High Road to Culture in Flanders and the Netherlands


High Road to Culture in Flanders and the Netherlands

From Heritage to Cultural Entrepreneurship: These Are the Winners of the Ultimas 2023
© Evi Ramaekers
© Evi Ramaekers © Evi Ramaekers

From Heritage to Cultural Entrepreneurship: These Are the Winners of the Ultimas 2023

The Flemish Community has awarded the Ultimas, its cultural prizes for 2023. The most important award, the Ultima for General Cultural Merit, goes to landscape architect Bas Smets. In twelve other categories, artists or organisations also receive an Ultima for their achievements in the socio-cultural sector.

The Flemish Community has been awarding the Ultimas since 2003. The Flemish Culture Prizes are bestowed annually to leading artists, performers, companies, or organisations. The laureates are chosen by a professional jury. The winners receive 10,000 euros and an award from visual artist Daan Gielis. The winner of the Ultima for General Cultural Merit receives 20,000 euros as the reward for an integral career.

These are the laureates per category:

General Cultural Merit: Bas Smets

Landscape architect Bas Smets (b. 1975) has an impressive series of projects to his name. He has already designed various public outdoor spaces in which he responds to contemporary challenges such as climate change and the quality of life in urban areas.

After studying civil engineering-architecture (KU Leuven) and a postgraduate degree in landscape architecture in Geneva, he moved to Paris, where he worked closely with the influential landscape architect Michel Desvigne for seven years.

In 2008 he started his own agency, Bureau Bas Smets (BBS). This enabled him to realize some large projects. Some of them include the park called Tour and Taxis in Brussels, the urban forest of the Trinity project in Paris – La Défense and the memorial site for the attacks of 22 March 2016 in the Brussels Sonian Forest.

Smets has received several important awards, such as the French Académie d'Architecture’s Médaille de l'Urbanisme in 2018 and the Brussels Architecture Prize (2023). In 2022, he won the international competition to redesign the area surrounding the Notre-Dame de Paris. Smets' design was praised for its focus on greening and the quality of life in the area.

From the jury report: "Smets is a landscape artist who follows the logic of nature and takes into account the destructive impact that climate change has, he makes a plea for more space for nature and water in urban contexts."

Read our profile on Bas Smets HERE.

Film & Visual Media: Baloji

Serge Baloji Tshiani (b. 1978), known as Baloji, is not easily categorized. The Belgian-Congolese artist is a jack-of-all-trades: in addition to being a filmmaker, he is also an artist, musician, actor, designer, and style icon.

Baloji made a name for himself as a musician when he was part of the hip-hop collective Starflam. He subsequently embarked on a solo career, making a name for himself with his debut album Hotel Impala (2007).

He also broke through on the big screen – first as an actor, and later as a filmmaker. His first feature film Augure was released in 2023. He not only directed this Belgian-Congolese-Dutch co-production, but also wrote the screenplay, composed the music, and designed the costumes and set decors. Augure won the Nouvelle Voix prize at the Cannes Film Festival.

From the jury report: "Baloji creates cinema that goes straight to the heart. His debut feature film is a major and impressive feature achievement and once again proves the impressive range of his talent."

Literature: Elvis Peeters

For more than thirty years, Elvis Peeters, pseudonym of writer duo Nicole Van Bael and Jos Verlooy, has been building up an extensive and diverse oeuvre, consisting of novels, children's books, theatre, radio plays, poetry, and short stories. The work is distinguished by its clear use of language, refined style, and social relevance.

The jury praised Peeters' oeuvre for its literary quality and the courage to never shy away from tackling urgent social themes. Regardless of whether they are writing about refugees, colonial oppression in Congo or growing up in a neoliberal world, the duo takes a confrontational stance and transforms far-reaching problems into powerful literature.

The multifaceted oeuvre has appeared on several occasions on longlists and shortlists for all kinds of literary prizes. Peeters has previously won a Boekenpauw (Book Peacock), a children’s book prize, the Zilveren Griffel (Silver Pencil), the Sabam Literature Award, and the Gerrit Komrij Prize. A few of their works have also been translated into languages that include Turkish, German, Spanish, Danish and Japanese.

From the jury report: "Their work is always engaged and challenges us to think about current and important themes. The jury also praises how Elvis Peeters works: always modest and of consistently high quality."

Podium: Alexander Vantournhout

Alexander Vantournhout (b. 1989) is a choreographer and performer. Dance, circus and performance art converge in his work.

In 2014 he made his debut with his performance piece Caprices, for which he won several awards. Since then, he has made a name for himself with various productions and performances, including Aneckxander (2015) and Foreshadow (2023). He also founded his own company not standing, with which he has since produced quite a few performances.

Vantournhout is regarded as an innovative voice in the contemporary performing arts scene. He succeeds in mixing different disciplines and thus creates a unique dance idiom. The focus is on the creative potential of the human body and the interaction between performer and object.

From the jury report: "The work of Alexander Vantournhout and his not standing company transcends the boundaries of disciplines and creates a unique and hybrid dance idiom. His work is an ode to physical intelligence and the consistent commitment it requires. It's a masterful art of balance that sharpens all your senses."

