He did extensive research on the subject.
This was allowed to take quite a bit of time. He wanted to know whether he could use kaolin to make sculptures as well; if he could transform the whitish substance into moldable clay. It would then be a natural way for him to incorporate his heritage into his material. Large quantities of kaolin are found underneath the bauxite in his home country Suriname, and a company in his birthplace Moengo markets it in various forms. He could hardly come any closer to his origins.
Ken Doorson is not the only Surinamese artist who wants his heritage to show through in his work. While artists such as Marcel Pinas do this because they are proud of their culture and therefore want that culture to survive, with Ken Doorson it’s a bit more complicated. Fourteen years of his life were spent living abroad, years during which his personality was formed. Upon his return to Suriname he has to once again search for his identity. He feels like a guest in his own country. His work provides him with a viable excuse to start exploring his native culture. In addition to this, he also has an almost innate interest in history and considers it a natural part of his artistry to do extensive research before he transforms his ideas into a work of art.
Up until now, Doorson’s paintings are life-sized portraits of people who have in one way or another played a role in Surinamese history. Since it is not his aim to make these portraits exact likenesses, it is difficult for the viewer to identify them. However strange that may sound, it is of no consequence to Doorson. To him it is not about glorifying known heroes. Nor does he aim for a courageous portrayal of unsung heroes. To him it is not about the actual people, but about their emotional state at a specific moment in time, a moment that will be of influence to the rest of their lives. That is the emotion that he wants to capture.
For that he has his own, wayward method: color. Not the facial expression is decisive, but the colors in which the face has been painted. He puts those often contrasting colors next to each other, or he lets them flow into each other or play with each other, in a surprising way. This creates drama. That drama is further enhanced by the ‘sloppy’ way in which he paints the colors. There is movement to the colors. They appear to be alive.
In a number of his new canvases the color still determines the meaning. Especially ‘Ancestral Mugshot’ (2015) – a work that has the potential to become iconic – is a striking example. The emotion – is it rage? – jumps off of the canvas. The relatively small ‘Male’ (2015) is also exemplary. Still there are a few new paintings – ‘Manumission 1’ (2016) for example – in which he has let go of that principle. On purpose I suspect. While researching the archives related to the history of his home country, he came across the so-called letters of manumission. These are documents that state that a slave has been bought into freedom. He makes photocopies of several and paints the man or the woman named in that document. Since there were no images of these ex-slaves, he paints fictitious figures. The document in question is literally incorporated within the painting: he glues it on and lets it blend into the surrounding paint. Thus he grants the depicted person status. He provides the portrait with a type of red-wax-stamp (this is incidentally how he signs a number of his paintings). Such an official portrayal requires an official style. The formal State-portrait is then a fitting genre. Such a portrait it is not meant to show emotions. This is why these new portraits miss the familiar, expressionistic colorfulness. They are more reserved and closer to the reality than his other portraits. They are smartly dressed, almost too formal.
For this exhibition Ken Doorson limits himself to the presentation of paintings. However, he also makes installations. In the future the clay heads, which are still part thereof, will probably have to make way for objects made from kaolin. But whatever medium he chooses, traces of the Surinamese culture will always be found within.
This exhibition of paintings is once again the inspiring evidence thereof.
NOTE This text was previously published in Dutch on the website of Galerie 23, and was translated and re-blogged with permission.
TEXT Rob Perrée, Amsterdam, June 2016
Rob Perrée is art historian and works as freelance writer, art critic and curator, specialized in contemporary (Afro-) American art, African art, Surinamese art and art using new media. His work has appeared in countless catalogues, books, magazines and newspapers. He is editor of Sranan Art Xposed, and editor in chief of Africanah.org.
TRANSLATION Cassandra Gummels-Relyveld, 2016
What: Solo-exhibition Ken Doorson (on Facebook): Know To All Men By These Presents
When: Opening June 26, 2016, 16:00 hrs, by Bart Krieger (on Facebook). June 26-July 31, 2016. Opening hours: Tue-Fri 10:00-18.00 uur / zat & zon 11.00 – 18.00 uur
Where: Galerie 23 on Facebook), KNSM-laan 307-309, 1019 LE Amsterdam, the Netherlands, tel. +31 (0)20 620 13 21
A YouTube-vdeo about Ken Doorson can be found here.