To Build a Home: Community and Activism along the Waterfront
Photographers and activists Cees and Annerie van Gemerden (b. 1940, 1941) have become champions of community formation in Hamilton. After living in multiple cities throughout their life, the two made Hamilton their permanent residence and firmly planted roots, becoming actively involved with Hamilton Artists Inc. and Photo Union. Cees and Annerie dedicated themselves to uplifting Hamilton as a buzzing activist and artistic hub – capturing the everyday people that gathered on James Street North, the precarious environmental landscape at the waterfront and the spirited emerging artistic community.
Born in Holland, the pair settled first in Edmonton before moving to Toronto for work. They finally settled in Hamilton by chance in 1984, after their son required medical attention that could only be accessed at Hamilton General Hospital. Despite experiencing such upheavals to their sense of home, Cees and Annerie became attached to Hamilton after frequent visits to the city. Immediately so, Cees was drawn to “its gritty “no BS” attitude along with a vibrant artistic community that had grown to maturity through the social activism of the 60’s and 70’s” (Life as a Work of Art, 14). Annerie was more hesitant, choosing to stay at her job and home in Mississauga while Cees rented a studio at Hughson and King William. Despite her initial reluctance, Annerie describes their years at the studio as some of the happiest in their artistic life.
Living so close to the Hamilton waterfront, they began to explore its history through their photographs. The pair grew up surrounded by water in the seaside town The Hague, creating a life-long connection and commitment to its protection. Shelley Niro recounts a foundational story about Cees’ father and his strong ethos of caretaking, generosity and empathy:
After his father retired he would regularly go to the river in his town, The Hague, to fish. The stream where he fished was known as Haagse Beek in a part of the town called Stadhouderslaan. The Haagse Beek was originally part of an anti-tank ditch built by the Germans through the town as part of the Atlantic Wall defense plan. After the war the area was developed into parks and fishing ponds.
Cees’ father would spend hours standing on the shore with his rod and reel waiting for a catch. He was happiest when he scored big carp. Once he got the big fish out of the river, he would take pliers from his fishing box and remove all of the hooks that were lodged in the fish’s mouth. I’m assuming these hooks got there over a number of years. Then he would let the big fish slide back into the water to go on with its life without having the constant taste of metal in its mouth. (He gave me three things, 5).
No Trespassing: a photo-chronicle of space; a text-chronical of time became Cees’s most iconic and enduring work, representing the themes he carried throughout his life and work. Focusing on the Hamilton waterfront, Cees photographed a series of signage along a six foot high heavy wire fence that ran along the shore from Bayfront Park to the Windermere watershed. This fence became a symbol for a city that prioritized industry and pollution over the protection of the land and health of the people who lived on it, priorities which Cees and Annerie sought to combat through their art.
First shown at Hamilton Artists Inc. in 1989, this series of 75 black and white photographs and text critically examines the exploitative practices that were able to flourish in these privatized spaces. The exhibit also was shown at the Harbour Front Gallery in Toronto and was featured in the Greenpeace show No Time to Waste, held at the Hamilton Convention Centre.
This devotion to raising awareness around issues of environmental damage as well as public access to public space continued to drive the van Gemerden’s throughout their lives. Over the years, No Trespassing evolved and grew. In the summer of 1990, a Ministry-ordered cleanup was issued and Hamilton’s waterfront began to transform into a cleaner, more accessible public space – largely in response to the pairs activism. To serve as a cautionary tale of the waterfronts past, Cees and Annerie created Trespassing—More Power Anyone? This rendition, shown at the Bayfront Park in 1996, juxtaposed photos of the decay from the 1980s with the current landscape visitors could now enjoy.
While Cees photographed the majority of the No Trespassing series, Annerie created the triptych of photographs, The Post industrial Family Takes a Bath in Lake Ontario, for the 1991 exhibition Reading the Water shown at the Burlington Art Centre (now the Art Gallery of Burlington). This series showcases a seemingly safe and pleasant beach trip with overlay text outlining a list of 377 hazardous chemicals released into the Great Lakes from surrounding industries.
Our Friends, a print publication documenting their social circle through portraiture and candid photographs, became another pivotal work for Cees and Annerie. Emphasizing the importance of people and partnership, the work has become a testament to the thriving artistic community that the couple surrounded themselves with in the 1980s. In the introduction, Anne Milne discusses:
“When I looked at OUR FRIENDS and saw that I did not know all the people portrayed, that I knew others who had not been included, I saw a firm and potent example of how communities grow and bind and spread rippling like the long water off High Level Bridge” (Milne).
These two series of work, No Trespassing and Our Friends, demonstrate the strong moral values that Cees and Annerie have devoted their lives to – care for the environment and care for the people. Their artistic practice placed community activism at the forefront, making complex contemporary social issues accessible to the public through striking black and white imagery.
The following oral history video was filmed in November 2018 at the Hamilton Public Library, central branch sound studio, for the Building Cultural Legacies project as part of a series of conversations between emerging and established artists, organized by the Hamilton Arts Council and the Hamilton Public Library and funded by the Ontario Trillium Foundation.
Credits and further reading
Official Website: Cees and Annerie van Gemerden
Official website: SmugMug
Hamilton Spectator: Here, the work was valued, the cause clear
Arts Waves Podcast: #356 Cees & Annerie van Gemerden
Hamilton Artists Inc.: Source of Print, Spring 1994
Courtesy of Hamilton Arts & Letters:
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