Marcel Pinas: the art of presence

Surinamese artist Marcel Pinas has won an international reputation for his works incorporating elements of traditional Maroon culture

Alibi (2008), installation, 250 x 1000 x 300 cm. Photograph courtesy Marcel Pinas/Readytex Art GalleryBaw Libi (2008), mixed media on canvas, 150 x 90 cm. Photograph courtesy Marcel Pinas/Readytex Art GalleryDetail of Kibi Wi Koni. Photograph courtesy Marcel Pinas/Readytex Art GalleryJepi De (2005), installation, 250 x 400 x 400 cm. Photograph courtesy Marcel Pinas/Readytex Art GalleryKibi Wi Koni (2009), version created for an exhibition in Amsterdam. Installation, 300 x 800 x 500 cm. Photograph courtesy Marcel Pinas/Readytex Art GalleryKibii Wi totems made from black-painted oil drums. Photograph courtesy Marcel PinasMarcel Pinas. Photograph by Nicholas LaughlinMi De (2011), mixed media on canvas, 145 x 280 cm. Photograph by William Tsang, courtesy Marcel Pinas/Readytex Art Galleryart GalleryMoiwana Monument. Photograph by Nicholas LaughlinTembe Art Studio occupies a former aluminium company building in Moengo. Photograph courtesy Marcel Pinas

Because of the available flight connections from Trinidad, I always arrive in and depart from Suriname nodding between sleep and waking, and in the darkness.

On the drive from the airport into Paramaribo, the heavy, humid scent of the forest betrays the familiar look of night-lit fragments of domestic and commercial structures. The occasional Hindu murti stares out between fences and gardens. As you get closer to downtown Paramaribo, chutney or dancehall posters tell us that even though Suriname is on the South American continent, it also looks to the Caribbean.

So do Suriname’s contemporary artists. There’s a fascinating link between the Surinamese art world and the Edna Manley College in Jamaica. This conversation started over twenty years ago, and a new generation of contemporary artists in Suriname, coming of age after periods of study in Kingston, continue to be mobilised by this experience, unlike previous generations who contended more exclusively with the Netherlands, Suriname’s former colonial power. The art world of Paramaribo has become quite complex, as these experiences and points of view unfold.

I first met Marcel Pinas a decade and a half ago, not long after he graduated from the Edna Manley College, while he was visiting Trinidad along with his countryman and fellow Kingston alumnus George Struikelblok. They were curious about the scene in Trinidad, and were seeking links and dialogues. They were ready for action. Little did I know that this meeting would be the beginning of a long and ongoing conversation.

Pinas’s earliest work included a series of large hung or suspended wall assemblages which undermined traditional boundaries between painting and sculpture. They anticipated the suspended forms of Pinas’s current installations, and simultaneously processed the influences of Modernist painters like the Dutch Karol Appel, or the gestural approaches of Irish artist Rex Dixon, whose work Pinas encountered in Kingston. (Significantly, his mature works now seem more in conversation with the symbolic systems and “continental Caribbean” approaches to scale and composition of the Guyanese painter Aubrey Williams.)

These works referenced his Maroon heritage. Their surfaces consisted of large collaged fragments of pangi, the traditional cloths associated with Maroon identity, and inscriptions in Afaka script — named after its inventor, Afaka Atumisi, who in 1910 devised a syllabary of fifty-six characters to write the Ndjuka language. Like Afaka, Pinas is Ndjuka — one of the six Maroon peoples of Suriname — and comes from the Marowijne district in the eastern part of the country.

But Pinas’s work does not “represent” Maroon culture in any reductive way. Rather, he is in the process of reconstructing its presence and meaning. It is a very personal concern that takes on wider political commitments. As a contemporary artist, Pinas does not see himself in conflict with tradition. His work is not iconoclastic in any way. His idea of tradition is perpetually in the present tense, already adapting, always anticipating the next step.

Sitting in a canoe, going up the Cottica River with Pinas in 2005, was an unforgettable experience. An islander in a boat, but without an ocean horizon, overwhelmed by the scale of the river and the thickness of the surrounding vegetation, I was completely disoriented.

We were visiting Ndjuka villages — some active and others abandoned since Suriname’s civil war in the 1980s — looking for discarded canoes, oars, and fragments of traditional architecture. These items would eventually be deployed as transcultural signs, elements of his personal visual vocabulary, as Pinas’s work began to travel. At the time, I didn’t realise I had been enlisted in a process of critical enquiry, and the reconstruction of a world in the process of being re-imagined. A contemporary archaeology of memory was taking place.

Pinas is very much a man of business, as committed to his creative investigations as he is to adapting, reconstructing, and positioning his Maroon heritage, and rebuilding the Ndjuka community. This was clear when, five years after that river trip, I returned with him to Moengo, the small town sixty miles east of Paramaribo where Pinas’s Tembe Art Studio is located. Here he has created not only an art school for young people of Moengo, but an outdoor sculpture park, featuring his own works alongside those of other artists, and a residency programme that brings international artists to work both in and with the Moengo community.

