Cry Surinam (E)

In 1992 the Curacao born artist Felix de Rooy made the assemblage ‘Cry Surinam’. It comprises a cream coloured (glowing) oil stove with a book about Surinam on top of it, on top of that is a large bone and the head of a black Surinamese with widely gaping mouth. He is crying out. A parody of the Surinamese leaving the warmth of his own country for the chilliness of the Netherlands. A work that can stand, unintentionally, as a symbol for art in Surinam.

Why does contemporary art play such a modest role in the former Dutch colony? Why are there no Surinamese artists (with a few exceptions) to be seen at international exhibitions? Why is almost nothing written about it? Why are they hardly ever included in the collections of the major Dutch museums?
Is there any Surinamese art or does the art there not want to be Surinamese? Why is the colonizer’s culture still the dominant culture?
These, and other, questions have no easy answers, because both Surinam and the Netherlands are responsible for this situation and sensitivities on both sides run deep.
It is a long road that leads to individuality and self-confidence. Surinam had no infrastructure for art until after the Second World War. For a long time the Netherlands initiated and dominated cultural institutes, education and organisations. It was 1966 before their own Surinam Academy for Visual Arts was established. This apparently promising start, however, was set up and organised like a European academy. Moreover, internal conflicts soon led to (short-lived) divisions and made the implementation of an appropriate educational tradition impossible. A measure of stability was not achieved until the early eighties, which means that the current two academies have a history of barely twenty-five years. Short. Too short.
You would expect that after independence in 1975 Surinam would want to go its own way. That with a sigh of relief it would proudly work on its own cultural identity. This is only partly true. That year tens of thousands of Surinamese move to the Netherlands because they see (and actually have) better opportunities there. Their ideal is not Paramaribo, but a house with a garden in Almère . For the most part education remains tailored to the Dutch system. Dutch is still the official language. Dutch money is still an important part of the Surinamese economy. Many Surinamese artists continue to be educated in the Netherlands. Some stay, some go back home taking with them a Western, white, cultural baggage.
Curiously, many Surinamese have trouble shaking off the yoke of their former colonizer. Is this laziness? Is it a psychological consequence of years of oppression? Are the motives purely economic? Because the country is not or does not think itself capable of developing all its natural resources itself? Is it uncertainty and frustration about the unstable political situation (Brunswijk, Bouterse)? It remains conjecture. It is probably an amalgam of causes.
Not only Surinam has trouble letting go, the Netherlands also tends to continue viewing and dealing with the country as its twelfth province. It still gives money for development projects, but at the same time still meddles with how it is spent. It still talks about (read: interferes in) political developments there, without wanting any deeper understanding of the culture of the country, which might well explain these developments.
Recently, a subtle form of cultural post-colonialism has been introduced.
As part of the art discourse on globalisation and being receptive in this context for ‘the other’, all sorts of cultural exchange programmes between the Netherlands and Surinam have been set up from the Netherlands with Dutch government money. Representatives of the Sandberg Institute, the Rietveld Academy, the Rijksacademie, the Rotterdam Art Foundation and other art organisations are frequent visitors to Paramaribo. To look around and get information, to give workshops, put on exhibitions, sometimes with Dutch artists in their wake. The Surinamese art community, however, queries the benefits of these kinds of activities for Surinamese art and Surinamese artists. Is this a way for them to widen their network? Will it help them to participate in international developments, or will it mean no more than the acceptance of one or two students at the Sandberg, the Rietveld and the Rijks and a few more skills acquired? The answer depends on who you ask. In any case, there are no unanimously positive responses.

In 2006 the Surinamese artists Remy Jungerman and Gillion Grantsaan developed the Wakaman Project. It is intended as a study of the position of artists of Surinam origin and will supplement the sketchy documentation on contemporary Surinamese art. For four months there will be a dialogue between three Surinamese artists outside Surinam (Iris Kensmil, Patricia Kaersenhout, Charl Landvreugd) and three Surinamese artists in Surinam (Marcel Pinas, Kurt Nahar, Ori Plet). Exchanging ideas, sending images, having conversations. Ultimately resulting in three collective art projects exhibited from the end of February 2009 in Fort Zeelandia in Paramaribo and a book about the project, about contemporary Surinamese art and about the context of this art. The book will be distributed internationally.
‘Wakaman’ can be a means to break out of the impasse mentioned above, since the participating artists will have worked on the project with total freedom and on the basis of equality. The book has been conceived and completed from a Surinamese perspective. The exhibition is a Surinamese affair.
Should ‘Wakaman’ then be a modest breakthrough, I think that in the future it would be a good idea for Surinamese artists to concentrate more on the Caribbean region and Latin America . The affinity with these areas is greater, the artistic opportunities are greater, there is a wider access to an international network of exhibitions, biennales, etc. Furthermore there is no shared past with all its emotionally charged entanglements.
The Netherlands and Surinam have to let each other go.
The ‘Cry Surinam’ assemblage must become outdated as soon as possible.

January 2009.
Published on site Small Axe
Translation: Jane Hall.