah. Ninamounah is an Amsterdam-based label headed by creative director and designer Ninamounah Langestraat and brand director Robin Burggraaf. The label uses biological methods to dissect the deeper layers of the cultural mantle found in fashion design, emphasizing instinctive and experimental strengths that transcend bodily and mental conventions and constructs. Ninamounah is making the unusual usual – transgressing comfort zones in fashion and exploring humans’ animalistic side.
As she’s based in Amsterdam and you’re in Antwerp, you’re relatively close geographically speaking. But how did you two meet?
I met Ninamounah Langestraat a year ago in Amsterdam and we have been following each other’s work since. During the preparations of her latest fashion show, she texted me. She had the idea of including my Dick, Intersex, Pussy and Ass bags in her Complete Metamorphosis Pt. 2 show. At that time, all of my bags were still on show at the gallery, so it was impossible to lend them out. Deciding to make new ones for the show, Ninamounah went through the looks with stylist Ferdi Sibbel to decide how many I would create. Building on those decisions the colours and shapes came about.
It all went pretty fast and we only saw each other once after that text message. I was fully focused on designing and creating the bags, resulting in sleek briefcases and pearl-strapped clutches in matching pinstripes and office blues. The show communicated the interactive layer the bags needed. To me, Ninamounah’s brand is a manifestation of sophisticated, fluid intelligence with a radical heart, and I can’t wait to see her when this lockdown is over.
Fashion and clothing undoubtedly play a crucial role in gender performativity, the idea that often lays the basis for your work. After having collaborated with the clothing brand, do you think fashion is the discipline you would like to venture in?
I love the creativity and empowerment clothing, makeup, and accessories can convey, how fashion is introducing new genderless and inclusive representations. But the part where fashion – along with the beauty industry – tends to overcapitalise, resulting in damaging ideals, unnecessary trends, and the apathetic consumption of identities, is not something I support at all. Going forward, I will keep on creating new DPA bags to expand the endless variations in ‘sex’. They will mainly continue to come as unique sculptural pieces. I intend to keep them as an extension of my art practice that can continue to be in motion, cross over into different spaces, share their vision and lead to new productive perspectives, or simply visibilise the remarkable diverse existence of human life. Eventually, I will let them lead me to where they need to go.
“Introducing new possibilities, reclaiming our bodies, living and speaking our truth will only grow and transform current views into a larger understanding of one another.”
Your creations, be it accessories, video installations, photos, sculpture, or performance are profoundly explorational and critical of our society in their sensibility. What do you think should be the purpose of art today?
I don’t think art should have a purpose at all. The freedom to exist and just be, whatever that ‘being’ might look like or evoke, is a valuable and radical act in itself. Stemming from personal experiences as a queer kid and losing my gay stepbrother in a homicide, I chose to question particular themes through my practice, allowing an activist way of thinking, in which it became intricately political by default. And, obviously, in our current state of crisis, I support all artists that continue to do so. But in a world where these political issues did not exist, I would still be making art. I’m just not sure how it would look like.
Your exhibition at Antwerp Art in 2018 debuted what became the first DPA bags aimed to “rethink the evolving meaning and possibilities of our bodies.” What do you think our bodies will mean to us in the future, and what do you think are the possibilities they hold?
The physical body is an instrument that responds to our non-physical entity, in which it has the ability to express authentic/subjective needs and desires. Society has limited this ability, and in return, we had to sacrifice a part of that authenticity in order to move in line with the ideals and laws it regulates. In this process, identities have been left behind and rejected. On the Internet, where we’ve experienced global debates and an emerging call for freedom, different bodies continue to be held up to different standards or are not even included.
In my practice, I strive to surpass these limitations by disrupting normative views; making room for an explorational analysis of bodies free from judgment. By using a variety of mediums, consciously fluid in approach and diverse in appearance, I’m giving form to images that challenge outdated gender/body politics, resulting in a visual language inclusive in (re)presentation and resistant to power structures. Introducing new possibilities, reclaiming our bodies, living and speaking our truth will only grow and transform current views into a larger understanding of one another.
What is the ultimate goal you want to achieve through your practice?
First of all, my practice is the driving force behind my sanity. I imagine my work growing in multiple directions, finding new solutions to give more room for ‘live’ performance and sound, introducing elements of CGI and smell. I envision a huge exhibition where all mediums merge together, completely transforming a space to the extent where nothing is recognisable, defying limitations altogether; representing freedom from society, from gender and everything that oppresses us, as artists, as gender-fluid people; everything I stand for and the things that tend to hold me back. Even though it is a little melancholic, with its lively characteristics and humour, there’s always that hope within it.
How do you personally cope with the current health crisis and what do you think will be the long-term implications on creative industries post Covid-19 pandemic?
I feel like I’m still trying to sort it all out but I’m doing well. I’m still able to create work. Of course, exhibitions have been postponed but that only gives me extra time to reflect, so that’s good. I’m safe. My concerns are more with people, and especially the LGBTQIA+ and POC communities living in quarantine that don’t have a healthy support system. Or countries like Hungary, that amid the Covid-19 crisis seek to end legal recognition of trans people. They are more likely to struggle and feel lonely during the pandemic. In Belgium, the suicide rates are high and the need to talk to someone can be crucial. The wonderful artist, writer and speaker Fleur Pierets from Antwerp became the new ambassador of Lumi. For all your questions about gender and sexual orientation, you can visit or call 0800 99 533.
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