Where to begin …

Behind the scenes, after hours. Chandra van Binnendijk, Ann Hermelijn, Marieke Visser, Henna Rellum, Ada Korbee and Sirano Zalman (Photo: Courtesy Sirano Zalman, 2010)
While searching for a leading article for the third edition of Sranan Art Xposed during our editorial-deliberations, we keep coming back to Paramaribo SPAN. An event of significant meaning to Surinamese visual art with an endless array of aspects, sidelines, themes, subjects of discussion, alternative paths, insights, questions et cetera. So much that it moves me to silence. Where to begin …

“And how do you look back on it all?” people ask of me. I feel as though I have finally surfaced after a long journey under water, and now as I stand once again on dry land, I just don’t have any cut-and-dried answers ready. What did I think of it? Every answer seems to fall short of the intensity and the magnitude of the experience that Paramaribo SPAN has been. Maybe I just need to take a deep breath, let it all sink in first.

It started out with a number of clear cut ingredients: the conclusion of the ArtRoPa-project (an exchange project in the area of visual arts between Rotterdam and Paramaribo), the anniversary of De Surinaamsche Bank N.V., the cooperation with KIT Publishers. Subsequently Thomas Meijer zu Schlochtern of the Centrum Beeldende Kunst Rotterdam decided to include a Caribbean curator in the project: Christopher Cozier. The latter then suggested to let Nicholas Laughlin set up a blog. The names of the participating artists from the Netherlands had been known for some time already: all ‘Rotterdammers’ who had been to Suriname within the framework of the ArtRoPa-project. The Surinamese participants were selected in a later stage by Cozier and Meijer zu Schlochtern. Once the Surinamese artists had been chosen the ‘mise en place’ was complete: all the ingredients for a delicious and – SPANtastic – moksi patu were present.

As I have mentioned previously on other occasions: the visual arts scene in Suriname is changing. That has consequences for artists, for working methods and for exhibition possibilities, but also for the public and for the people behind the scenes. It is from this position that I write this reflection. For the Surinamese artists, Paramaribo SPAN was in the first place an opportunity to make non-commercial, non-traditional art. But also for us, the folks from the ‘orga’ (organization), this was just as much of a voyage of discovery, a challenge to work on such an exceptional project. That is what this text is all about.

Together with Chandra van Binnendijk, I contributed to the publication Paramaribo SPAN. Hedendaagse beeldende kunst in Suriname (Contemporary visual art in Suriname). Both of us and Ann Hermelijn then also provided artistic, organizational, technical and other miscellaneous assistance to the curators who after all, were not present here in Suriname: Christopher Cozier being in Trinidad and Thomas Meijer zu Schlochtern in The Netherlands. Finally Chandra and I were also commissioned by the bank to handle promotions for the event. All in all a rather varied position within this project during which there was a continuous exchange and/or change of ideas, which brought with it the necessary challenges: sometimes we ended up throwing all ideas into the proverbial magician’s high hat hoping to ultimately pull out one or another great trick. A unique experience: behind the scenes the three of us rediscovered the wheel many times over and while doing so we developed a whole new way of organizing: the ‘alakondre fasi’ in order to, as creatively and as fast as possible, steer things in the right direction.

It was an extraordinary experience to notice that with such an exhibition so much more than just the 29 artists and two curators who ultimately participated is touched, changed, transformed and stimulated. This was noticeable for example from the cooperation with the bank, which so generously opened her doors and welcomed such an inspirational yet different art project on her premises. It was wonderful to see how the bank personnel totally went up in the entire process of the exhibition coming about. From the guards up to the management, on some level everybody was personally involved. Still, an exhibition for the occasion of an anniversary is definitely different than an exhibition which is organized strictly for ‘art-reasons’. Although the bank initially allowed a significant measure of artistic freedom, there was for example still an incident concerning a work of art which was not accepted in its original form (it included a text which the bank considered to be compromising) and for which the artist was required to make some concessions. An incident of such nature brings with it much food for thought and discussion. All of a sudden it became very clear that a somewhat firmer theoretical framework in the area of art is lacking in our country. What is artistic freedom, how far does that freedom extend, when do you compromise the integrity of the artist, who do the copyrights belong to and is there even such a thing as exclusive copyrights, what are the boundaries that determine the scope of the curator: all questions to which no unequivocal answer as yet exists, and which indicates that the formulation of theories in our country is currently still in its very early, sometimes embryonic stage.

