TEXT Chandra van Binnendijk, previously published in de Ware Tijd Literair, April 29 to May 1, 2022, titled ‘Surinamese art in the American state collection. Valuable imagers of our history and culture’.
Art in Embassies is part of the United States foreign policy, whereby US embassies around the world accumulate a collection of visual art. These art collections hang in representative spaces of US chanceries, consulates and embassy residences worldwide. They consist largely of work by contemporary American artists, but a fair share comes from artists from the host country where a particular embassy is located.
After the relocation of the American embassy in Suriname from the Dr. Sophie Redmondstraat to its own accommodation in North Paramaribo, serious work was done in selecting and purchasing Surinamese art for the new building. The embassy did not act overnight in this regard. It made careful considerations; the appearance of the Surinamese works of art had to match that of the American works – in short: the collection had to form a tasteful and harmonious whole.
The fact that they have succeeded in doing so, is shown in the catalog which was published last year, Paramaribo Suriname; Art Collection of the U.S. Embassy in which this art collection is described and shown. A beautiful art book of a large size, in full color, on beautiful thick paper, with even a number of fold-out pages on which certain works of art come out in full glory. The catalog is bilingual, English and Dutch. In 94 pages, work by 23 artists can be seen. About each of them there is an informative text about the specific work, about the context in which the artist works and some biographical data.
This review is limited to the nine artists from Suriname whose paintings, ceramics, wooden sculptures and works of textiles were purchased for the US Embassy art collection. These nine are Marcel Pinas, Hanka Wolterstorff, Remy Jungerman, Roddney Tjon Poen Gie, Steven Towirjo, Humphrey Tawjoeram, Winston van der Bok, René Tosari and Soeki Irodikromo (the last three belonged to the dynamic Waka Tjopu artist collective from the eighties, but this aside).
Without a doubt, a great eye-catcher is the impressive ten-panel piece by René Tosari that hangs in one of the reception rooms on the ground floor of the embassy. The painting Diversity is Power shows an intriguing variety of signs and symbols. Because of its enormous size – 5 x 3 meters! – this artwork from 2009 seemed almost unsaleable and it took a long time before it was given a suitable spatial destination. Here it stands out at its very best.
The bright red of the colorful shawls in Humphrey Tawjoeram‘s painting Under the Pina Hut is striking. It shows the Arawak culture of the artist who, struck by the destruction of the landscape in which he grew up, began to paint the images of his childhood before they too would fade from his memory. Extensive logging and mining – also referred to as ‘development’ – is rapidly changing the natural environment. Tawjoeram is now painting which soon we won’t see anymore.
For Winston van der Bok, his native origin is also his greatest source of inspiration. By transforming the typical traditional motifs he uses in his artistic expressions, he gives even more meaning to this visual language. Van der Bok himself considers this the revival of the indigenous culture. To him the following applies as well: recording the cultural heritage from the ancestors before it disappears. The embassy purchased three small works from him that refer to nature; they depict respectively a bird, a frog and a flower, painted in acrylic on wood.
Marcel Pinas is present with the work Fositen, mixed media on canvas. With symbols, signs, motifs and objects from his culture, he often works in primary colors – predominantly red, with green, black and yellow. Pinas wants to point out the depth and the many rich traditions in the Maroon community. It is of great value to the world, he says, because the lifestyle of the Maroons is the way of life that is essential for preservation of the earth.
There is a beautiful ceramic work of art by Hanka Wolterstorff, in warm glowing colors. Natural leaf shapes are recognizable in it; deliberately pointed lines bring movement to the piece. This ceramist mixes her own colors and likes to be surprise by the unpredictable effects the colors of the glaze go through during the baking process in the ceramic kiln. The work in the US embassy is a fine example of her skills.
Other ceramics in the American collection come from Wolterstorff’s great teacher, Soeki Irodikromo. As a seasoned artist, Irodikromo knows how to transform his Javanese origins in a seemingly effortless and natural way – his ceramic sculpture Dancer in Green is a beautiful example of his authentic style: it shows traditional Javanese wayang motifs in such a rich, layered way that they turn Irodikromo’s artwork into something universal.
Steven Towirjo, a ceramist as well, is included in the collection with his sculpture De Hoge Groeve (The High Quarry). The catalog speaks of unique compositions, carrying imagery that seems just as contemporary as it does ancient, just as innovative as it does traditional, and just as intuitive as it does carefully designed. A beautiful description of Towirjo’s ceramic sculptures that are quite difficult to categorize.
Remy Jungerman creates striking installations mixing Surinamese Maroon culture and Western modernism. Kaolin and carvings applied on panels refer to winti rituals in which the participants rub themselves with this white clay. Jungerman creates art by bringing various cultural sources together. The artworks FODU Composition 3 and FODU Composition 9 that the embassy purchased show this – it incorporates for example pangi fabric and Javanese batik fabric.
There is a mahogany sculpture by Roddney Tjon Poen Gie, Afaka mask 3. The piece arose from the need he felt to create something genuinely Surinamese. For this, he chose the unique Afaka syllabary, a syllabic script developed at the beginning of the 20th century by Afaka Atumsi, an N’dyuka Maroon from East Suriname. Tjon Poen Gie was trained mainly in painting and drawing, but he prefers to create sculptures.
Looking at the Surinamese segment of this American art collection, it is remarkable how many committed artworks have been selected. Art with a statement. Coming from artists who are strongly rooted in their origins, such as Pinas, Tawjoeram, Irodikromo and Van der Bok. Their source of inspiration and their imagination of Surinamese culture and history are an undeniable enrichment for the country. However, the other and less committed ones tell a powerful story of Suriname as well. By using what the earth offers (clay, pimba), what nature provides (wood species, plant forms) and what the people here do (wickerwork, winti rituals).
That is why it would be fantastic if the embassy occasionally gave a group of interested parties the opportunity to take a tour of this beautiful collection. While fully understanding all security protocols any US embassy simply has to observe, it would be – yes, really – such a nice gesture to display the country’s art to art lovers and art students from the country itself. Because nothing really beats the experience of seeing a work of art in real life. But in the meantime we are already very happy with the beautiful catalog!
The full catalog can be viewed via this link: https://art.state.gov/paramaribo-embassy-publication/.
The collection of the US Embassy in Paramaribo, Suriname, can be seen here: https://art.state.gov/portfolio/paramaribo_embassy_2017.
TEXT Chandra van Binnendijk
Chandra van Binnendijk (Paramaribo, 1953) works as an independent writer, editor and publicist in Suriname. In 1977, she graduated from the School of Journalism in Utrecht, the Netherlands and began an active career in the profession in her native country, working for newspapers and a news agency, while also serving as a local correspondent for several media houses in the Caribbean. In the 1990s, she shifted her focus from the news to the sector where her heart lies, art and culture. Since then she has contributed to various publications in this field, including SRANAN, Cultuur in Suriname, Amsterdam, 1992; Twintig jaar beeldende kunst in Suriname 1975-1995, Amsterdam, 1995; Soeki Irodikromo, Beeldend kunstenaar, Paramaribo, 2005; Zichtbaar. Uit de kunstcollectie van De Surinaamsche Bank, Paramaribo, 2005.