Belle: Art Piece and Spokesperson
Belle stands in her window on the outskirts of Amsterdam's famed Red Light District as a positive image of a sex worker. Outside of the district, prostitutes are portrayed as victims of a cruel system, but Belle provides a different image. Her hands rest defiantly on her sensual hips. Her shoulders are pulled back and her bosom is held high. Her eyes gaze left in search of her next customer. Belle's gaze transforms her stance from performative and boastful to prideful. The posture is not forced for her work, but a natural reflection of the strength within. She wears her uniform of high heels and a short tight dress, but is comfortable rather than shameful of all that she reveals. Three steps lead up to Belle in her window, showing that she is above the street, a queen in her court.
Standing just five feet including her pedestal, Belle is far from imposing or attention-grabbing. Her diminutive stature is an inherent impediment to fame; a statue so small is easily passed by. Her message and mission are certainly larger than Belle herself. The engraving below her reads: "Respect sex workers all over the world." This lofty statement deserves a spokesperson more striking in size. As a public servant, Belle is at a disadvantage if she cannot stand in the way of tourists and locals who would be obliged to read and absorb her message. As an art piece, however, her scale is adequate. In fact, the small size in comparison to the spacious courtyard positions her as a surprising gem in an unexpected location. From a distance, her confident bearing does invite further attention from a viewer. A closer viewing reveals her signature confident stance. The success of her size as an art piece conflicts with the failure of Belle as a tiny struggling spokesperson.
Belle's home in a courtyard behind a church and adjacent to the Red Light District creates a thought-provoking contrast of location. Before her lays the district, full of women posing in their windows, erotic museums, and sex shops. Behind her stands the Oude Kerk church, a religious place of worship. The two immediately conflict, one a symbol of purity and the other a center of sin. Belle stands both in defiance and acceptance of both. She contradicts the image many associate with the district, one of a victimized girl forced into sex work. Her very profession conflicts with the church's associations of purity and chastity. On the other hand, Belle supports core elements of both. By providing a positive image of a sex worker, she is elevating the prostitutes from negative stereotypes, and pedestrians may enter the district with a better outlook. The church, as Amsterdam's oldest building, has stood through Amsterdam's history of tolerance. The building itself has functioned as both a Catholic and Calvinist place of worship. Belle can serve as a reminder that the chaste and "sinful" elements of the city may live in peace and tolerance.
Belle, commissioned by the Prostitution Information Center, was sculpted by Els Ruerse. Ruerse texturizes the entire statue, but adds the most texture on Belle herself. Every inch of her, from bare legs to coiffed hair to high heels, is covered in a pushed surface. The texture gives Belle a vibrating energy, an implication that her spirit cannot be contained. The window and steps are smoother to shift the focus of a viewer to the woman herself. This movement created by the statue's surface is a success for Belle both as an art piece and spokesperson. The illusion of movement or life is a rare and difficult achievement in sculpture, and it contributes to the strength this powerful sex worker portrays.
Perhaps an unintentional symbolism of the statue occurs at Belle's hairstyle and buttocks. There, her person is attached to the window, seemingly for stability. She is not leaning on the frame though, so the connections are physical elements themselves. Though Belle is proud and energetic, these unbreakable attachments to her profession remain. They trail behind her, like spirits she cannot escape. This accidental symbolism is a reminder of some less positive aspects of prostitution. Anonymity is an important part of sex worker safety which allows for a woman to move on to another career without a stigma surrounding her past. Like Belle though, many former sex workers find themselves irrevocably linked to their past profession. Belle can stand on her steps for hundreds of years, but she will always be tethered to her window.
Belle succeeds as a positive image of a sex worker. Her stance exudes confidence and pride, and her placement invites tolerance and consideration of the women in the district. She is a subtle symbol though, as her size does not impose on the public and her gaze is not jarringly forward. Belle is a valuable member of the community, reminding all to "respect sex workers all over the world."