Also just bringing together the work of the two groups of artists: the 10 from the Netherlands and 19 from Suriname, something that initially seemed so logical and self-explanatory, was ultimately accomplished in fits and starts. After the conclusion a substantial discussion came about on the blog Trendbeheer , and also on the group page of Paramaribo SPAN on Facebook. Speaking for myself: I expected more of the communication and the interaction between the artists. Naturally, in a much earlier stage, there had indeed already been communication between the ArtRoPa-artists from both countries. But a large number of Surinamese SPAN-artists entered into the scene at much later phase. There was also amongst the participants from the Netherlands, a lack of clarity concerning the role of Christopher Cozier. For the ‘Srananmans’ (Surinamese) the Caribbean connection definitely represented an added value; but for the Dutch constituents amongst the SPAN-artists Coziers input was for the most part, mildly put, unclear, and this occasionally brought an unpleasant tension with it. With my, not always modern-worldly, hippie-heart I had expected that during the exhibition a dialogue would ensue which would lead to some kind of unified grand finale. By now I realize that an art project is by no means a romantic feelgood-production with a guaranteed happy ending. It is all about the process and that is what all the preparations are for, the exhibition itself, the aftermath. This was for Suriname, an immense – and in many ways an exceptionally successful – process of unequalled proportions and intensity. Close to 5000 visitors, unprecedented media coverage, art as we have never seen it before, a location with a unique atmosphere: the project was very aptly typified by artist Winston van der Bok as an art quake, and the aftershocks will be felt for quite a while yet.

When I look back now, I place Paramaribo SPAN as a mark upon a line, a line that connects this exhibition to Wakaman: drawing lines – connecting dots: how apt and prophetic this title proves to be time and time again. A line which is again connected to the Readytex Art Gallery, to the Edna Manley College in Jamaica, with the National Art Fair, with the exchange between the Gerrit Rietveld Academie and the Nola Hatterman Art Academy, with the Academie voor Hoger Kunst- en Cultuuronderwijs which was founded by Jules Chin A Foeng, with the FVAS, with Erwin, with Gerrit Schouten, and so on, and so on … But also, looking onward from February/March 2010, you can see a line leading up to a significant increase of Surinamese artists on Facebook, the opening of De Hal, the Trinidadian version (by Richard Mark Rawlins) of Roberto Tjon A Meeuws fatu bangi. And recently, Paramaribo Perspectives, an exhibition which started in September in Rotterdam. Later in the third edition of SAX more about this exhibition. All are points in space and time, connected to each other with an invisible thread, as in the web of Anansi. That such a project cannot be pinned down to one point in that space and time, is also why I started my ponderings about writing this reflection with the thought: where to begin? It is not even important where I begin, nor where I stop: the beat goes on.

The mutual communication was the aspect that for me personally, was most eye opening. Although I occasionally needed a dictionary for Christopher Coziers intellectual English with a Caribbean twist, so that I could follow the conversation, it was gratifying for me to behold a kindred spirit. I realized: we speak the same language, and although we may not always understand each other as well literally, on much more elemental– and much more essential – level we do so perfectly. The fact that we speak Dutch in the Netherlands and in Suriname is a sometimes insurmountable stumbling block. After Paramaribo SPAN that realization has become much stronger in me. You think that you have been clear to the other person, but still the message did not come across. Unwritten (and thus never articulated) rules and customs are continuously interpreted in the wrong way. My initial disappointment about the not always optimal communication disappeared when it dawned on me that even miscommunication is a form of communication. And in light of looking at a project as a process, each step is exactly that: even the misstep. By falling down and getting back up, trial and error, two steps forward, one step back … Being under way is growing.

Several links:
Natanael Francois Stamps Designer
Waterkant Video
Power of Culture
Website Arnold Schalks
Draconian Switch

Also in SAX no. 3 a critical review by Jennifer Smit, from Curacao. On the Facebook-page of Paramaribo SPAN accessible from the photo you can read a copy of the article by Rob Perrée in Kunstbeeld. A search for Paramaribo SPAN in the online archive of de Ware Tijd, also produces a number of read worthy articles. Additionally we will also send, on request, a pdf of a report by Lusette Verboom which appeared in Amigoe.

Text: Marieke Visser, 2010


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