Twenty years ago Moengo, a town in the east of Suriname, was hit by a bloody civil war. Up until now it still has to contend with the aftermath. An art project in which now also Koen Vanmechelen, known for his Cosmopolitan Chicken Project, has become involved, has to bring the town back to life again. “Art can radically change a place.”
A big chicken village, surrounded by Surinamese jungle. With on one side an unimaginative aviary full of imported American chickens who lay eggs ceaselessly, but where no rooster can be found –symbol of sterility. Beside it a frivolous cage, made from traditional Surinamese wood carving, with chickens originating from the entire country and a rooster. Symbol of fertility and the Surinamese cultural diversity. In the centre of the installation a big nest, made from aluminum and with porcelain eggs. Around the village grain is cultivated and solar energy is being produced to supply for its own needs.
If it is up to Koen Vanmechelen (47), shortly a brand-new installation from his making will arise in Moengo, a small town a hundred kilometers east of the Surinamese capital Paramaribo, home to about 8000 people. Most of them are maroons, descendants from slaves who fled from the harsh plantation life and started a new life in the jungle.
Moengo resurrected from the jungle at the beginning of last century after bauxite had been discovered there, the raw material for aluminum. The American multinational Alcoa established itself in the area, and it soon became one of the crown jewels of the company. During World War II bauxite from unoccupied Suriname was even crucial for the Allied weapon industry. A luxurious staff village was built, together with a theater, a swimming pool and even a sloping golf course. However, in 1986 Suriname was confronted with a civil war, which resulted in a shutdown of the bauxite production in Moengo. After that it all deteriorated rapidly. When the clash of arms ended in 1992, the luxurious glory of past times was nowhere to be found. Bodies of murdered villagers floated in the swimming pool, the theatre was closed and was ruined by squatters over the years, and the continuously spreading jungle took over the golf course again. A flight of refugees to both Paramaribo and the eastern neighbor French-Guyana turned the town and surrounding villages in quasi ghost towns.
Vanmechelen stayed in the former Dutch colony till December 22, a prospecting trip to plan a successful rise of his chicken village for the future. It is meant to be one of the centerpieces in 2015, when Moengo will have the first art biennale in Suriname ever. Initiator is visual artist Marcel Pinas (41), born in the Moengo area, who tries to bring the town back to life through art. After a local art education Pinas received a scholarship in 1997 from the government at that time, to study visual arts in Jamaica. “There I was asked for the first time what I wanted to achieve. Well, I want my people to be proud of themselves again. I want to give them back their identity. Initially my works were exhibited in a gallery, but I did not reach the masses in this way. Now my art can be found throughout the village.”
Pinas’ international art park, which will also include Vanmechelen’s chicken village, is beginning to take shape. Several works from Dutch, Surinamese and Caribbean artists already adorn the roadsides and squares of the bauxite town. In the middle of Moengo you find the Tembe Art Studio, named after the traditional Surinamese painting and woodcarving style with characteristic colorful geometrical shapes. At the studio youngsters can not only follow workshops, but they also get acquainted with theater, music and dance. A little bit outside the town centre the former Alcoa supermarket [The CAMM building previously was used by the Energy Company Suriname. The EBS generously let Marcel Pinas establish the museum here, SAX] is home to the Contemporary Art Museum Moengo. The temporary collection with several works of Pinas creates a good impression of his oeuvre. He succeeds to uplift century old maroon art forms and everyday items like shopping bags, spoons and cooking pots as an indictment of war, the attitude of multinationals in developing countries and the discrimination of tribal people. Pinas was invited to Brussels by the VUB (University of Brussels) beginning of this year (2012, VKK), where he met Koen Vanmechelen at a lecture. “I was invited to that lecture because I am active in a lot of countries for the Cosmopolitan Chicken Project, the project for which I crossbreed chickens from all over the world. After that Marcel visited my studio in Hasselt. We started to talk and there was an instant connection”, says Vanmechelen. The Limburg resident on his turn now visits Suriname. Pinas did not only show him Moengo, which is carefully scrambling to its feet, but in search of inspiration and ideas they also went down the Cottica river in boat made from a hollowed out tree trunk.
It is not always the most cheerful site of the country, considering the sometimes dreary situation many villages hit by the civil war are still in. Some are totally deserted, in others only elderly people still live. There are no jobs, so young people choose to flee to the capital or the goldfields. However, Vanmechelen does not become disheartened. On the contrary. “There are few countries in this world with as much potency as Suriname, a country where African, Indian, Indonesian and Indigenous cultures are so close together. This country could be a fantastic model for the world, the example of a place with a strong balance between nature and culture. I agree, the recovery of this former battle zone goes exasperatingly slow. However, you also feel that this can be bent around in a snip. Art has the power to transform a place at one go. Subsequently the economy will follow. A project like this is much more sustainable than just bringing in a big bag of cash.”
And this, meaning generating an economic spin-off through art, is precisely what Pinas focuses on. “Next to my museum there will soon be two rehearsal rooms. Local musicians will receive studio time every year to record an album. In return I ask these groups to perform three times a year at music festivals that I will organize, together with bands from Suriname, the Caribbean and Europe. People will come to Moengo from far, something that will be to the benefit of the entire community. People who come to listen to live music and look at art, also need a place to sleep, to eat and might also take trips to other villages in the neighborhood. People will come here again to spend money, just like in the old days.
Marcel Pinas’ ultimate goal is to turn Moengo into thé art city in Suriname. The ‘SuriFlemish’ artist duo already eagerly looks forward to 2015, when about thirty artists will descend to exhibit at the biennale. And already they dream out loud about having the opening at the Beatrix Theater that used to be Alcoa’s, but which at this moment is totally ruined. When the bauxite production stopped, it was taken over by a private owner. And this one now asks nothing less than a quarter of a million US dollars for the building, for Pinas an impossibly large amount. “But whether it is in the old theatre building or not, this initiative will not go down. Moengo will soon be the beating art heart of the Caribbean. Who hasn’t been to Moengo, will not have seen Suriname.
The Interior War (1986-1992)
The Interior War was a civil war between the rebels led by Ronny Brunswijk, who originates from the area, and the National Army. The army was under the leadership of Desi Bouterse, who came into power in 1980 through a coup. During the civil war about 400 people lost their lives and thousands of families fled their villages where they had been living for generations. Especially eastern Suriname was hardly hit. November 29, 1986 the army was responsible for a massacre in the village of Moiwana, near Moengo. Soldiers killed fifty villagers, amongst which pregnant women and children. The guilty were never persecuted, which resulted in a conviction of Suriname by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in 2005. Salient detail: after the 2010 elections Desi Bouterse and Ronny Brunswijk, both sentenced by default in the Netherlands for drugs trafficking, formed a joint government. At present Bouterse is president of Suriname, Brunswijk is member of parliament.
TEXT & PHOTOS Pieter Van Maele, 2012
TRANSLATION Vanda Koorndijk-Kernizan
Pieter Van Maele (1986) is correspondent in Paramaribo for amongst others the newspapers Algemeen Dagblad, Het Parool, De Morgen and Trouw. Together with Ivo Evers he wrote the book Bouterse aan de macht [Bouterse in power] that was published by De Bezige Bij in 2012.
This article was published earlier in Dutch in the Belgian newspaper De Morgen. De Morgen [The Morning] is a Flemish newspaper with a circulation of 53,860. It originates from a merger in 1978 of two socialist newspapers Vooruit [Onwards] and Volksgazet [People’s Newspaper].