The Other Side of the Diaspora. Ken Doorson’s ‘Prologue to The Mothership’ – II

In a series of three blog posts Sranan Art Xposed will put a special focus on Ken Doorson. In November 2012 Ken Doorson had an exhibition in Fort Zeelandia, Paramaribo, Suriname, from the 21st until the 24th of November 2012The Mothership. To acquaint the audience with his work, he also organized a Prologue, a few months before The Mothership opened. During that Prologue, the artist and two writers, talked about how Ken sees his work, and what inspires and drives him.  On September 15th, in Sukru Oso he introduced the public to his work and his theme: Diaspora. Subsequently Marieke Visser, Tessa Leuwsha and Ken Doorson spoke about this. Below their contributions, starting with Marieke Visser.

Some works were selected for the 'Prologue' in Sukru Oso | PHOTO Ada Korbee, 2012
Some works were selected for the ‘Prologue’ in Sukru Oso | PHOTO Ada Korbee, 2012
In Sukru Oso | PHOTO Ada Korbee, 2012
In Sukru Oso | PHOTO Ada Korbee, 2012
Sukru Oso dWT
Marieke Visser, Tessa Leuwsha and Ken Doorson | PHOTO de Ware Tijd/Stafono Tull, 2012
Sukru Oso Proloog Marieke
Marieke Visser | PHOTO Sukru Oso, 2012

Welcome tonight! Today we are going on a journey with Ken Doorson, to the mothership: The Mothership. I am very pleased that, before captain Ken takes us along, I am allowed to share a few words with you. Had we been in an airplane, then I would be your flight attendant and I would show you the emergency exits, the life vests and the oxygen masks. And tell you about all the things you are NOT allowed to do on board. But this is different. This is more like a chat about things that you CAN do. You can go ahead and push outdated ideas off to the side and replace them with brand-new ones. You can allow your thoughts to wander away with you, and perhaps discover a new, unfamiliar path inside your head, or better yet: outside your head. Are you comfortable?

Join us on our journey with an open mind, let the winds of scattered thoughts blow away the dust … Sometimes you have to take a trip in order to come home.

Ken’s theme is Diaspora, and in his work he shares the quest for his, our, history, which tells a story to which Diaspora is inextricably linked. That search helps him find his identity.

Diaspora. The word means: scattering or dispersing of a group of people over different parts of the world. In recent years it has almost become a fashionable word.  Although it is not always intended to, it often leaves a bitter aftertaste. Scattering soon becomes fragmentation. The word is also regularly used in a somewhat problematic context. Artists in Diaspora, ahh…, how far removed is it from thinking of them as artists in exile? It seems a bit sad. People who are scattered across the world, like ashes, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. All we are is dust in the wind.

The theme itself speaks to me quite a bit. So often I too have felt scattered, fragmented; throughout my entire life. The search for your own identity then becomes quite difficult. Where do you begin? It is easy to see it as burden which we, children of the Diaspora, carry with us. But in these times of traveling and moving, of continually meeting people that have different stories to tell, a different religion, a different culture … In these times in which cultures merge, and new generations develop new traditions, it is no longer so exceptional to be in Diaspora. On the contrary! We are all in the same boat, … Rock that boat! We’re in this Mothership together!

Several years ago, when I was still feeling very fragmented in a troublesome way, even torn sometimes, I was at Jodensavanne. Another one of those places in our country where so many stories come together. For a moment I strayed from the group, and found myself in silence, without words, with the rustling forest and living nature all around me, and the tangible presence of all that human life that has gone before us. And it started to rain softly.  And I could feel how, had I been a transparent glass sculpture, each drop would seem to leave something, like a little snippet on my glass skin. An experience, a memory, a feeling, a laugh, a scar, a birthmark, a chuckle, a contemplation. But also: the look of somebody else, the interpretation of my words, little pieces of myself that I myself know nothing of, but that the world around me does see.

Fragmented existence                                                                                                          

A soft breeze is blowing in my head

Tiny leaves

Flutter through the space around me

Snippets, peaces, bits


That I want to grab

That I’m reaching for

That change my world

Determine what I look at

What I can see

And then again cannot see

In which I exist, am more alive

Of which I dream, quiet

I cannot conceive

Why I once wanted that

I have forgotten

Jodensavanne, June 2008

In that moment, there at Jodensavanne, I understood that dispersion and fragmentation also work the other way around: like a process of defragmentation you could say. We are an ever-changing collage, a constantly developing quilt: it is a dynamic state of transformation in which we find ourselves, to which new elements are constantly added, and precisely because of that dispersion of all of us throughout the world, becoming more diverse, more colorful. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, dust to us.

