Unheard sounds by Albert Hennipman and Maria Fraaije

Albert Hennipman (1963) and Maria Fraaije (1992) were paired up in the Creative Industries Fund NL’s Building Talent programme to work together on a design task. Albert is a designer and illustrator, and studied Industrial Design at the Design Academy in Eindhoven. Maria studied Industrial Ecology and biomedical sciences in Leiden and Delft, but also Illustration and Design at the Willem de Kooning Academy in Rotterdamin. It is a collaboration of designers from different backgrounds, with the aim of exchanging knowledge and experience. In their project Ongehoorde geluiden, now halfway through, they try to give homeless people a ‘face’ with illustrations.

At the start of their project, Maria and Albert visited Wim Eickholt, a former homeless person and also contact person at the Tussenvoorziening social-support organization in Utrecht.
‘Would you give a homeless person a euro?’ Wim asked Maria.
‘Er, yes?’ she said hesitantly.
‘Then you’re financing his alcohol addiction!’
Maria started to feel hot under the collar.
‘Would you let a homeless person stay at your home for a night?’ was Wim’s next question.
‘Well, er, just one night maybe,’ Maria said.
‘What about two? And the whole week? A month? Two months, perhaps?’
Maria didn’t know what to answer. It was what you might call a confronting first meeting. Maria took the questions away with her. Her answer finally came in the form of a beautiful series of ‘doubt drawings’. Drawings that, among other things, make palpable the unexpected obstacles that can arise in a talent-development process. And it is precisely this unexpectedness, both Albert and Maria emphasize, that makes the process so interesting.

Doubt drawing of Maria
Doubt drawing of Maria

ongehoorde geluiden

Their project is called Ongehoorde geluiden, which translates to Unheard Sounds. That first meeting was in December 2021, and now it’s early February 2022 and Ongehoorde Geluiden is almost at the halfway point. Maria (talent) and Albert (experienced designer) are working together to try to give homeless people a ‘face’. By listening to them and recording their voices, and by drawing them.

The preliminary results of the meetings and the collaboration are promising: Maria is creating an animation and a stack of drawings, while Albert has put together a newspaper of ‘visual reports’. Albert praises Maria’s beautiful drawings, her landscapes, her use of colour, and the portraits she draws. ‘Her handwriting fits in with this project. It also ties in with the Huis van Betekenis (House of Meaning), the place I founded with Mark Schalken here in Utrecht. It’s a place where illustrators work together and encourage each other.’

So, the project has already generated a harvest, but there are also future plans: Maria’s animation will probably be developed further, and include city sounds and pieces of interviews. There are plans for yet another newspaper, and there is already an initial plan for a joint conclusion, sometime in April.

However, the project is ongoing, so anything can still happen. This open-mindedness also fits in with the basic attitude of the Hennipman-Fraaije duo: to move flexibly with whatever presents itself.

Maria and Albert
Het Huis van Betekenis in Utrecht

invasive plant

They learn from each other, they tell us. Maria jokingly calls Albert her own personal encouragement fund because he helps her have confidence in the quality of her work. This does not always come naturally to her; although she studied Illustration and Design, she started working based on the other scientific studies she did. That is how she became a researcher at DRIFT: a bureau that conducts research into social change. ‘In my work at DRIFT, I carried out social projects from an analytical perspective. That’s scheduling a Teams meeting, so to speak, and then going through a questionnaire. I specifically didn’t want to approach Ongehoorde geluiden analytically. So now I’m walking with Randy the Djembé man and we’ll just see where the day takes us. During the walk, I’m not doing analytical research on the problems of street musicians in the city, but I’m really trying to think as a designer – what feelings does Randy’s story evoke, and how can I best convey those feelings? At that moment, the hat I’m wearing is very different from the analytical one.’

It takes a bit of getting used to, and daring to have confidence in this different, more intuitive way of looking. Albert: ‘I can imagine that Maria has doubts. It strikes me as complicated to work four days a week in a completely different kind of world, where people have totally other priorities, and even speak a different kind of language. In a situation like that, you can soon be overwhelmed by doubt. I mean that literally: I imagine a little plant that is trying to grow, but it is hemmed in by the invasive plant called doubt.’ He adds: ‘It helps me to think of situations as gardens. It makes it easier to see where the shadow is. And it means that I see the sun as well: just keep working, have faith that it’s good, just do it.’

