It’s a sultry evening when the exhibition The Struggle is Real kicks off. Showing in the lobby of Hotel Maisonadia at the Anton Dragtenweg in Paramaribo, Suriname, are – among other things – various etches that tell a story about tradition and freedom. That the etches have been printed with ink made from podosiri paint, is unique and quite pleasing to the eye.
The following out-of-the-box-application of podosiri, as the acai berry is called in Suriname, speaks to a different sense. Upon entering, the taste buds are treated to a podosiri smoothie to which soursop and lemon have been added. During the evening visitors can watch two films that show an interesting contrast: young independent entrepreneurs who climb to the top of the palisade palm to pick the acai berries in the Surinamese rainforest, and different health foodies who share their attempts at healthy eating online, on their vlog. In both cases ‘the struggle is real’, and the use of this somewhat ironically intended statement, is given a serious side.
The Dutch artists Roosje Verschoor and Suzanne Bernhardt who organized this exhibition, met each other during a stressful period in the former bauxite town Moengo, in the district of Marowijne. Verschoor had just begun her period as artist in residence at Stichting Kibii and had yet to find her way. Bernhardt however, was in the final phase of her residency, also at Stichting Kibii, and had to present the final result.
“There were mosquitoes, I still had to find out where I could best get my food, and you name it. It was a matter of getting used to it all, and we jokingly said: ‘Let’s just eat podosiri!’ Everybody here eats it and it makes them so happy!” Says Roosje Verschoor. This line of reasoning was actually closer to the truth than the two artists realized at that time. The podosiri, which has already gained the status of a superfood, significantly boosts health and when you’re healthy, you’re usually happier as well.
The two documented the entire process of harvesting, processing into food, and even the sale in French Guyana. They noticed that the production and the eating of podosiri are inextricably linked to the identity of the people. Still it was not totally clear what they would do with all this material. Roosje Verschoor: “Suzanne left for the Netherlands and went in search of podosiri there. After a long search she found health bowls in which acai (podosiri) was mixed with dairy, fruit, nuts and coconut slivers, and which were praised as being very healthy. “But they contained so little podosiri, that people were basically paying for the idea that they were eating podosiri. The contrasts to Suriname and the fact that podosiri here is readily available and in pure form, made it more interesting for us.”
Bernhardt gave her own interpretation to that contrast and used clay from Suriname and the from the Netherlands to make ceramic bowls that were meant to symbolize the health bowls. Decorated with striking patterns, they were displayed on a beautiful rustic wooden table on the night of the exhibition.
Verschoor, who is a photographer and not particularly fond of painting, had done a residency in the Netherlands during which she learned to make paint and afterwards also ink, from natural pigments. “Nobody could teach me that last part, it was a real struggle. It was only in the last two weeks that I discovered how to go from podosiri-paint to podosiri-ink. I used that ink to create etches from my photographs”, explains Verschoor, who experimented with other natural pigments to add more color to her etches. The T-shirts with the text ‘The Struggle is Real’ and the image of a bag of podosiri, were also printed with ink from this fruit.
Enrich the cuisine
In addition to the smoothie, guests at the opening of the exhibition were also treated to various snacks in which podosiri was incorporated. The murmurs of approval confirm that the extra applications of this berry could definitely enrich Surinamese cuisine in a sustainable way. Verschoor especially enjoys the chicken drumstick filet prepared in a crust of podosiri with crispy kwak (a product made from cassava), with a topping of a delicate podosiri-cream. Chef Paul Lisse is also very pleased with the expressions of approval that follow after the snacks have been eaten.
The click between art and food – which podosiri essentially is – is explained by Verschoor at the end. “Suzanne and I are not artists who sit in our studios and are suddenly overtaken by the inspiration to make art. We see art in the everyday life of people, and food is a part thereof. With this project we have demonstrated how food is interwoven with economics, identity and production processes in Suriname and overseas. That is how we make art, from elements in people’s lives.”
What was also fascinating for the two artists during their search for all that is connected to the fruit of this palm tree, is that all those who are involved in its processing in Suriname, are independents and thus provide in their own living, in their own way. Verschoor: “In Brazil for example, there are entire plantations where the acai berry is cultivated and there it is truly an industry with a few big earners and the little man who earns a lot less. That is not the case in Suriname. And nobody feels the need for that system whereby you are obligated to work for a boss every day. Here it is still done as it has always been done traditionally: in all freedom and everybody makes a living off of it.”
The exhibition The Struggle is Real was on display from January 10-17, 2020 in Hotel Maisonadia, Anton Dragtenweg 221, Paramaribo, Suriname. There is also a website for the project now The Struggle is Real.
TEXT Euritha Tjan A Way
Euritha Tjan A Way is a journalist/writer and has a passion for playing with words. Her alias is Lettergenie [letter genius] for a reason. She started her career as a journalist in the Arts, Entertainment and Lifestyle department of de Ware Tijd. Themes that still hold great appeal to her today.
PHOTOS Courtesy Roosje Verschoor