Contemporary Surinamese Art Arts On Sunday
With Al Creighton
Stabroek News
October 14, 2001

Sunset birds III
by Alim A. Hosein

Contemporary Suriname Art

Sunset birds III

The achievement of Amerindian Art

In our issue of October 30, 2001, we carried a review by our fine arts correspondent, Alim A. Hosein, of the recent exhibition at Castellani House, Sunset Birds III: The New Amerindian Force in Guyanese Art. Unfortunately , a section of this review was omitted.

Hosein discussed the works of the very outstanding Oswald Hussein, and two other Amerindian artists, Roland Taylor and Valentine Stoll, describing the achievements since their major exhibition at The Hadfield in 1991. "After ten years of producing and exhibiting artwork, what have these artists achieved? First of all, they have taken us far away from the traditional concept of Amerindian art as being only bead and basketwork, and from our treatment of such work as only fir for ethnic, cultural decoration or the tourist trade".

They have established themselves as national, rather than ethnic, artists "capable of articulating a vision while defining their people and culture". They have provided Guyanese sculpture with "a new language" and the nation's art as a whole with "a dynamic and vigorous imagination".

Defining self and nation

The Hadfield Foundation recently mounted another significant exhibition, important for what it showed of a particular brand of expression developing in the contemporary painting of Suriname. The gallery hosted two visiting artists, George Struikelblok and Marcel Pinas, in a bold, striking show titled Contemporary Surinamese Art.

Certainly, the work on display was a useful expos of the different kind of art with which painters are experimenting over the border in other parts of the Guianas. The interesting cultural contrasts and influences are much in evidence, as Struikelblok and Pinas are products of an environment different from Guyana's, with its distinct cultural power, while, at the same time, they are young men following the directions of their own individual imaginations. On display was their personal style which as yet lacks the power to be called an established national form, yet it is most definitely Surinamese art, reflecting some of the cultural flavour of that nation.

Both painters were schoolmates who have stayed together, working in the same studio. They have a close knowledge of each other's work and share a bold adventurism in form and expression, taking the risk of following their own uncharted intuition, which sometimes takes them outside of the mainstream. What they achieve is, however, an eclectic mix, since their work reflects much that is modern pop or 'op' art, some expressionist abstraction, mixed media, the traditional, and even a touch of commercial utility. They share a draughtsman's careful skill and command of anatomy and form, although they have little interest in realistic drawing. Their more successful pieces are those which benefit from their love of colour, giving those paintings vigour, dynamism and a spectacular presence.

The catalogue did not identify the exhibits very helpfully: it did not indicate which work was done by which artist. But the curious irony is that this omission served another purpose. Pinas and Struikelblok have such common qualities that their combined work produced a single show, not two exhibitions occupying the same space. Yet, they are so different in styles and orientation that it was possible to determine just from looking at each painting, whose work it was.

Pinas' signature motifs include the use of stencilled lettering etched at various angles and integrated into the paintings which are otherwise expressionist. He has a preoccupation with subdued nudes in surrealistic compositions, which lend themselves to his thematic explorations. These include a dialogue with fertility, as in The Only Way I and II, as well as elements of the romantic affair in which he expresses himself through suites with such titles as Lonelyness, Missing You and Heart. In some of these, his symbolism becomes obvious and the real interest in the pieces shift to his use of colour schemes, some of which are warm and flamboyant, giving the paintings visual impact. It is these selections that stand out and give strength to Pinas' work.

Struikelblok achieves a bit more, despite one of his own signature motifs that he over-uses to a fault. This is the integration into most of his pieces, of bits of a plaid textile material, sometimes to make a sort of collage and sometimes as part of a mixed media technique. In some cases, though, it serves him well because, in spite of its ubiquity, it is a part of the most remarkable element in this exhibition of Contemporary Surinamese Art.

The exhibition gave Guyanese viewers, at least a small window into the art of Suriname. It was not the country's artistic establishment, but it represented the distinct flavour of their art. One factor that helped to create this was Struikelblok's uses of traditional motifs, one of which is the plaid fabric. Its use predominates in his Afaka suite, which is very extensive. 'Afaka' is an old script belonging to the Ndjuka nation of African maroons in Suriname, fragments of which are used in some of the paintings by the artist, who is a descendant of the Ndjuka maroons. He therefore expresses himself through a means of communication (i.e. the Afaka writing) borrowed from the old traditions of these Surinamese people. This gives him and his art an identity.

Nowhere is this identity more defined than in his employment of tribal motifs in Tembe I. 'Tembe' is a particular motif used in Ndjuka door carvings in Suriname. This tradition of carved doors is an African vestige which was continued by different nations in the New World where it remains an artistic signature by which they may be identified. That Struikelblok desires this identification in his art is obvious. His Dose uses as its title, a word meaning 'outside' ? the exposure of one's culture to the outside world. There was a fairly tame Nami series from 'mine' (signifying 'my culture') and an even lesser piece, Pejego, asks 'where are you going ?' (as a people).

The achievements inspired by this desire include the effective expression of that regional flavour that the recent exhibition at The Hadfield exuded. It was a useful view of contemporary Surinamese art, and for that reason, the show was very important.

Celebrating Phillip Moore

Last Friday, October 12, one of Guyana's foremost artists, Phillip Moore, celebrated his eightieth birthday. He is honoured by Castellani House through an exhibition of his work in the National Gallery, which is to run until November 24. For this, Curator Elfrieda Bissember has made a selection from an estimated 140 pieces of his work held in the National Collection.

Moore is the country's most famous Africanist whose work is known for its spiritual ancestral power, its foundations of traditional forms, but most of all, for its acclaimed originality. He started work as a sculptor more than 50 years ago when he "accepted the tool (for carving)" from God in a vision after becoming a member of the (Spiritualist / Revivalist) Jordanite church. He was encouraged, in the 1950s, to continue his own style of intuitive art by Denis Williams who recognized his affinity to the ancient tradition of African artists who are "the best wood carvers in the world."

Since then, Moore has developed as a prolific painter whose work incorporates myth, spiritualism (he insists it is "spirituality"), cubism (which, like Picasso, he drew from its African source), intuition and metaphysics. He is the creator of the controversial 1763 Monument, symbol of the Berbice slave revolt, the design for which was the winner of a national competition. He has been Artist in Residence at American universities but refused to sell many of his most sought after pieces overseas, thus foregoing some wealth and international recognition. Phillip Moore is a tutor at the Burrowes School of Art.