As I see it, with his work, Ken hands to us those fragments; he gives empty spaces color without closing them off. To me, by doing so, he gives a much more positive connotation to the word Diaspora. Art critic Rob Perrée about Ken’s work: “He inspires the viewer to bring his own story or his own history to it.” I want to add that he does this in a way that creates air and space, which removes the heavy ballast that ties us to the earth, and he thus he enables us to take off, up into space, to the mothership!

Enjoy the journey!

Tessa Leuwsha | PHOTO Ada Korbee, 2012
Tessa Leuwsha | PHOTO Ada Korbee, 2012
Tessa Leuwsha | PHOTO Ada Korbee, 2012
Tessa Leuwsha | PHOTO Ada Korbee, 2012

Then followed author Tessa Leuwsha. She spoke to the audience from her heart. The text below was written by her as a means of preparing herself for the Prologue.

Artist Ken Doorson: Who am I? And who are the others?

The theme that artist Ken Doorson connects to his exhibition Mothership later in 2012 and before that at his preview in gallery Sukru Oso, is Diaspora. The Van Dale dictionary explains the much-used term as follows:  “when members of a religious community live scattered about in different places amongst those who think differently.”  I’ll just stick to the general understanding of living among others. The following questions immediately arise: Who am I? And who are the others? Or rather: Where are you at home? With colorful images Ken Doorson tries to find answers to those questions.

I got to know Ken during a trip we both went on to Moengo, for a visit to the Moengo-art project, created by Marcel Pinas, with Ken Doorson as participating artist. During the almost three hour drive, Ken proved to be an excellent host and story teller, who shared his thoughts with me like a true guide.

He understood perfectly that as a writer I am always in search of stories and could point out exactly to those matters in which, according to him, drama lurked. A deserted grave alongside the Oost-Westverbinding, the tragedy of the war in the interior. Ken, born in Moengo, showed me the places where the war had raged and described the atmosphere of those days.  It became clear to me that Ken can actually paint with words, but he prefers to use images to give expression to his rich emotional world.

In his portraits Ken attempts to penetrate deep into the psyche of man.  He depicts his personages on the fractured surface of their emotions. Twisted, confused. Almost never can the artist be accused of painting a picture to a story – of pushing his work into a popular theme. Yes, in his parental home which serves as a studio, there is an old painting from when he was 17 and living in Curacao. Impressed by the strong polarization on Curacao between black and white he drew black shackled people, slaves, with in the background the sea over which they had been brought to the islands. The viewer gets little room for interpretation, for the creation of a self-constructed image from that which Ken offers.  What you see is what you get.

More mature are the recent works that refer to Redi Musu, slaves deployed by the colonizer to track down escaped slaves. In a large portrait, Ken has colored the entire head of a man red, instead of just the distinctive red slave collectors’ hat. Why? I did not ask Ken, just because I would rather indulge in my own daydreams at the suggestions which Ken puts forward. A red head is an expression of shame, but could also indicate anger. Or a combination of the two. But to Ken it could possibly be about an entirely different aspect. All those mysterious layers give depth to his work.

The theme that Ken has chosen for his exhibition, Diaspora, in search of the history of his homeland Suriname and with that also of himself, does not seem to apply to all of his work.  In the intensely emotional facial expressions of his portraits, that choice of subject has a limiting effect. The faces express universally recognizable states of being, after all.  Not just that of people who find themselves adrift from their origins, but also of people who for whatever reason, find themselves in a difficult place. Ken Doorson more likely seems to be searching along the rich inner emotional life of (black) mankind, rather than that which could be considered part thereof: the question of where that black man comes from.

Modesty is inherent to the person Ken Doorson. Friendly, never pushing himself to the foreground. The perfect, honorable host whom, while traveling with me to a well known fellow artist, never once tried to draw my attention to his own art. Luckily, within a few months, there was to be a major solo exhibition of Ken Doorson. His work is definitely worth seeing.

Ken Doorson | PHOTO Ada Korbee, 2012
Ken Doorson | PHOTO Ada Korbee, 2012
Ken Doorson with the slide about Codjo, Mentor and Present | PHOTO Ada Korbee, 2012
Ken Doorson with the slide about Codjo, Mentor and Present | PHOTO Ada Korbee, 2012

And after Tessa’s chat with the audience Ken Doorson shared his thoughts about the theme with the audience.

With The Mothership I mean: the source of inspiration that takes me to a deeper state in order to research the subject of Diaspora. To me The Mothership is comparable to a ship that takes us to a new destination to find the identity in the Diaspora.

