Surinam and the US (E)


“We younger negro artists, who create now, intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear and shame.”
Langston Hughes, 1926

“I would say we’re all making work that does not hit people over the head with the race conversation anymore.”
Kori Newkirk, 2007

When I temporarily moved to New York in July 1995 to research the state of affairs of African American art, it was immediately apparent that I had chosen a good time. Six months before Henry Louis Gates, now Professor of African and African American Studies at Harvard University, had written a landmark article in which he referred to a new ‘Harlem Renaissance’ . He called this second revival of black culture the ‘Black Renaissance’. In the article he used several examples to demonstrate that interest in ‘black’ was increasing, that there was a growing black middle class and that the number of successful, black writers, musicians, pop stars, actors, film makers, television personalities was greater than ever before. Strangely he did not mention the visual arts.
He had left the field clear for me.
While in the eighties there had been a small group of individuals, appreciated in select circles, such as Martin Puryear (1941), David Hammons (1943), Adrian Piper (1948) and Carrie Mae Weems (1953), I soon discovered a whole generation of young artists about to break through. Their work had already been shown in a couple of big retrospectives (the Whitney Museum of American Art in particular), they all had the luxury of a New York gallery, they radiated self-confidence, they knew what they wanted, in brief, an international breakthrough was just on the horizon. Kara Walker, Glenn Ligon, Lyle Ashton Harris, Kerry James Marshall, Gary Simmons, Ellen Gallagher, Leonardo Drew, Lorna Simpson, were all ready for it.
Although very different they were all producing work of a high standard and in that work they were all engaged with the fact that they were black. Not as a (supposed) victim, not from a need to reinvigorate their black origins, but rather as an ineradicable aspect of their daily life. Kara Walker’s silhouettes provided a critical interpretation of the history of slavery; Glenn Ligon linked existing (black historical) texts to his own life; Lyle Ashton Harris’s photography played with the representation of black people, by black people and by others; Kerry James Marshall painted daily life in the Housing Projects; Gary Simmons denounced the role of black figures in popular comic strips; Ellen Gallagher hid flat noses and thick, red lips in her apparently abstract paintings; Leonardo Drew made wall sculptures in which (the smell of) cotton played a dominant part and Lorna Simpson’s photography portrayed the clichéd image of the black woman. It was hardly surprising that their black identity was still important to them, what was surprising was that it was precisely this engagement, in addition to the quality of their work, that gave them access to the art market. They were meeting the expectations of white people for non-white artists. Moreover they were lucky to profit from the after effects of postmodernism when there was again more room and interest for socially engaged art. Every self-respecting gallery thought it politically correct to have a black artist on their books. This had nothing to do, of course, with the fact that after the art market crash of the late eighties these galleries needed low-priced, new, young artists. But it helped.
Developments were fast, as was apparent a few years later.
To conclude my research I wanted to show work by this whole generation of new talent in a large travelling exhibition . During my initial series of studio visits everyone was very enthusiastic about the plan, but two years later when I was arranging the loan of the works through the galleries involved, a number of artists withdrew completely unexpectedly at the last moment. They felt it would be bad for their careers to be involved in an exhibition exclusively for African American artists. I was annoyed, but at the same time could understand their point. They had progressed beyond the Dutch public for whom this exhibition was intended.
Now, more than ten years later, these artists are turning up in all sorts of international exhibitions, they nearly all have a mid-career show at a big American museum on their CV and they have since been joined by various fellow artists (Julie Mehretu and Layla Ali, for example).
2007 was another benchmark year. The New York Times had a major article about a new generation of black artists largely living and working in the Los Angeles area. This was in reference to the presentation of the Johnson Prize , named after the black artist William H. Johnson, to Edgar Arceneaux. His work along with that of earlier nominees or prize-winners Mark Bradford, David Alan Grier and Kori Newkirk is included in leading collections, has been presented by influential galleries at the major art fairs and has become an integral part of the biennale circuit. Mark Bradford’s enormous torn-paper collages are extremely successful, having been shown at the Whitney and the New Museum in New York, at Prospect1 in New Orleans, at the Royal Academy of Arts in London and at the LACMA and the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. While having benefited from the trail-blazing work of Glenn Ligon and his fellow artists, this generation has also in some ways distanced itself from it. Kori Newkirk defines this as follows: “I would say we’re all making work that doesn’t hit people over the head with the race conversation anymore. It’s a juicy conceptualism – a ghetto-fabulous conceptualism.” Professional classifiers have therefore labelled this latter group as ‘Post Black’, since their being black has no or hardly any effect on their work or the appreciation of their work.
Expressed in political terms: Jesse Jackson has become Barack Obama.


