Ria Houwen: “I am filled with gratitude”.
by Josée Thissen-Rojer
In 1973 Ria Houwen arrives in Curaçao on a large passenger ship. She is young, has just graduated from art school, and has a brand new husband. A bright future lies ahead, although she has no idea what that entails yet. But when the ship enters St. Anna Bay after the long trip, Ria knows one thing for sure: “I’m going to stay here”.
Nevertheless, the time has come for Ria to say goodbye to her beloved Curaçao. After living here for 50 years, she is not going to leave quietly. That is why she has one last exhibition before her departure, in Gallery Alma Blou. The vernissage is scheduled for Sunday, February 6, 2022, and the title of this exhibit is, appropriately, ‘Goodbye Ria Houwen Farewell Curaçao’. The exhibition includes a selection of artworks she has made over the years, inspired by the light, the heat, and the people in Curaçao.
Viewing the works for the new exhibition ‘Goodbye Ria Houwen Farewell Curaçao’ feels like walking through her life. The powerful work from the group exhibition ‘Taboo II’, which incorporates a baby dress, is a great example of this. Paintings of the raging sea or very abstract impressions of a wave. Other works come from a period in which the human body is central. It can all be seen one more time in Gallery Alma Blou.
“It’s a goodbye, a sense of closure, and the last time my work will be for sale in Curaçao,” Ria explains. She experiences the departure as very intense: “It feels like I have to pull out roots that are very firmly stuck in the ground, because after all these years, Curaçao has become part of me”.
Henrica (Ria) Houwen (Horst, 1947) comes to Curaçao with her (ex-)husband in the early 1970s. She quickly finds a job as a visual arts teacher at Radulphus College. Besides her work in education, being an artist is very important to her. Ria’s first solo exhibition takes place in 1975 at the Gallery RG, by Egberdien van Rossum.
After that, Ria continues to exhibit regularly, and she grows into one of our most successful artists. In 2003 she even had a successful solo at the leading art fair Miami International Artfair (MIA) via Gallery ’86, under the direction of Geraldine Gaari. The unexpected closure of Gallery ’86 puts a stop to a further international breakthrough. Ria is the only local artist from Curaçao who has ever had a solo at this prestigious fair.
Most of Ria’s life in Curaçao takes place at the school where she teaches, and at her house. She lives in Landhuis Urdal for 38 years, which, despite its central location, is hidden behind green bushes and is therefore very private. The mansion offers her everything she needs. Beautiful light, the sweet scents of the mondi, a great atmosphere, safety, and a studio where she can work undisturbed. Ria describes the historic building as a pink shell where she could withdraw herself from the rest of the world, and where she raised her son Tezontl. Tezontl, and the time Ria spends with him at the mansion is the absolute best thing that has ever happened to her. The reason she has now decided to remigrate is to be closer to Tezontl and his family.
Until 2003, Ria teaches at school. When she takes early retirement at 55, she starts teaching art to adults. Initially, she does this from her home, at Landhuis Urdal. Later, she rents a room at Landhuis Bloemhof. She regularly meets students who stand out in terms of their talent. Some then continue as independent artists, but not everyone who paints aspires to bring their art to the outside world and Ria respects that too. One student who has been taking lessons from her for years, and who is very talented, is Winnie Tanasale. But she chooses to remain anonymous. Until the outbreak of the pandemic, Ria has small groups of people that take lessons with her. During the first lockdown in 2020, she stops teaching but works on her own art in her studio. She would be in the Netherlands during the second lockdown, in 2021, due to hip surgery.
In addition to teaching adults, Ria continues to work on her personal artwork. In 2011, she exhibits at Mon Art Gallery under the direction of Daisy Casimiri, which was located in the Renaissance Rif Fort at that time, but has since closed its doors. This exhibition, entitled ‘Water’, is the first in a series of 3 exhibitions, all three of which have water as their title and theme.
As soon as she arrives in Curaçao, Ria is fascinated by the sea. She is very comfortable with water, because, during her teens, she was a competitive swimmer and champion of North Limburg in the 100-meter Freestyle Open Baden. But when she swims in the sea in Curaçao, she notices that it’s very different to swim in nature. She experiences how you can become one with the sea. This increases her fascination with water and the sea and water would also become a recurring theme in her paintings.
The immediate reason for her last series of “waterworks” happened in 2009. That year, Ria visits the Venice Biennale and one of the presentations takes place in an enormous, dark room, where film footage of people diving down into the water and coming back up again is projected onto the walls. The walls are several meters high, and the elongated projections cover the entire height of the wall. The name of the artist has escaped her, but these images inspire her. Once again, she dives into her fascination with water, particularly into the interaction between the human body and water. She is now mainly concerned with what goes on underwater. The way the water envelops the body, the bubbles, swirls, and the light effects. The standing water but also the movement of the water, caused by the movements of the body. In her paintings, she tries to grasp and represent these aspects. After this first exhibition ‘Water’ in 2011, ‘Water II’ and ‘Water 3.0’ will follow in 2014 and 2017, respectively, in which she further explores the theme and her techniques.
Ria started drawing at an early age. As a child, she feels the urge to process what’s happening around her by drawing it. Later, she does this through her paintings. She prefers to work with encaustic, a special technique that uses melted beeswax. Ria says being an artist also demands sacrifices because you live a more secluded lifestyle. You don’t organize dinners and you don’t go to parties. You don’t do things that might distract you from painting, because you are searching for the meaning behind things. As a child, Ria was already convinced that her creativity would bring her closer to the meaning of life. By painting what she sees and experiences, she tries to fathom life. “But”, muses Ria, “I haven’t found it yet”.
Ria’s career spans 5 decades and started at a time when the local fine arts scene was still small. She has witnessed this scene grow and develop into an important pillar of the cultural sector. Ria senses the current art scene as lively, and the new generation of artists as vibrant. Strangely enough, the pandemic has done little to change that. She wants to urge her fellow artists in Curaçao to always keep going and not let go of their work, “because it can easily slip through your fingers”, she warns. “Your soul must remain focused on the inspiration you feel, because only then can you really grasp it and fathom it.”
Ria will soon leave Curaçao with the realization that the island has really allowed her to thoroughly develop herself and her skillsets. Living in the tropics has inspired her in many ways: the heat, the light, the fun, the special people, the beautiful bodies, and nature. Ria is grateful that it was allowed to be this way. If she had stayed in the Netherlands, this would not have happened to her. “This place touches your soul. You are exposed to so much beauty, passion, and life. I am filled with gratitude.”
In the Netherlands, Ria will live in Bunde, a village near Maastricht. From there, she will continue painting and will try to conquer her own spot in the Dutch art scene: “Startup and make sure that I get back on my feet in the Netherlands”, she nods cheerfully.
This article was previously published in Amigoe, on Friday, February 4, 2022. Photographs by Ken Wong. This text, in whole or part, may only be reproduced with reference to the source: Curaçao Art®️, www.curacao-art.com , and the author. Copyright of the artworks remains the property of the artist.