Let’s first talk about you as an artist. The Afro-Curse Exorcising Machine is your creation for the Who More Sci-Fi than Us exhibition. Tell us about it.
The reason I made this piece is because I have been struggling for years now with the fact that the Caribbean is being killed by all the theoretical approaches of it. Postcolonial, neo-colonial, colonial, slavery theories, identity, African heritage and so on… Those discussions address, most of the time, the historical development of the Caribbean and sometimes, very vaguely and quite naïve, its social structure. Very few of them investigate the reality and development of the Caribbean societies and the Caribbean individuals. The Caribbean is a vast territory consisting out of islands, each one with their own heritage from the colonial past and present. Divided in groups that are defined by the language spoken by the people has made it quite difficult to unite it all into one body. Each group of countries is different: English, French, Spanish, and Dutch speaking. This is a first way of defining groups but in a way there is still this division in this space – a division that is not only geographical, a division that exists in their existence and mentality. The important thing for me is to deal with the reality of the islands. Sometimes, it is even pathetic that some people try to cling the islands together based only on their slavery past. So much more is happening there than only these colonial and slavery African things…
My process of creation is embedded in this principle: let’s start by where we are. Indeed, we all know about our history and what has been written around it, the situation we are living in, and our social surrounding. Let’s be aware of it and create a mentality where not only the past matters but also do the present and the future. Stop writing and theorising and start doing. Theory is most of the time the vision of, maybe, hardly one person who spreads it to others.
The Afro-Curse Exorcising Machine is a piece about the Afro/African-curse that is terrorising our communities. A curse because it is something only used to manipulate instead of educating. We are concerned about our history, but some of us only know a part of it, and when they are confronted with the whole picture of how it was they do not want to be involved in it. An example is a conversation I had with some people of a commission that had to reinstate the name of the local hero Tula. The conversation was how they looked at the spiritual part of the slaves. For them it is voodoo and they prefer to stay away from it because they are Catholics. This is the cruel reality of the Caribbean. This work is to question the negative and theoretical manipulation we suffer. Too much people go backwards instead of going forward, and when you ask Caribbean people what they know about Africa…usually they know only the well known propaganda; the slavery trade!
Getting back to The Afro-Curse Exorcising Machine: for this work, I asked many people various questions concerning the different topics surrounding Africa just to check their knowledge about this continent. The Afro-Curse Exorcising Machine is an installation consisting out of various details and objects that takes us back to the clichés of the Caribbean. A set of four images of mouths repeating endlessly my questions about what the real knowledge is about Africa. For example: do you know anything about the African culture? Have you ever been to Africa? Do you know anything about the African religions? If we are Afro what should we call the people that where really born in Africa?
Is it echoing your artwork Afro-Victimise?
Afro Victimise is a piece about how we put ourselves in an awkward position because most of the time we follow what others define for us to follow. We do not make any effort to try to analyse what we see or experience from another angle or based on facts discovered by ourselves through our own investigations. We are being caged, trapped in a theoretical cage locked with a padlock for which, by the way, the key is given to us so that we can decide any moment to free ourselves. We have chosen to stay trapped because of our so called past that has decided through our theoretical guru’s as a wise choice for us. The “slavery heritage victim” is the role always taken. Afro Victimise is about how people put themselves in the position of a victim, instead of showing their full rights and of being through an identity based on their own achievements and beliefs.
I have explained that to some art students in the States. In a group, I remarked: you do call yourself Afro American; the girl next to you calls herself Asian American and this other guy looks Latino but when you guys talk and express yourself all I see are Americans! So why not just go for being an American instead of separating yourself from the others based on your appearance. You share the same traditions and habits. You are considering only the way you look on the outside while your thoughts, your beliefs, your credo you live by and your formation in general is the same. Ethnicity is only the outside. The true identity is defined by the collective mentality and culture.
Would you like to show those works in Curacao?
Yes, I would. I am working on the possibility to show them in a public space. That is the importance of this type of work, to put it in a spot where it can interact with the public.
You are dealing with several realities and contexts. Is an artwork like The invasion of The Netherlands supported by Chavez still dealing with this identity question, or has it a broader vision on the Caribbean?
Chavez is a good example of how close reality and the unthinkable can be with our true realities. This is something I strongly believe in, and that is why when I wrote my statement in the catalogue of Who More Sci-Fi than Us I indicated; “dreaming is the only realistic stature of freedom.” We are kind of trapped in our fictive reality, in our history and in all the theoretical descriptions and assumptions, as I explained to you in the beginning of our discussion. Because of our desires, we might become such unrealistic creatures in our existence and we could lose touch with reality.
Chavez is an incredible example of a guy that could tell to an enemy: “if you look for trouble, I will send my army” – but before that he would need a new presidential chair and would have to fly to Spain to buy a chair at the IKEA.
