Ruben Karsters, renowned Surinamese artist who was especially admired for his beautiful portraits, passed away on March 5, 2013. He was 71 years old. He was also known as an art teacher who has taught many generations of students about art. Karsters was born in Paramaribo on May 22, 1941.This work, Naakte vrouw op bed, was also part of the exhibition In Search of Memory. 17 Contemporary Artists from Suriname, at the Cultural Center of the IADB, in Washington, USA, in 1998.
For the book Talent; Uit de kunstcollectie van de Centrale Bank van Suriname (Paramaribo, 2007), I did an interview with Ruben Karsters. I had never met him before, but of course I knew his work from Chandra van Binnendijk’s and Paul Faber’s book Beeldende kunst in Suriname; De twintigste eeuw [Visual Art in Suriname; The Twentieth Century] (Amsterdam, Koninklijk Instituut voor de Tropen, 2000). I had heard that Karsters was quite a hermit, a bit moody and not always very talkative. We arranged to meet at his home, where his atelier was located too. In a letter to a friend I wrote down how I had experienced this first encounter.
From Talent; Uit de kunstcollectie van de Centrale Bank van Suriname (Paramaribo, 2007), by Marieke Visser, translated by Anne-Marie Reeder:
“You step into a yard, with wood and dogs and plants everywhere, everything is so packed together… Then you enter this house, hold together with ropes and planks, and you climb these strange kind of stairs, overgrown with weeds and creepers, very unsteady, not really safe. It seems as if you’re entering a neglected hermit house, a bit spooky but also as if you’re stepping into a fairy-tale world. And then you turn a corner, on a narrow rickety balcony, mind your step, and yet another sharp turn – you have to duck for the underwear which hangs to dry on a line – and you’re inside. Suddenly I stand there in that totally packed cave-like space, with very little light, between all these well-known works. Every inch of wall and floor (covered with an old carpet of more than 50 years) is overflowing with these awesome paintings, old acquaintances from the books and showpieces in the making.
Almost immediately, without leaving me any time to adjust to these surroundings, Karsters starts talking, showing me scrapbooks. Very old albums with photos and other memorabilia and almost illegible handwritten notations scribbled on the pages. And he talks and talks about Nola Hatterman, and how disappointed he was in her.
And he talks on and on about the elementary school, and how he started drawing because an uncle had sent young Ruben a book about Rembrandt. In those days there was this boy at school who teased Ruben about his shyness and his continuous sketching, and taunted him relentlessly. Neither teacher nor school principal found it necessary to intervene, leaving Ruben to fend for himself. One day he took his fountain pen and tried to puncture the bully’s carotid artery. He missed and pierced the tyrant’s cheek instead. The dismay over the fact that he then was kicked out of school, and not the bully, is still visible on his face. No school wanted him, and he took to taking long walks, this ten year old misunderstood little boy. For some time he found himself a job: he became a scarecrow in the Culture Garden. That etched such a sad portrait in my mind.
Eventually headmaster Willem Campagne has mercy on him, and he gets a second chance for a formal education. When he is 12, Nic. Loning sees his work and says: ‘Don’t ever give up! We can learn a lot from each other’. Loning encourages Ruben to go to Nola Hatterman, to take art lessons. According to Karsters he almost immediately was put to work and had to teach classes while Nola was taking all the credits for the good work of her ‘apprentice’. It still angers Karsters, and it makes me wonder why. His works prove to me that he is a highly skilled artist in his own right, with definitely his own signature.
‘I was born with a preference for subtlety. I appreciate everything that breathes subtlety. I want to express in my work the things that have an “impact” on me. But if you want to be successful you must have a thorough command of your profession.’ Ruben Karsters has been inseparably connected with his drawing materials ever since he was a toddler. A great-uncle used to send books about art to his nephew and young Ruben would sit and study the works of old masters such as Rembrandt and Rubens meticulously. When he is about 12 or 13 years old he takes his work to show it to Nic. Loning, a talented drawing teacher and artist. ‘Young man, we are going to learn from each other’, Loning comments after studying Karsters’ work. One thing leads to another and so Karsters ends up at the Cultureel Centrum Suriname (CCS) where Nola Hatterman is teaching. “It didn’t take her long to appreciate what I could do. And so I became a student in Nola Hatterman’s class at the age of thirteen.’
In 1968 Ruben Karsters graduates from the Rijksacademie voor Beeldende Kunst in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. As time goes by his appreciation for technical skills gets stronger and stronger. ‘People seek refuge in abstractionism because they want to avoid the difficult aspects of art. However, there are also many special skills one should know in order to make a good abstract work of art.’ His personal style of painting is realistic, but he emphasizes that every painting is a personal interpretation of reality. ‘If you paint from nature, you’ll always leave something out; it is always a translation. You paint the image as you see it, or feel it, or experience it.’