Surinamese-Dutch artist Remy Jungerman talks about the European modernism and Afro-religious aesthetics that influence his art, and describes the recent public art project he created back in Morengo, his home town in Suriname. Selected for inclusion in Prospect.3, the 2014 contemporary art biennial in New Orleans, Remy’s work will be on view in an exhibition at the Contemporary Arts Center from late October 2014, to January 2015.
Related to this episode: Fresh Talk: Franklin Sirmans
CATHY BYRD: Today, we feature a conversation recorded during my residency in Amsterdam. On the day I arrived, I met artist Remy Jungerman quite by chance on the sidewalk outside his studio. I soon discovered that he’s an artist from Suriname. His small country sits on the northeast coast of South America. It’s a former Dutch colony with a rich and interesting history. Suriname is a place I knew not much about until I started looking at Remy’s art. Though he’s been living in the Netherlands for more than 20 years, I see Europe and Africa in his work. So I asked him, what was it like to study art in his home country?
REMY JUNGERMAN: Being born and raised in Suriname didn’t have much influence on my work because, those days, we were educated at art school and the whole context was actually based on the development of modernism and what happened in Europe in contemporary art. Afterwards, I started to think more about aesthetics, which do come from the surrounding in which I was raised and born. And that started influencing my work. But, in the beginning, I was very much focused on what was happening in the West.
CB: A recurring theme in your work is religion and ritual. Tell me about that.
RJ: That theme also came into my work the last seven years, maybe I can say, and it came because I have a fascination for the aesthetics of Afro religions.
CB: Remy explains why he’s drawn to African altars and ritual objects.
RJ: I’m taken by that kind of aesthetic in African religion, which is also a practice in Suriname by people of African descent who came to Suriname as slaves. And what’s important also in my connection is that I am the descendant of a Maroon called Broos, Captain Broos, who fought for his freedom in the Suriname rainforest. And, until today, there is a ritual place in Suriname, a physical altar where there are still ancestral rituals. Being connected to this history and looking at religion in an aesthetic form does influence my work nowadays. I call them altar pieces, which are wall installations, existing of a grid. And on that grid, I put a shelf. And, on top of the shelf, I add elements, bottles which you might connect to the African religion. And, in that way, I make an art piece, which stands alone, but, at a certain level, is connected to religion. I’m also working with collage, paper collage. In the paper collage, I’m also adding elements, which do come from a specific religion. Sometimes, it’s not only the Surinamese Afro religion, which is called Winti. I also add elements of Voodoo, which is connected to Haiti. I’ve been traveling in Africa searching for the real Voodoo thing. I’ve been to the roots of Voodoo in Benin, and those elements or those things I saw during my journey are also aesthetic elements in my collage and my wall installations I call altar pieces.
CB: We talk about modernist geometry and the grid patterns in the ritual ceremony clothing back home.
RJ: I’m connecting it with modernism, and modernism is actually the strict grid form or abstract geometric forms, used by artists like [Piet] Mondrian and the grids are — originally they are patterns of clothes people wear during rituals. Lately, I’ve been doing, for instance, silk screens, which are based on clothes, which are large, abstract, geometric forms, which the Surinamese Maroons have used as clothes, dresses, and they’ve made them themselves. They originated, I think, in quilts from Africa.
CB: We talked about the fact that, at one point in your career, you felt that your work was just appreciated for being work, good work. But then, at a point, in the Netherlands, they passed a law to provide more opportunities for artists of the diaspora. And you noted how everything changed when they made a distinction between your art and that of other artists in Amsterdam.
RJ: I think that’s evidence of a colonial residue, and the fact that, before 2000, our work had already been noticed. When I say our work, I mean artists with a Surinamese background who had been educated in Holland, maybe sometimes even born here. But at that time, you were just a good artist, and the museum bought your work. People were interested in what you were doing. Until one moment when a change came and they gave artist of the diaspora a sort of [recognition]—made them special. Doing that caused a change in our development in the sense that people started to think that we were good because of the political influences. So I felt like that was one step backwards. But nowadays, I believe that if you continue doing your work, in the end, people will see the quality of it. And then, I realize that I’m an artist who has come from abroad. In my culture or context, that’s only a connection to a Western development in the art scene. But in the elements I’m using in my work, there is no [art historical] reference. There is no modern art writing about the Surinamese or African context. The only reference you can make is connecting modernism, connecting your development to European art. That’s maybe why I also decide to work on this reference, to find ways to show how you create your own history, even what has not been written.
CB: Toads were a part of the natural environment where Remy grew up. It turns out that toads can be inspiring. In Suriname, a couple of years ago, Remy created a public art installation in his hometown featuring 21 knee-high toads.
RJ: Well, a toad is, it’s a memory since my childhood, and toads were things which were always there in your natural surrounding. But where I grew up as a child, I was always protecting this toad because friends were throwing stones at toads or whatever, or blew them up.
I was protecting them in the sense that you should not kill the toad because, “God’s going to punish you!” I always remember that, and I also got a nickname because of the fact that I protected toads.
CB: What was your nickname?
RJ: “Talapi,” and it’s like “Godou au straffen you,” and that’s the Suriname language, which means “God is going to punish you!” I was fortunate to do the residency, to do this specific residency in Suriname in the place, Moengo, which is 100 kilometers from Paramaribo [capital of Suriname], and it happened to be that I was born and raised in this place. They asked me to do an installation during my residency of 3 months, and the idea came to do 21 toads. I built them out of concrete. I made them first in clay. I made a mold and then cast 21 toads for a specific location in Suriname. I felt great about this outdoor installation because I felt like, for me, myself, it’s a monument. And it’s also a once in a lifetime chance you’re getting to build a piece in the place where you were born.
CB: At first, Remy wasn’t sure if the community would like his project.
RJ: In the beginning, I was afraid of how people were going to interpret this piece. Are they going to be afraid of it because, in toads, there are evil spirits? At the same time, the toad also represents wealth, brings people wealth, brings them more money. In Chinese culture, they have the idea of feng shui, which tells you the best place for the money frog. This idea also played a role in Surinamese culture. In our town, people thought that a family that was good at business was growing a toad in their house. And it turned out to be a very large toad. We always wanted to see this toad, so with my brothers always went at the back yard of these people, but never ever saw this toad.
CB: A symbol of good fortune in the neighborhood and the site of ceremonial photos, Remy’s toads are on their way to becoming real.
RJ: All across the area where I placed the toads, people were selling watermelons. And they had a great business because there are many people coming to see the toads! Nowadays I heard also that there are people going there to do their wedding photos. So I made the toads, and then I washed them with blue water, the blue ultramarine pigment called “blauwsel,” which people use in the wash to whiten the clothes. In the Winti religion, they use it also to protect against evil spirits. So I washed them first with blue pigment liquid, and then I gave them another layer of kaolin. Kaolin is a kind of clay for porcelain. I made a ritual by adding the liquid. What’s going to happen now is that the rain is going to wash the white and the blue away, but for sure there will be areas on the frog where the rain doesn’t reach. So I think what’s going to happen in five years is that this toad is going to be real in the sense that mushrooms are going to grow on top of it, and there will be white parts. So it will be very colorful, this toad, in five to ten years.