January 24, 2019
Curtis Talwst Santiago
Fictional ancestors with Curtis Talwst Santiago
" The colour of my skin is something I am very proud of, but it does not make up all of me, nor does having a dick make up all of me. We are all nuanced and so complex, and I cannot limit myself to the label I was given as “The black man”, that is not all that I am"
Curtis Talwst Santiago is a Canadian-Trinidadian artist currently based in Brooklyn, New York. He is presently working with the upcoming solo exhibition at the Drawing Center in New York and the SITElines Biennial in New Mexico where he is a featured artist. Through his artistic practice, Santiago investigates feelings of detachment from one’s lineage, often tracing back to his own past and experiences as a Trinidadian kid growing up in Canada. The sensation of being disconnected, also known as the diaspora experience, is central through Santiago’s series of Ancestor portraits. In an attempt to connect his past with his present, Santiago tries to access his heritage by painting fictional Trinidadian-ancestors in thick layers of oil and spray paint.
Can you tell us something about this series of Ancestor portraits and who they are?
The series is all about ancestors that I have never met. I think the point of departure was my first trip to Trinidad as a child during the carnival period. There is a traditional celebration during the carnival called J’Ouvert, where my relatives would cover their faces in red mud. As the sun would rise early in the morning, it created this glow reflecting in the mud. As a first-generation Canadian kid, the colour red always remained in my mind as a connection to family and ancestry since this was the first time I met my family members in Trinidad. So it started with these red faces, which are prominent throughout my practice. The figures are imagined ancestors. Cocoa Picasso is what my nephew calls me and when I created Rembrandt Was A Moor that character felt like Rembrandt to me. At the time, I was looking at how characters from history were being repainted as a completely different race and I thought, why not play with that? It made me think of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s portrait of Picasso from 1984 and the way he played with the idea of genetic memory.
The Ancestor portraits visually explore the spiritual and ancestral lineage with one’s unknown forefathers, also known as the diaspora experience. How is this experience related to your work in this series?
The diaspora experience is based on the sensation of feeling disconnected from blood relatives. I never really developed a relationship with my grandparents, them being in Trinidad and me being in Canada. I imagined who they could be and who their family members could be. As a kid I would often draw these weird little family portraits, because I was not able to bring all of the family together. The diaspora experience can be quite a lonely one. I remember feeling this connection with kids who were also raised Trinidadian or meeting another black person that could in that time, make me feel less alone. My work, at least with this series, is my way of yelling to the ancestors and my past that “I have not forgotten you, I have not abandoned you and I am trying to find you!”
" My work, at least with this series, is my way of yelling to the ancestors and my past that 'I have not forgotten you, I have not abandoned you and I am trying to find you!'"
What other topics and experiences do you explore in your work and are there any topics you avoid?
At this point I explore the complexities of the life that I am living and experiencing through my own lens. Trough measures of love and loss, I do my best to understand the world. I have done a lot of images of mother and child, father and child because the big rock in my life is my parents. Their emotional support and encouragement as I have explored the means of being an artist has always been present, ever since I was very young. While they are here I want them to know through my work that I care deeply about them. It is a necessity for an artist to work from their truth, whatever that truth may be. The deeper I go into questioning my own experiences and the more I get to know myself, the better I get at communicating my vision.
I have always struggled with work purely based around the identity of race, gender and things like that because I feel it is so limiting. We are not just one thing, I have Portuguese blood, French blood and various parts of African blood running through my lines of heritage. The colour of my skin is something I am very proud of, but it does not make up all of me, nor does having a dick make up all of me. We are all nuanced and so complex, and I cannot limit myself to the label I was given as “The black man”, that is not all that I am. If I choose to see myself as a human being and truly speak from that space, perhaps it might open up for others to do the same and allow us to share a common experience. We have all felt similar things and I think that is mostly what I am interested in.
Your artistic expression is often influenced by historical references such as 17 th century landscape paintings and absent versus present narratives throughout our historical writing. What artists have influenced you and in what ways?
The list of who has influenced me is so vast and long, but to name a few; Paul Klee, Louise Bourgeois and my mentor Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun. When I was younger and naïve I would say, “oh it’s Picasso, it’s Basquiat, it’s Rembrandt” and they still hold way for me. But there are so many other voices that may not necessarily have spoken as loudly, but definitely hold a significant role in my practice. Regarding Basquiat and Picasso it is the willingness to explore with different artistic mediums to create distinctive voices that has inspired me. I have always loved music, art and dance – things where I can identify something from a shadow, from a colour. To become an important artist I thought it would be imperative that I developed something that was uniquely my own. It was almost like if you followed the path honestly and truthfully, and really called to the creative spirits and put in the time, something would transpire. It started as mimicry and learning through imitation, but then through that, my own language began to develop. Nina Simone said “I only want to listen to the masters” and that is what I feel is important. I only want to see people who are masterful or believe they can be masterful.