Within Pinas’s practice, a gesture such as opening a locally owned restaurant, or building a small stage for musicians to perform, has to be understood as part of his creative process, artistic vision, and sense of purpose. His leadership and participation in the rebuilding of Moengo is itself a site-specific artwork. And his installation works, using traditional elements and artifacts of Maroon culture, whether placed in Paramaribo or galleries in Europe, become guided tours — not for cultural display, or “difference” as entertainment, but as sense-based reconstructions of presence and memory.

You could say Pinas is blurring the traditional boundary between artist and curator. Each new configuration — each new life given to these altered objects — tells a story of survival which we all carry or internalise through engaging the work. We become collaborators through what we produce by experiencing the work.

This is certainly how I felt as I unloaded the crates full of thousands of bottles wrapped in pangi — elements of Pinas’s installation work Kibi Wi Koni — at the Art Museum of the Americas in Washington, DC, in 2011. I was co-curating Wrestling with the Image, an exhibition of contemporary Caribbean work. Inside the gallery, the bottles sitting on the floor looked like a procession. They activated the space. The diversity of colours and shapes of the bottles seemed anthropomorphic, reminders of the presence of generations of ancestors — but also of Suriname’s current population, and its unrealised potential. When dealing with the quantity of these objects — we unpacked five thousand of them in Washington — the labour involved and the hands of the many who made the work are never too far from your mind. The scale of the installations declares their presence.

Other works similarly transform domestic artifacts: enamel kitchenware, old-fashioned metal oil lamps, or the long, cylindrical baskets used to squeeze the poisonous juice from grated cassava. School at Pelgrim Kondre uses antiquated school desks and a blackboard to recreate a childhood classroom. These items are familiar to us: we have seen them put to other uses before, either practical and utilitarian, or in cultural displays about national diversity. But now they speak more broadly and with another voice.

Another series of installations uses aluminium spoons, each engraved with a Ndjuka symbol and suspended in various configurations — hovering between their daily function and their status as signs within Pinas’s visual language, altering our sense of the value of our everyday lives. Some versions of the installation include close to ten thousand spoons. The sound of them knocking against each other in the wind is as awe-inspiring as the number of them suspended.

First developed on a smaller scale outdoors at a residency in Germany, the work was later shown at the 2009 Havana Biennial. Perhaps the point about artists like Pinas working between locations is key. Where do the spoons come from? Probably from small Chinese emporiums. Where did the aluminium they are made of come from, and how does this link to the history of Moengo as a bauxite town? And even though we’re talking about Moengo, we are also talking about the mobility of the artist’s practice, which can be manifested in unexpected ways. I recall a story told by the South African curator Tumelo Mosaka, who included Pinas’s work in the Infinite Island exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum in 2007. The installation, using objects assembled in Suriname, had previously been staged in the Netherlands, and was now reconstructed in New York. As the objects were unpacked in the gallery, Mosaka recalled, tiny tropical creatures walked out of the bundles of palm fronds, having survived the intercontinental journey — causing panic among the museum’s conservators.

Pinas’s installation works require that we keep faith in our traditions, but also a shift in perspective towards how we can make them meaningful to the current moment. They ask questions about the value of memory, as both a personal and a community concern. The same is true of the large-scale Moiwana Monument Pinas has built at the site of a massacre during Suriname’s civil war. In 1986, not long after the oubreak of hostilities, the Surinamese army attacked the Ndjuka village of Moiwana, home of the rebel leader Ronnie Brunswijk. Thirty-nine villagers, mostly women, children, and the elderly, were killed, and the community was dispersed.

At the centre of Pinas’s monument, in a forest clearing, is a rising object like a truncated obelisk, surmounted by Afaka script spelling kibii wi — “protect us” — stark against the background of the sky. It is surrounded by smaller metal and concrete tablets inscribed with the names of those killed. The sharp chipped-stone fragments under your feet create a harsh effect as you walk around the clearing reading the names. The sound of the gravel makes you keenly aware of your individual presence at this site, and also your vulnerability. The trees in the forest are like silent witnesses.

The vengeful acts of Moiwana were aimed at a particular community then residing outside Suriname’s coastal political embrace. The monument is a site for personal remembrance of lost friends and relatives, for ethnic and national reflection, and also an aesthetic and experiential site-specific artwork. The artist wants us to remember, but also to imagine a future that can resolve and transform the meaning and the value of these moments. The monument is also operating in a space of questioning. It asks the rest of us why can’t we just live together. It speaks not only to Suriname, but through its scale to all humanity, when we falter.

When speaking about his work and career, Pinas’s tone is calm, confiding, and direct, with short sentences in which he declares an objective in a very matter-of-fact manner. “I want to build a school here . . .” You say to yourself, yes, this makes sense, and before you know it, you have been enlisted.

As I was, later in 2011, when I travelled to Suriname again to assist with and observe the installation of Kibii Wi Koni (“protect our knowledge”), Pinas’s major retrospective exhibition. Beginning in Paramaribo, and later transferred to Moengo, the show gave an ambitious overview of Pinas’s career to date. Watching it come into shape. I observed my fellow “conscripts,” invested in this moment.