“We miss a lot of what is going on outside.”
Kurt Nahar

“True innovation never happens within the same family of ideas, of cultural values.”
Gillion Grantsaan

“Your roots are very important. How can you live if you don’t know who you are?”
Marcel Pinas (9)

Is it possible to make a comparison between the black artist in the United States and the black Surinamese artist? Does it matter whether the latter lives and works in his native country or has chosen to be based in the Netherlands? Is the Surinamese artist ready for Barack Obama?
While black people in Surinam and the US may have the same African origins, huge differences arose as soon as they were deployed as slaves in their new countries. In the US the black population was never in the majority, even in the southern states where 95% of them were initially placed. The dominant culture was always white and oriented to the West. Under colonisation in Surinam the one-time Africans were in the majority. The white population imposed its culture, but never succeeded in permeating this culture into the fibres of daily life.
There is yet another difference. Some Surinamese slaves managed to escape the rod of iron of the Dutch and flee to the jungle where they had the chance to put their traditional culture, grafted onto their African origins, into practice, proud that in doing so they were outsmarting their oppressors. In this sense the Maroons are blacker than the black American .
Do these differences explain why so few African American artists refer to their African origins in their work? Possibly. David Hammons is an exception since, although his work does not necessarily refer back to the age-old traditions and rituals, it is often linked to Africa and at least displays an affinity with African culture. The same is true of the work of artists such as Betye Saar, Terry Adkins and Sanford Biggers. The unexpected and unimagined proof that these were exceptions came a number of years ago when a wealthy Harlem woman organised a free trip to Africa for black artists. Believing in the ideas of Marcus Garvey, she thought that they would feel the need to see their ‘homeland’ again. The need certainly existed, was indeed great, but the disappointment was even greater. Most of the artists felt more ‘different’ in Africa than they had ever felt in the US. Lyle Ashton Harris recently started teaching in Ghana for part of the year and the theme for the first series of photos he took there was: black ‘brothers’ with mobiles. It is not so much Africa that interests him but rather the West’s effect on Africa.
The above might lead to the conclusion that historically, black artists in Surinam are more closely connected to their African roots than their American colleagues; however, this thesis is not corroborated by the facts. In his paintings and installations Marcel Pinas, one of the artists in this project, returns to the culture of the village in the Surinam jungle where he was born, in the hope of preserving it from destruction. His visual language and the way he uses the Afaka scripts are indisputable proof of this. One could also call Rinaldo Klas an artist with an eye for traditional African values through his affinity with unspoilt nature and man’s relationship with it. Even Remy Jungerman, another Wakaman, pays tribute in his recent work to the traditional Maroon culture of Surinam. The rituals and ceremonies of the Winti, with their original basis in Africa, have gradually crept into his installations. These are exceptions, however. Most of the other artists in Surinam work in the old, white, Western tradition; although probably leaning more towards spirituality and with a more colourful visual language.
One explanation for this contradiction might be that the colonial system and thereby the colonial way of thinking has remained dominant in Surinam for a long time. This dominance meant that the original culture was looked down on, undermining any sense of pride. The education system, for example, is still largely organised in the Dutch way. The language is predominantly Dutch. Another explanation is that most Surinamese artists have received training in the Netherlands and/or lived in the Netherlands for varying lengths of time. Independence, rather than changing this, actually caused many inhabitants of Surinam to leave for the Netherlands. Furthermore the predominance in numbers and status of the ‘new’ Surinamese, the Hindus and Javanese “imported” after the abolition of slavery, has in part also been responsible for this.
An obvious difference from the United States is that there is no suitable infrastructure for art, or any of the practical, production facilities in Surinam. America, and New York in particular, may no longer be the artistic centre of the world, but it is still the place that determines whether an artist makes it or not, how much his work fetches and how much access he is given to the international circuit. Compared to this the Surinamese artist is badly off. He not only has fewer opportunities, but his horizon has also appreciably receded. Because he neither has nor can have many links to international developments, he is deprived of the chance of anticipating these or gaining inspiration from them.
Is this any different for a Surinamese artist working from the Netherlands? The Dutch art circuit cannot be compared with that of the United States. There are fewer financial and practical opportunities than in the past, fewer, especially than many non-Dutch artists think. There are hardly any galleries that operate on an international scale and the major museums have almost no international impact.
However, it is difficult to deny that in comparison with Surinam career opportunities in the Netherlands are greater and that it is easier for an artist here to hook up in some way with what is happening on the international circuit and with what is considered important. Internet and other means of communication may have made the world smaller and demolished the borders, but they have not (yet) provided equal opportunities to every artist.
Finally: has Obamization also reached the art in Surinam? I have no unequivocal answer to this. I have noticed that being black, being different, coming from a different culture, is still occasionally a major factor for many Surinamese artists. Conversely, they rarely play the victim card nowadays. The significance of the Wakaman project can be essential in this phase of development.
In the US the ‘Post Black’ generation appears to have taken another step. The question is whether this ‘whitening’ process should be seen as positive under all circumstances. Another question is how deeply rooted is this Obamization in the US. One blunder by the black American president could reverse the emancipation process at one stroke. For a black American artist, being black could then become relevant again.

Amsterdam, Brooklyn, Dec/Jan 2008/2009