It’s about rediscovering, about becoming aware of where you are from.  About delving into the important and eventful history of your country. A history that many don’t or no longer know much about; a history that is forgotten; that has been pushed into the background.

As the world gradually becomes ‘smaller’, the social contacts between countries and cultures become stronger, or become strongly opposed to each other, I have noticed that the subject of Diaspora comes up more often. Governments even develop a Diaspora policy. Certain scientists argue for history to be re-written. A history from a Surinamese point of view. Will that contribute to the shaping of an identity and/or to nation building?

My recent works are portraits. The portraits are of figures in an emotional state of mind.  The moment in which something is, or will be happening to them. That is often what it is about; that moment.

For example the moment of the beheading of Boni, of the conviction of Kodjo, Mentor, Present. I visualize these figures because they are figures we all know from our colonial period. There are many other figures, which also have their particular moment, all with their own stories.

Those that are in Diaspora search for that moment in which they can identify with themselves and with that which they long for. Occasionally I delve into archives. I read how people have described slaves and translate that into a way of painting.

Some of the portraits show slightly different, deformed, proportions, you see bright colors and there is always the search for drama. You have to feel the work. It has to have a soul.  I have the inspiration to add an extra dimension to my work.

By setting my paintings up together with three-dimensional objects, it sometimes looks theatrical.  The ceramic heads are in development.  I also want to further develop and implement sculpture in my work.

Pictures from our history and oral tales are an inexhaustible source of inspiration for me. It also inspires me to write poems.

The question that I ask the public is whether the history described from the Surinamese point of view could contribute to the forming of an identity or to nation building.

I quote a passage from the bundle Wie is Surinamer? [Who is Surinamese] from Drs. Hein Eersel:

“He who takes the burden of the whole Surinamese on his shoulders. After he has thus identified himself, he can, with the word of Paus Leo XIII ‘Vetera novis augere er perficere’; ‘multiply and perfect the old with the new’ begin his task of building up, because history cannot be undone, it can only be continued.”

The Last Song (Song of the Loweman)

We will sing a last song

leaving a story behind to unravel

Because tonight we will find our way

into the dark where our soul will taste the light

where we are not afraid of the dark, because we are already

in dark when we were forced to an uncertain destination

On the rhythm of the apinti we shall sing in kromanti

which has been our guide to the new land

where our sweat,  blood has flown on this new soil

Come let us sing for those who are already free,

free down at the bottom  of the open sea

But tonight we shall run,

run run like runaway cattle

Because we’re already infected by the chorus of this song

which shall be sung for many generations to come

They will inherit a song

the last song before the night of freedom

What followed was remarkable. A young Amerindian man stood up, really moved by Ken’s words and spoke of what he had recognized as his own thoughts and feelings. And a Surinamese artist, since long in Diaspora, but full of emotions about Ken who did return to his home country.

The public reacts to Ken's presentation | PHOTO Ada Korbee, 2012
The public reacts to Ken’s presentation | PHOTO Ada Korbee, 2012
The start of a dialogue | PHOTO Sukru Oso, 2012
The start of a dialogue | PHOTO Sukru Oso, 2012


TEXT Marieke Visser, Tessa Leuwsha, Ken Doorson

TRANSLATION Cassandra Gummels-Relyveld

Marieke Visser (Bennekom, the Netherlands, 1962) studied journalism and language and literature in the Netherlands. As publicist she writes a lot about art, culture, history and tourism from her own news agency Swamp Fish Press. Three large art projects to which she has recently contributed are: Wakaman Drawing lines, connecting dots , Paramaribo SPAN and  Kibii Wi Koni Marcel Pinas The Event. She is currently editor in chief of Sranan Art Xposed.

Tessa Leuwsha (Amsterdam, 1967) has been living in Suriname since 1996. After the gymnasium she took a course in tourist management and studied English in Amsterdam.  She wrote the travel guide Wereldwijzer Suriname (publisher Elmar), which has appeared in several revised publications. In 2002 her story Voor William was awarded with the encouragement prize of the Kwakoe Literature award. Other stories appeared in the bundles Waarover we niet moeten praten (2007) and Voor mij ben jij hier (2010). Her debut novel, de Parbo-blues (publishers Augustus, Amsterdam-Antwerpen), received much praise. De Parbo-blues was nominated for the Vrouw&Kultuur [woman and culture] Debut award 2006 and the Debutanten Prijs [newcomer award] 2006.

In April 2009 her second novel Solo, een liefde, about ambition and longing in the colonial Suriname appeared from Publisher Augustus. Solo, een liefde got good reviews in amongst others, NRC Handelsblad, the VPRO guide and HP/de Tijd and was nominated for the Black Magic Woman Literature award 2009.


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