To produce the exhibition, Pinas had assembled a base of supporters and collaborators, including Paramaribo’s Readytex Gallery, the Surinamese government, the Dutch embassy and the Dutch publisher of a new book about his work, and the local arts producer Ann Hermelijn. Meanwhile, as the works were constructed and installed, a stream of colleagues came by to assist: fellow artists, former teachers and students. All of us were in the exhibition space hanging spoons and arranging bottles wrapped in pangi. Few artists of Pinas’s generation in the Caribbean can bring such diverse interest groups to one table, or match that scale and level of production. In some way, Pinas’s success was theirs also, but for different reasons that make up the complex relationships of Surinamese society: generational, ethnic, school, national, or regional pride, or art, business, and political interests.

While Readytex hosted an installation of new paintings at De Hal, its adjunct exhibition space, the main “gallery” site — the Kamer van Koophandel en Fabrieken — was a nondescript building usually rented out for trade fairs and product launches. Now this industrial-looking space had become a factory for constructing possibility, or manufacturing hope, and in the process altered our sense of what is possible.

Once again, Pinas had asked a question, and his colleagues locally and internationally responded. In some way, the artist had filled in a blank space with a proposal about the value of what we have in our midst, which we have been tricked into believing is very little. It’s as if he was saying, look at what we can do.

Kibri a kulturu

East of Paramaribo, on the Cottica River, Moengo was once a small village surrounded by rainforest. In 1916, bauxite prospectors arrived, searching for deposits of the ore used to make aluminium, and within a few years Moengo was the centre of Alcoa’s mining operations in Suriname. The company turned the village into a base for its expat staff, with rows of bungalows, a hospital and school, even a golf course.

Moengo’s fortunes changed again, dramatically, in 1986, with the outbreak of a bloody civil war between Suriname’s government and a Maroon guerilla army. In the brutal fighting, dozens of Ndjuka villages were destroyed, along with the region’s infrastructure — everything from roads to power lines to health clinics. Moengo’s bauxite operations were shut down and the staff evacuated as the area descended into chaos. Much of northeastern Suriname’s Maroon population fled the region — either across the border to French Guiana, or to Paramaribo.

The wave of refugees included the family of Marcel Pinas, whose home was the village of Pelgrim Kondre. Pinas was fifteen when the war broke out, and his family sent him to the capital. There he began classes at the Nola Hatterman Art Institute, Suriname’s main art school, graduating in 1990. After several years teaching at the institute, in 1997 Pinas won a government scholarship to attend the Edna Manley College for the Visual and Performing Arts in Kingston, Jamaica.

Pinas first came to critical attention for his boldly composed paintings and mixed-media collages, which used Ndjuka elements and symbols to elaborate a personal visual vocabulary, meditating on history, memory, and survival. Later, exposed to the medium of installation in Jamaica and during trips to Europe, he began experimenting with using domestic artifacts collected from Maroon communities to create first sculptural objects, and eventually large-scale installation works.

In an effort to engage with a broader audience in Suriname, he also began conceptualising and creating large outdoor works for public locations. His Kibii Wi totems, for instance, turn black-painted oil drums and giant Afaka characters into guardian monuments of Suriname’s main towns and ports.

With his work increasingly being shown in international exhibitions — Pinas has had several solo shows in the Netherlands and France, and participated in numerous group shows, including the Havana Biennial — in 2007 he began a two-year residency at the Rijksacademie in Amsterdam. And on his return to Suriname, Pinas launched the Kibii Wi Foundation and Tembe Art Studio in Moengo.

Since the end of the civil war in 1992, Moengo has once more become a chiefly Maroon community, absorbing former residents of villages (like Pelgrim Kondre) destroyed in the hostilities. But even twenty years later, basic infrastructure has not yet been fully restored, and the people of Moengo remain relatively isolated from the capital, a few hours’ bumpy drive away, on a still damaged road. Through the Kibii Wi Foundation, Pinas and his collaborators — who include his Paramaribo gallery, Readytex — are attempting to use art activity to help regenerate the town and the surrounding Marowijne district. Visiting artists teach community classes and create site-specific works for a sculpture park, which Pinas hopes will eventually attract art tourists to the vicinity. Former Alcoa buildings have been adapted to make studio, teaching, and exhibition spaces, and a new Moengo Jazz Festival, featuring musicians from both the community and outside, will launch in September 2013.

Pinas’s work was recognised by the World Economic Forum in 2010, when he was named a Young Global Leader. In 2011, a major retrospective in Paramaribo provided a comprehensive survey of his twenty-year career, accompanied by the monograph Marcel Pinas: Artist, More than an Artist.

The Ndjuka phrase kibri a kulturu — “protect the culture” — is Pinas’s motto, his overarching theme, and his modus operandi. The “culture” is Suriname’s Maroon heritage. For Pinas, to protect that heritage means going far beyond the notion of conservation or documentation: it requires ambitious acts of re-imagination that assert the Maroon community’s place in Suriname and the wider region, now and in the future.

Philip Sander