Birds-eye view of Surinamese art
by Marieke Visser
The multitude of colors in the Surinamese artists’ palette is often compared to the bright feathered foliage of birds. Even today that comparison is still quite appropriate especially since, now more than ever, visual artists in Suriname are spreading their wings and taking flight into the international art world – Most often however, to return to their nest eventually. The relatively unknown art from Suriname is rapidly developing and deserves more attention. In a series of magazine articles several Surinamese artistic expressions will subsequently receive some much deserved special attention. To begin with, we start with a sketch of the present day visual arts in Suriname.
The Surinamese population of the twenty-first century has roots originating from practically all over the world. As a result influences can be found in almost every aspect of society. Quite naturally of course, this also true for the visual arts. Sometimes this is rather obvious: Indian patterns in the work of an artist from West Indian descent or batik techniques applied by an artist with Javanese (Indonesian) origins. Often however, there are surprising cross-cultural manifestations: Kit-Ling Tjon Pian Gi, with Chinese roots, who uses the motifs from the maroons and the indigenous peoples, the Afro-Surinamese artist Rinaldo Klas whose sculptures show clear similarities to Chinese characters.
Opinions are divided about the actual starting point of visual arts in Suriname. Kit-Ling Tjon Pian Gi, visual artist and secretary of the Federation for visual artists in Suriname (FVAS): ‘It depends on how you look at it. The fact that many Surinamese artists got their professional training in the Netherlands has made the European influence quite strong.’ Erwin de Vries is the most famous of the three artists from Suriname whom in 1949 traveled to Holland to start a professional art education. His mastery is undisputed. In the Oosterpark in the Dutch city Amsterdam, stands the National Monument for Slavery History from the hand of this well known artist. Also Rudi Getrouw and Stuart Robles de Medina, both contemporaries of de Vries, are considered amongst the most prominent Surinamese artists. Several individuals, but also institutes, organizations and initiatives have, in the years thereafter, made their mark. The CCS School for Visual Arts, the National Institute for Art & Culture (NIKK), the Union for Visual Laborers (BBW), Gallery Egi Du, and Waka Tjopu: those were the solid building blocks upon which today the foundation for the future rests.
With the Edna Manley Institute for Fine Arts, Jamaica has significantly contributed to the broadening of the possibilities with regards to art education for Surinamese artists. The first of the Jamaica students were Rinaldo Klas and George Ramjiawansingh, in 1986. A few years later also Marcel Pinas, George Struikelblok, Humphrey Tawjoeram and Robbert Enfield took a giant step in their art career with their education in Jamaica. After them followed Kurt Nahar and recently also Remond Mangoensemito. Kurt Nahar studied at the Edna manly college from 2000 until 2002. ‘If I had not been to Jamaica I never would have reached this point, particularly with regards to creating collage pieces and installations. You are also made familiar with working from a concept.’ Marcel Pinas as well, discovered and developed his artistic signature during his period in Jamaica, between 1997 and 1999. Since then the theme that defines all his work as an artist is kibri a kulturu, meaning: preserve the culture. Most specifically the N’dyuka-culture and the maroon life style in general: that is what Pinas strives for, and that is also his greatest source of inspiration. Since the beginning of 2007, Marcel Pinas is associated with the Rijksacademie in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, through an artist in residence fellowship program for two years
Active and growing
It seems as though the developments in the area of visual art in Suriname have taken off at tremendous speed in the past decade. The industry is active and growing. Workshops, exhibitions, publications: all types of initiatives contribute to a lively totality. The past few years have seen an increase in exhibition facilities. Several galleries regularly organize selling exhibitions or art displays in which (recent) work from an artist is shown. Other than the different art galleries such as Steinhoff, Singh, Bribi, Egi Du and House of Arts, there is also the Readytex Art Gallery where Evelyn and Monique Nouh-Chaia, for over fifteen years now, offer significant support to the art industry in Suriname. For a few years now the complete assortment at the Readytex Art gallery is also offered online on their website. It is an extensive source of 22 artists, including the possibility to purchase the works of art directly from the internet. The National Art Fair is a yearly recurring event where a great number of local artists put their work on display for an ever increasing public. This event has been organized every year for 42 years now, since 1965. But the need for a national museum of visual art remains predominant. An establishment which other than controlling and supervising the State Art collection is also in charge of managing an exhibition policy in which attention is periodically given to different themes in art.
Suriname: undeveloped terrain
The discussion about the identity of Surinamese art is no longer as lively as it used to be several years ago. The process of globalization seems, even in Suriname, to make the world appear smaller. The homeland does however provide an inexhaustible source of inspiration. Nature in her unequalled diversity and the relative virginal state thereof for example, but also the multicultural composition of the population which makes Suriname so extraordinary. René Tosari: ‘For the artists who have their roots here, Suriname remains always a source close to their hearts. Here it is like undeveloped terrain, it requires a great amount of creativity to develop that which does not yet exist. At the same time this undeveloped terrain dares you into making things happen, also in the visual arts.’
