Portrait 5 minutes of reading

Marion Demeulenaere, the illustrator who collects memories

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Diane Theunissen

With a Master's degree in Arts and Lifestyle Journalism from the London College of Communication (UAL), Diane has been working in the cultural sector for several years. A big fan of indie rock and particularly sensitive to equality issues, she is a journalist, radio commentator, festival programmer and musician in her spare time, and writes her lunar thoughts almost every day in A6 notebooks, neither lined nor squa

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A huge fan of posters and graphic design, Marion Demeulenaere plays with words, textures and colours to crystallise memories, as pointless as they may be.

‘I am an illustrator, but I don’t know how to draw,’ lets slip Marion Demeulenaere, wearing an expression somewhere between blasé and cheerful, snuggly settled in on her couch. Based in Brussels for almost fifteen years now, she left her native France on a whim when the summer ended in 2008, to dive into Graphic Communication studies at La Cambre. ‘It was a lucky break. I was working as a beach photographer at Lacanau Océan, and a friend phoned me to say that she was going to try for the competition to enrol at La Cambre in graphic communication,’ she reminisces. ‘I said, “I’m coming with you”.’ I took the train from Lacanau the day before the competition very suntanned, in Bermuda shorts and long hair.’ After a disastrous first year, Marion decided to change direction and opted for Typography, a curriculum she followed for five years. ‘The theory courses are extremely developed and open your mind to the whole arts culture, but also offer you a very vast general knowledge,’ adds the artist. A culture which features in all of her works: between local identity, food and Belgitude, her illustrations are jampacked with metaphors, both bitter-sweet and just sweet. A delicious helping of nostalgia which warms the heart and makes the eyes shine.

Brussels, a meeting ground

‘I grew up in a village in the north of France, a stone’s throw from the Belgian border. My grandfather was a French teacher and loved drawing. When I went to my grandparents, I would draw with him. We also played games: I had to spell “gyrophare”, for example,’ Marion tells us. It is 15.00 and we are sitting in the lounge of the Ton Piquant workshop, an artists’ pad perched on the third floor of number 10, rue de la Tulipe, in the middle of Ixelles. A unique location unearthed by Marion and her friends when their studies came to an end, with the hope of establishing a graphic design studio. ‘From the moment we first met, it all took off wonderfully. So, it finally became a coworking space,’ explains the artist. After several garish episodes, Marion found herself managing the workshop on her own. One thing leading to another, she was joined by two other women, Nina and Camille. ‘Later, COVID brought other people. It succeeded, like all the planets just aligning. It simply felt right.’ Today the collective numbers seven women illustrators, whose works preside over the workshop, between tables and trestles, printing presses, inks, overalls and various paint pots. ‘We became a collective out of necessity,’ she explains. A collective of women very ingrained in the Brussels illustration sector, a domain which is seeing more and more women setting up and establishing their styles. ‘There are more and more women illustrators, and there were already many. And all of these women are doing very different things, their work isn’t merely sweet with nothing besides, childlike. There are often hidden messages,’ adds Marion. ‘The more it develops, the more you see women using illustration to communicate on feminism.’

Belgian passion, food and wordplay

Between silkscreen printing, risograph printing, digital work and fabric printing, Marion collects techniques and formats. ‘I do exactly what I want to do. As soon as I can do something with my style, I do it,’ Marion tells us, whilst going to look for a sublime paper aeroplane, designed exclusively for a fanzine project. ‘I have friends in Lille who asked several artists to make a paper aeroplane, on a theme they chose. I decided to make a paper-fold on the theme of the circus. Every time you have a fold, a different character appears. It’s amusing. When there is something that may make me giggle, I do it,’ adds the artist. Between an acrobat, an elephant, a clairvoyant, a lion tamer, a tiger and the moustachioed host, there is plenty to have a ball with.

Humour is incidentally one of the key elements of Marion Demeulenaere’s work: wordplay, metaphors, jokes and charades, it’s all grist to the mill, and it’s just as well. ‘Humour allows you to engage in conversation. When I was little, my father did charades and he tried to make them very complicated, so that you could make jokes. I also did a lot of riddles, which is even funnier […]. Despite my French side, I have also managed to develop a Belgian sense of humour, by which I mean never doing something aggressive, or which might hurt someone. It’s fun, everybody can identify with it,’ she explains, pointing a finger at one of her works, mischievously dubbed the l’amour de la moule (love of the mussel). ‘What really made me laugh is that there were parents who giggled their heads off, and children who thought it was great because they loved the look of the little mussel,’ explains the artist. ‘Playing with words, that also allows you to get closer to people, to make them laugh, and to talk about it. And when you have parents and children laughing, it makes the thing really family-oriented, really wonderful.’

Heritage, identity and little details to munch on

Having adopted Brussels, Marion Demeulenaere today feels more Belgian than ever. A cultural attachment which she has no hesitation in highlighting in her creations, with nods and winks to Belgian heritage and Belgian cooking: between the faithful packet of chips, the Kipcorn (chicken nugget) and the famous prawn croquette, there is something for everybody’s taste. ‘I have never made anything about waterzooi (a stew), but it’s on my list,’ she says, giggling. In the same style, we discover her work Lambic et belle dentelle, highlighting an old woman drinking a gueuze beer and eating a sausage. ‘When I was little and we went to Belgium, there was the sandwich with fromage blanc and radish, the piece of cheese with celery salt. It’s only in Belgium that you get that,’ Marion exclaims. ‘Or sparkling ice tea! In France, if you order an ice tea, you end up getting peach ice tea. You see, they are just little things, memories from childhood.’ Whimsical recollections, stories from memory and zany traditions which endure. It is all of that which Marion wishes to show. ‘My friend Gaby, who is Belgian-Belgian, explained to me the thing with the crepe paper flowers at the beach, which children swap for little shells. It’s great. It’s only on that type of thing that I work, on collecting little memories.’

‘I think that it is very important to remember where you come from and what you have experienced. In my work, there is a very nostalgic aspect. There is a reason for me doing vintage,’ concludes the artist. One thing is certain, for an illustrator who doesn’t know how to draw, she’s doing pretty well for herself.

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