PHILIPSBURG, St. Maarten–Painter Ronald Heilbron is not thinking of taking it easier. At an age others would consider the twilight of their lives, Ro is instead of dreaming of dashing off to Peru, Chili or maybe San Salvador to live amongst the descendants of Amerindians; or to Ghana, to spend time with the people that Black people in Suriname hail from. He says visiting these places may well help his restless nature find the missing link that he needs, to be able to put on canvas what the artist in him feels broiling inside. “I know I am not that young in years anymore, but I have always had a restless nature. I am back at the root now, and these are places that I would want to visit to unravel the hidden linkages between where we came from and who we are. There is a gap there. I want to find it and portray it for future generations to see,” he says.
One remarkable trait of Heilbron’s is indeed his youthfulness. At 72, he radiates like someone 20 years his minor. His gait is still fierce, yet thoughtful; it’s his eyes that give him away though, filled with the kind of wisdom that’s achieved through the years. “I always tell people I am 27,” he grins, unable to give a straight answer on how he is able to still look young. “I guess it also has to do partially, with what I eat; a lot of fruits.” “And” he ponders, “probably also because I do exactly what I enjoy doing and my wife is very supportive of that, so we have no tense situations regarding the direction that we’re going. Tension tends to make you tired. Yes, that could be it…”
Heilbron may consider himself among the top painters from Suriname. He started experimenting with painting back in the sixties, when he worked as graphics editor for print shops in Paramaribo; when some of his work got sold even before he actually opened his first expo in Hotel Torarica in 1963, the experiment quickly turned into profession. “Before I even hung the paintings, half of them were sold. That gave me a lot of confidence,” he recalls.
He moved to The Netherlands seven years and several exhibitions later, where he found a job in the lay-out department of a newspaper. A career in art tugged at him though. His works from back then are splashes of anger and resentment, yelling at the establishment over unfairness in the world. “That was the trend back then. You had the war in Vietnam and worldwide discrimination and many painters used their art to rebel,” he says.
“In the beginning I portrayed my dismay at the undeserved treatment Suriname at a whole and its people in particular were receiving,” he says, recalling a dual canvas painting he did that narrated the story of workers from aluminum companies Billiton and Suralco, who got no more than a handshake when they retired. “I also did one about Suriname’s Independence from The Netherlands. It’s that’s called “Golgotha of the Dutch Overseas Territories,” he laughs; The title of that painting with the debris, skeletons and the man hanging from a cross, are enough of an indication of the irony of the situation that he set out to portray. “Through my work, I was trying to get back at the colonizer who left us with nothing.”
His work sparked the interest of the Royal Art Commission, who found it resembling works that appeared in the 1940’s when Holland was under siege of the Germans. “That was my luck. Back then, if you were registered with the artist collective, you could present your work to the Commission, and if they considered it original, they bought,” he says. His work seemed to spark discussion about whether it was truly art or just an artist’s rebellion against unjust. Fact remains that Heilbron was able to take up painting fulltime and over the years he exhibited and sold works all over.
It also allowed him to grow comfortably and his development from abstract to realism and figurative is noticeable. The switch to realism came when his daughter moved to Saba and he visited to fall in love with the Windward Islands of the then Netherlands Antilles. “I had other inspirations driving me then. And it awarded me the opportunity to experiment with bringing movement to the paintings I was making,” he says. Colorful works of Carnival and other Caribbean and Suriname festivities emerged. The subjects are that much alive that they almost leaped out of the vibrant paintings. And that too found a market. “The first time I exhibited those new works in Saba, an Irish guy bought six paintings right away. And he remarked that if he had had more money on him, he would have bought more,” says Heilbron.
These days he travels between his home in Rotterdam and his adopted homes in the islands, exhibiting simultaneously in different locations, while he slowly but surely makes his way back to his native Suriname. “Jeanet, my wife wants to return home, but truthfully, I do not know if I will be able to stay. If I spend too much time in one place, I get restless and I have to go again,” he says.
His agenda for this year is packed. He is taking part in an open air expo of sculptures in a botanical garden in Suriname in September, the end station of a tour that took him from an exhibition of murals in Rotterdam last November, to an exhibition in Aruba and workshops in Suriname earlier.
It’s interesting to hear him talk about how a painting came to life and what he meant to portray with it. Like when he selected one from a portfolio of his work, that at first glance shows the silhouette of a woman’s face, a rose and a snake, but in truth relates the relationship between infertility, the role “our ancestors” give snakes in fertility-matters and the flower that is a child. An unexpected and unique glance into an artist mind can really be enlightening sometimes.
Heilbron obviously spends a lot of time thinking and reading about linkages. His prowess of sensitive matters and how he is able to spin them shows, when he talks about how the dominating Incas in ancient pre-Columbus times enslaved South America’s original inhabitants –the Caraibes and Arawak Indians-. “The Inca’s always used the “weaker” tribes as slaves; they were caught to appease the Gods and to build the temples. Those are the matters that interest me today. Or how the Black people from Suriname really ended up being here,” he says. “Now what really matters to me is how we came to be who we are today,” he says, himself far descendant of Africans, mixed with German and Indians from California.
“The paintings I make today are figuratively realistic; I have done the landscapes and the angry rebellious stuff already. These days I operate on a much broader platform. I want to know more about our ancestors and what drives me now is that indescribable urge to tell that story. Some would say I want too much because I have had all the big achievements one could expect in an artist career already. But, I am not doing it for that anymore, am I?
Text: Marvin A. Hokstam, previously published on www.devsur.com, the website which has one primary objective; allowing a peek beyond the news from Suriname. on this website you can subscribe for free Suriname daily news updates.
A PDF file about the artist and his work: Brosure_heilbron (1)