A conversation between Marsha Pearce and Remy Jungerman
Marsha Pearce: Remy, how are you? Are you sheltering in Amsterdam? And have you been following news about Suriname? I read a New York Times article, which reported that the fall in prices of oil and gold – Suriname’s two main export commodities – has created financial distress for the country.
Remy Jungerman: Thank you for thinking about me at this time in which every person in the world has been impacted in some way by this pandemic – though the circumstances vary, of course, given the reality of the country we live in and how each government is addressing helping its people through this. I am very fortunate to be in Amsterdam at the moment, where I have daily access to my studio. At the same time, I miss being in New York and so sad that I am separated from my partner and don’t know when I’ll see her again.
At the beginning of the pandemic, Suriname was doing pretty well. In recent days, however, the number of COVID-19 infections have grown. Since Suriname doesn’t have the resources to deal with an outbreak, they went into a second lockdown and have to be very careful with who is coming in from the neighbouring countries. Financial distress has always been part of the Surinamese economy and with the current fall in the prices of oil and gold it will be very hard to rebuild after the pandemic. Recently, there were elections in Suriname and my hope is that the chosen politician can bring a change and use the resources in a better way.
Your art practice explores different sources: African elements, Surinamese Maroon culture, Winti (an Afro-Surinamese religion) and 20th Century Modernism. Your work considers their proximity as you bring these aspects into close relationships with each other. How are you thinking about connections and closeness in this pandemic context, which is defined by staying apart?
As the world has come to a standstill, we now realise the limitations of connection physically, because traveling around the globe has been impossible. We’re now seeing that without physical travel we can still be connected online. We have time to rethink our connectivity. As Yinka Shonibare put it: “The pandemic is giving us time to think about the kind of life we want afterwards.” One thing we should not forget as members of the African diaspora is the spiritual connection we have through the Atlantic with the motherland, Africa, and what it has meant to the development of modernism. That connectivity will always remain and it’s maybe getting even stronger in these strange times. In my work, that connection is always there as an ancestral force and this pandemic is not going to take it away. Visual art exists in a third dimension. The idea, the material and the realisation happen in a space that even the artist can be surprised to see emerge. So, by staying apart we are now having time to consider the future and evaluate history and how we want to continue. The arts will be the fuel that will move us forward and heal our souls.
Last year, you and Iris Kensmil represented the Netherlands at the 58th edition of the Venice Biennale. Your works were featured in the exhibition titled The Measurement of Presence, curated by Benno Tempel. One of the pieces you displayed was “Visiting Deities,” a large horizontal installation with suspended components, along with a table you set for the ancestors, which stood on a dry riverbed. Tell me about the symbolism in this work. How might its meanings resonate in the present Covid-19 situation and offer a way for us to approach the future?
This installation seems to have been somewhat prophetic as I look back on it from the viewpoint of our present situation in the world. The installation is grounded in a dry riverbed that has been moistened with water taken from Venice’s Laguna. Resting upon horizontal structures that float above the installation are jars with water samples from three places I have lived: Amsterdam, Moengo (Suriname) and New York City. These water samples speak to the connectivity between these three continents and how our reality has been shaped by the history of the transatlantic slave trade. In the piece, water serves as a symbol of both purification and the spiritual connection between the continents. The whole installation is a call to pay attention to that history, a plea for the support of our ancestors in a time in which we must be conscious of our colonial past and how our global society is shaped by a multitude of cultural expressions and not only the European way of thinking. Art is shaped by different influences and approaches. The table standing on a dry riverbed symbolises the stories that were submerged during the Atlantic slave trade, some painful and some heroic. As The Last Poets put it: “… and every ripple in the ocean is a grave for an African who refused to be a slave….”