The dreams are so beautiful that we cannot divide our realities from our dreams. As a matter of fact, we do not want to wake up to the reality.
It is the same with this idea of paradise… Everything is called paradise in the Caribbean, but we did not experience paradise. There is still a lot missing to make it paradise. Dreams, sun and sandy beaches are not enough to convert our reality into paradise.
In the case of Chavez, for instance, he is dreaming of uniting all South America against the USA but not all the countries share his dreams, hopes and visions; they have different perspectives, they exist in different “worlds.” I am always surprised when I see how people keep repeating mistakes made in the past and still they dream that it will work. They have all kind of philosophic approaches and base themselves on theories that have proven that they do not work.
In a sense, the title of the exhibition Who More Sci-Fi than Us matches a reality.
We are a kind of a Sci-Fi movie. It is weird and crazy. The strange thing of this Science fiction movie is that it is not about the future but the past that invades the present. A lot of improvisation that we take only half way because we do not have the expensive special effects to make our movie. We do not believe in the local, it is not appealing to the West. We want to create a potion that converts us in something else.
The Martians, we love them; but do not want to deal with them because they are probably carriers of a disease or they are hostile.
A second topic we wanted to address with you is the involvement you have in the life of Curacao. You have been very active there. You founded along with Nancy Hoffmann and David Bade the IBB, Instituto Buena Bista. How did it start?
We started the IBB six years ago because we wanted to create a strong and steady base for the local culture and the development of the contemporary art in Curacao. Considering our experiences through the social cultural projects we have done with our former foundation Arte Swa, we wanted to develop and fortify the creative potentials the island has. Young talents with much visual capacity originating in a primal urge to express and communicate. The great urge to express themselves was very remarkable. The IBB prepares the students by guiding them towards not only the development of their talents but also the development of them as persons, as people engaged to their community and their passion for visual art.
A part of this engagement is reflected in the location of the IBB. The IBB is located on the premises of a psychiatric clinic in Curacao. Here the students have on daily bases connection with the patients of the clinic. They work together in the same space and exchange ideas, thoughts and a lot of laughter. Every Friday we play football with our students and a group of patients. The patients do not come to the IBB only to paint or draw but they also record their own song or rap, written by themselves under the guidance of our students, in our sound studio.
One of our core ideas at the IBB is to make students conscious that it is also important for them to come back to their country. To develop as an artist there and to get involved in their community. Most of the time people leave and do not come back – since they think that coming back is impossible if they cannot earn money with art.
It is also very important for a project of this kind to count on the support of a committed community. This will give it more body, more content, more quality and more right of existence.
What is hard to set up? What are the next steps?
We had to struggle with the existing dinosaurs. Also the contemporary art side of the project was difficult to get accepted. People usually want to keep it safe; they want to stay close to what they know close to their traditions. Step by step, we are getting there.
I am happy to notice that every year the amount of students trying to get into the IBB increases. Normally we have a maximum of 15 students, and last year (2011) we had 27! In the coming year, we are trying again to reduce the number of students, this so that we can give more personal guidance to the students, but I guess they will be around 27 again. We always keep in touch with our students afterwards; we guide them as much as possible. During their time at the art academies and in their professional development after the academy. We are right now working for the future of the students that are coming back to Curacao. We want to create the necessary structures to accommodate them for when they return.
We also have two artists in residence programs at the IBB. One part of the residency is that they do a project with the students, to develop more insight and set of skills. We had artists like Kara Walker, Honore D’O. This year we had the Dutch artist Yasser Ballemans who did a project together with the students and patients from the clinic in the local Carnival Parade. This was the third time, we participated in the carnival with a big project. It was again a wonderful experience.
It is, for sure, time consuming. I must say that I have put my work a little bit back but at the same time it is very important to keep working and to be active. It is crucial not only for me but also for the IBB: the reference can be stimulating for the students.
What are your projects?
Last year was crazy as for the timetable. One of my last projects was my participation in the exhibition The Global Contemporary, Art World After 1989 at the Museum of Contemporary Arts of Karlsruhe in Germany. I went there and in 5 days I had to collect materials, build my installation and fly back to Curacao. After that I had to go to Miami for my solo exhibition Afro-Victimize at the Frost Museum.
The project I want to concentrate most on right now is Captain Caribbean. It is a series of performances I set up with a fictive character who reflects the reality of the daily struggles, presumptions, corruption, traditions, standards and values that define our Caribbean societies.
Captain Caribbean has a real added value for me, my vision and my work moreover towards the reality of our social, economical, and historical structures. This character incorporates a lot that refers to the development of the Caribbean and the importance to concentrate on development, a new mentality, a new course and vision towards the Caribbean future, the social component in all of us, education, communication and infrastructure.
Par Clelia Coussonnet
Headline picture’s credits : Tirzo Martha, Antillia Non Grata, Performance at the Biennial of Cerveira, 2011 © Tirzo Martha