What feelings does Randy’s story evoke, and how can I best convey those feelings? The hat I’m wearing is very different from the analytical one.
Maria en Randy, photographer: Ruud Spaargaren

social stories

After that first confronting conversation with Wim Eickholt, more contacts were made. It turned out to be no easy task to find a homeless person who really was completely relaxed about the idea of being drawn. There were encounters – and people dropped out. Now, halfway through the process, Randy and Marco are in the picture. Randy is a djembé player with whom Maria has the most contact. Marco is a former anthroposophic physician, who mainly spends time with Albert.

Working with homeless people means frequently shaking up your own prejudices, Maria and Albert tell us. Albert: ‘Even just the first question you ask a homeless person. It’s far too often something like: ‘Hey, which is your “home bench?”’ But just imagine if you were to ask someone at a party: ‘Hey, what does your bed look like?’ Getting acquainted is quietly exchanging information. That’s where we wanted to begin.’ Starting like this may be a little slower, but it ultimately yields a better relationship of trust and more mutual understanding of each other’s situation. Albert: ‘Besides, a social story is beginning to emerge thanks to these personal stories.’ For instance, Randy is not allowed to play his djembé on the street for more than 15 minutes at a time, or he will be fined. That municipal regulation affects Randy’s life, but it also says something about how the city treats buskers. Or as Randy calls it, how the city treats “The sound of the city”.’

Albert: ‘Randy has a very different view of society, often a literal view: He talked about all the ‘shopping-bag’ people he sees walking by day in, day out. They don’t look up, they don’t smile, they stare at their phones. Then there was a lockdown, and the shopping bags were gone. Suddenly people did see him when he played, and his music made them happy. That’s probably a change that the shopping-bag people themselves hardly noticed.’

Randy, photographer: Ruud Spaargaren form the photo album 'Het Ogenblik'

little box

Another one of society’s prejudices is that all homeless people are alike in terms of background. Albert: ‘Marco is a man who had a lot, and lost everything. He left the Netherlands quite abruptly, almost on a whim, and spent several years travelling around South America and Hawaii; when he returned, he had lost everything. Before that, he had a very different life. He was an anthroposophical physician in the Netherlands, and he had a family, and a home. Marco is a man of profound deliberations, but also a man in pain, both physical and mental; he is a man who lost loved ones and also a part of himself. He currently lives in a caravan on a farmer’s property. A mini-campsite that, for the last time this year, may also be open in winter. His ‘little box’ is what Marco calls his caravan. Since Covid-19, he has been sitting in that little box much more than before. Because he is not vaccinated, he is no longer allowed into many places. Not even to church to sing. He’s only allowed to go in to pray, you don’t need a vaccination for that.’

Marco, photographer: Ruud Spaargaren from the photo album 'Het Ogenblik'
We already listen far too often to the same people on the same talk shows. (...) Our sound is unheard but positive. – Albert

coffee machine

So, these are the personal stories of two very different men, offering other perspectives on our society in their own way. Ongehoorde geluiden is becoming a collection of other kinds of messages to our society. Albert: ‘We already listen far too often to the same people on the same talk shows; we have the same discussion at the coffee machine: getting vaccinated or not, banning or allowing Black Pete. Often you can only be for or against something. Our sound is unheard but positive. We hope to surprise people with it. If Utrecht wants to be a city without walls, this is an example of how to break down those walls. I don’t mean that in a pretentious way, but it is ambitious.’

Because of all the knowledge Albert has gained from this project, would he take in a homeless person?
He hesitates for a moment. ‘For one night maybe?’
Maria: ‘Marco, for example?’
Albert nods: ‘Yes, him definitely.’
Maria, with a smile: ‘And can he stay for one night, or perhaps two months?’

Text: Jowi Schmitz
Photography: Renate Beense