The three large suspended sculptures on top of the table have been read by the audience as ship-like architectural structures but are, in fact, carriers of the past. They were inspired by the carried oracles that function as judicial objects similar to the Nkisi Nkondi, the West African power sculptures with lots of nails. The whole installation resonates in our present situation in which there is a strong need to find solutions and not make the same mistakes of underestimating globalization and thinking that the world is still separated. No, it’s not. We all have been traveling the world continuously and the fact that nature is calling us back is a hint that we cannot ignore and think that the ramifications of our global actions won’t affect “us”.
By incorporating non-Western perspectives and approaches, your work challenges established notions of art. Do you think the pandemic context is reshaping how we think about art?
It’s hard to say that the pandemic context is immediately reshaping how we think about art. What I think is that the fact that the pandemic brought the world to a standstill is forcing us to rethink the impact globalization is having on the world – how urgent it is that we continue in a better way that gives everyone an equal and fair chance to add a different value to the world with their expression. The biennales all over the world are great examples of how the center is shifting but there is still a western dominance in the works presented. What would have a big impact is, for instance, if the largest biennale in the world – the Venice Biennale – would find a new location where every country can stand side-by-side and show their art. This could have a major impact in showing that the making of art is a truly international enterprise.
The second thing I would love to see coming out of this situation is a continuing of the very thoughtful and rich conversations that are now happening online about art. The killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery in the United States and the resulting protests around the globe have also cast light on racial inequality and injustice throughout the world and this is certainly impacting our discussions around inclusivity and the need for a more expansive view of humanity in the art world. With all the focus on the pandemic and the protests in the media, the art world has turned to smaller outlets for having this conversation and I hope that this will continue.
In one of your recent Instagram posts you shared a photo of a textile with the caption: #workinprogress. What are you working on these days? Has it been easy for you to maintain your practice during this time?
I am very privileged to live in a rich country and even with the so-called “Intelligent Lockdown” in the Netherlands, I have daily access to my studio which is about 40 minutes cycling through a very green and quiet cycle route. This has given me the opportunity to keep a steady studio rhythm. These days I’m in my studio almost every day. It also gives me the chance to have more time to think about my work and in which direction I want to grow.
The last two years I have been very busy – it’s been a roller-coaster. In 2018 during my one-year residency at the International Studio and Curatorial Program in Brooklyn (ISCP) New York, I worked mainly on the two large-scale installations for the 58th Venice Biennale. I traveled a few times to Venice, London and to different art fairs in the USA. And now, in these strange times, I have time to rest and take a break from the rush. So now, strangely enough, I am in a very concentrated mode of producing work for my solo show in NY, without knowing if it’s going to happen. But this uncertainly doesn’t matter at the moment. What matters is that I can continue making in my studio, which has always been my safe place; my way to deal with, and process life.
Because so much of the last two years were dedicated to making works for the 58th Venice Biennale in 2019, I didn’t have much time to work on a new series of works. Now I am concentrated on working on a series of panels and horizontal wall pieces, as well as some free-standing sculptures. For the panels, the starting point is to work with squares of 4 x 4 inches (10 x 10 cm) and to create an intense, layered and rhythmic surface with different colour tones, incorporating grid textiles covered with kaolin clay. On top of this clay surface I am carving gridlines to reveal the underlaying gridlines.
The compositions are inspired by the geometry displayed in the patchworks of the Surinamese Maroon tribes in the early twenties of the last century, quilts, especially from the women of Gee’s Bend—a small, remote, Black community in Alabama, USA, as well as the geometry of the Kuba and Kente cloth from West Africa. The horizontal wall constructions are like planks serving as carriers of African and African diasporic elements, Surinamese Maroon culture, Winti (an Afro-Surinamese religion) and 20th Century Modernism. The free-standing pieces are treated as the horizontals but inspired by the flag altars of the Surinamese Maroons. These flag altars you’ll find at the riverside, marking cemeteries. I see the work I am doing now as part of a larger discussion of how our future may look after the pandemic – a new reality in which we can be even more connected in the sharing of art from around the globe.
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