Alexander Vantournhout's performances bear influences from a variety of disciplines and form a continuous exploration of the possibilities of the body, Mia Vaerman wrote in her portrait of the performer.

Read our profile on Alexander Vantournhout HERE.

Movable and Intangible heritage: GUM & Botanic Garden

The Ghent University Museum (GUM) and the Botanic Garden, house Ghent University's academic heritage collection. This extensive collection, the largest of its kind in Flanders, is amalgamated into an innovative museum concept.

In GUM & Botanic Garden, visitors can discover collection pieces from various scientific disciplines, that include both historical and modern research objects. The museum aspires to be a place where visitors can immerse themselves in the research process and experience that science is the result of trial and error, questioning, and imagination.

Since its opening in October 2020, it has organised various exhibitions, exhibitions, lectures, debates, and workshops.

From the jury report: "GUM & Botanic Garden inspires and excels as a new player in the museum landscape. The element of ‘questioning’ is a strong recurring theme the museum interweaves into the fabric of its operation thus creating a valuable place for social debate. Its penetrating form of vision also has a far-reaching participatory effect that breaks with the more classic models of running a museum."

Ruben Mantels writes in his article about the university museum, GUM’s aim is not to display scientific truths, but it instead the element of questioning and the beauty of the scientific practice.

Read our article on GUM HERE.

Amateur Arts: The Scheldt Offensive

The Scheldt Offensive was founded in 2017 by actor and artistic director Frank Dierens and general coordinator An Van den Bergh. The company's mission is to contribute to a more inclusive arts sector. They do this by providing (young) adults with disabilities a place on stage.

From the jury report: "The Scheldt Offensive deserves the Ultima for Amateur Arts 2023 for its contribution to the image of inclusive and participatory theatre, for its inspiring methodology for involving people with disabilities in professional performances, for its non-paternalistic vision on inclusion and diversity in the arts sector and for the unwavering creativity and passion of its performances."

Architecture and Applied Arts: Rotor

The Brussels-based design and research collective Rotor focuses on sustainability and circular architecture. The architects and researchers are conducting research into the recovery and resale of building materials.

From the jury report: "With its circular approach, Rotor inspires architects, designers and the general public. In addition to the message of sustainability, the organization expresses a strong, underlying social commitment."

Fine Arts: Marianne Berenhaut

Marianne Berenhaut (b. 1934) is a visual artist who has worked throughout her life on themes such as desire, trauma, memory, and absence. She assembles various materials in her extensive oeuvre, that are marked by the Second World War.

From the jury report: "Marianne Berenhaut shows that art is a basic necessity of life, an existential necessity. It allows us to understand ourselves and each other, to cultivate empathy, and to convey memories."

Visual arts: Marianne Berenhaut

Marianne Berenhaut (b1934) is a visual artist who has spent her life working on themes of desire, trauma, memory and absence. She assembles different materials in her extensive oeuvre marked by World War II.

From the jury report: ‘Marianne Berenhaut shows that art is a basic necessity of life, an existential need. It enables us to understand ourselves and each other, to cultivate empathy and to transfer memories.’

Cultural Entrepreneurship: Onkruid (Weeds)

The non-profit organisation Onkruid is supported by a group of enterprising young music and art lovers. Among their many activities, they are the driving forces behind the Horst Arts and Music Festival, a unique mix of art, architecture, and electronic music.

From the jury report: "Onkruid’s various projects have quickly become a point of reference in the Flemish cultural landscape. The jury praised the pioneering work, the multidisciplinary approach and Onkruid’s strong interdisciplinary team that combines expertise in art, music, design, marketing and urbanism."

Watch a documentary about the Horst & Arts festival below.


Music: Bryggen

Bryggen, the string orchestra conducted by Jolente De Maeyer, gives a new interpretation to the traditional concept of the string orchestra. They explore the boundaries between classical music-making and the role of violin playing in folk traditions.

From the jury report: "The special quality of Bryggen lies in the thoughtful way in which the orchestra links innovation to the great tradition of classical music. Bryggen is an example of an ensemble that crosses borders and promotes the social content of an art form."


Emerging talent: Aya Sabi

Aya Sabi (b. 1995) is a writer and columnist for Mo* and De Morgen. She reached a wide audience with her debut novel Half leven (Half Life) (2023), a Moroccan-Dutch family chronicle of three generations of women.

From the jury report: "Aya Sabi casts herself as an example for the sector, not only through the quality of the literary work she delivers, but also because of the unremitting, unmitigated social engagement she assumes. That said, she extends an open hand and invitation to connect in everything she makes and writes.

Socio-cultural Adult Work: League for Human Rights

The League for Human Rights plays a major role in safeguarding civil liberties and addressing human rights violations. For years, the League has been fighting to achieve a society where human rights are understood, defended, and valued.

From the jury report: "The League for Human Rights plays a crucial role in current debates. By thinking and acting from the framework of human rights, the League helps to solve social issues."

Audience Award: Die Verdammte Spielerei

Die Verdammte Spielerei is a unique ensemble of six musicians offering a hilarious twist to the classical brass band. Full of absurdity, humour, and musicality, they manage to surprise and entertain their audiences. Since their inception in 2016, they have already managed to build up an impressive list of achievements.

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