The new century seems to bring with it more breathing space. In the past the great attraction to the Netherlands was largely determined by the ease with which one could travel there. In that area some definite improvements have been made. Thanks in part to the FVAS, regional affiliation and opportunities have greatly increased. At present Suriname is once again participating in the Caribbean Biennale in Santo Domingo. Then there is also a group that commutes back and forth. René Tosari is one such a ‘less homebound’ Surinamese artist. He travels back and forth between Amsterdam Zuidoost and Paramaribo. ‘For the last ten years I have been to Suriname every year. The traveling also causes stagnation, it restrains you. You have to pick up the thread all over again every time. But ultimately I take it quite lightly after all. You know that you won’t stay in that concrete space forever and you know that when you are no longer capable of running hard because everybody walks slowly, you can leave again. All that traveling also has its influence on my art; the thematic choices have to do with the contradictions of those worlds.’
The strong bond that Surinamese artists share with their home country also seems to engender a greater than average sense of social engagement. With his politically laden art, Kurt Nahar attempts to make painful subjects from Surinamese history debatable. ‘Even my own instructors don’t openly discuss certain subjects. I can’t just keep standing on the sidelines and constantly carp, I too am a child of this country. Each of us has a responsibility, also the artist. I want to pass on my history to anybody who is interested in hearing it.’ In an interview with the newspaper Weekkrant Suriname he once stated: ‘A beautiful piece of art immediately captivates the person that looks at it. But that is all. It does not stimulate any type of discussion. That is why I don’t paint “beautifully”. You don’t always have to be beautiful to be loved. You only have to be yourself. That is what I try to indicate with my art.’ ‘An artist is the radar of the community,’ says Rinaldo Klas. With colorful and expressive works of art he invites the viewer to experience the value of nature, and from that sense of involvement, to acknowledge the urgent need to protect this unique flora and fauna. In the near future he wants to take some time out to visit the Surinamese interior again. ‘To witness the touched and the untouched; Witness it with my own eyes.’
For Marcel Pinas art is a means of communication with the viewer: ‘I live in the community, I am a part of it. My personal feelings about this are what I try to express and that is what I use my art for.’ Pinas often elects to create large art installations in public spaces. By doing so he wants to make his work, and the message that it portrays, available to as wide an audience as possible. Very impressive is his monument Fu Memre Moiwana in commemoration of the 59 defenseless civilian victims who were killed in 1986, in the village of Moiwana, by soldiers from the military. In the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam, there is a large installation by Pinas which symbolically marks the transition between the museum collections from Latin-America and Africa.
Living and working in Suriname requires a great deal of perseverance and resourcefulness. Materials are not always readily available. Clay for example is hard to find. If you do find it, you have clear it of impurities first: remove stones, shells and other substances that don’t belong in it. The climate with its high humidity also has its effects. Casting of large statues in bronze is also a problem. The effect of the drug trade as well (and the worldwide intensification of stringent safety measures), can have unexpected negative consequences: a mould, but also a completed work of art, is at risk of suffering irreparable damage during customs inspections.
Remarkably, both Rinaldo Klas and Kit-Ling Tjon Pian Gi explicitly remark upon the increase in interest, but in particular also on the judgment capabilities of the public. Kit-Ling: ‘If the audience does not follow the developments of the artists, their will be no communication. The Surinamese public has evolved considerably. The conceptual art of Jules Chin A Foeng did, back in those days, not have the impact it would have had today, because his audience was not yet at that phase of development’. Rinaldo: ‘There are more and more visitors at every exhibition nowadays, the audience is growing literally and figuratively. People ask more questions now. The public approaches you more readily.’
Aside from the AHKCO - Academy for Higher Art- and Culture education (Academie voor Hoger Kunst- en Cultuuronderwijs) and the IOL - Institute for the training of teachers (het Instituut voor de Opleidingen van Leraren) where also art teachers are trained, the Nola Hatterman Art Institute is an important breeding ground for Surinamese artists. In 2006 this institute started an official form of cooperation with the Rietveld Academy in the Netherlands. Visual artist Rinaldo Klas is also director of ‘Nola’. His view on the developments in the area of contemporary visual art is as follows: ‘Suriname has a collectivity of people originating from all over the world, from which certain developments are evolving. These are just now taking root. It is precisely this diversity in ethnicity that produces a different type of fruit. Perhaps once the fruit has ripened, we will be able to ascertain its taste. It would be premature to determine its taste now.
Most importantly: There are things going on.’
Marieke Visser is publicist in the area of Surinamese art and culture and works from her own press agency Swamp Fish Press in Suriname.
Digi Love, mixed media on canvas, 120x150 cm, 2007
Exhibit Sanfika -Installation, Kuku, 2005
Kit-Ling Tjon Pian Gi
Marronmeisje (Maroon girl) -Caught by Today-, mixed media on paper, 50x38 cm, 2001
Vaarwel moment I, mixed media on hardboard, 60x60 cm, 2007
Visions V, mixed media on hardboard, 60x60 cm, 2007
Untitled 18, mixed media on canvas, 110x90 cm, 2006
Untitled I, acrylics on paper, 75x55 cm, 2006
Boesisma II , acryl on pottery, 2004
Federation for Visual Artists in Suriname (FVAS): www.suriname-fvas.org
Readytex Art Gallery: www.readytexartgallery.com
This article has previously appeared with the title ‘Surinaamse kunst in vogelvlucht’ in the magazine Origine, voor kunst, antiek en toegepaste kunst, Number 6 / 2007, volume 15.
English translation by Cassandra Relyveld Gummels