The Power of the Everyday: Reflections on The Surinamese School exhibition
Essay by Chandra Frank
Photographs of Surinamese-Creole women going to the market, a street after heavy rainfall, a Javanese orchestra, a banana plantation, a pair of sandals. Painted portraits of people, spirits, and intricate paper butterflies. The Surinamese School exhibition spans multiple geographies and realities, wherein the everyday meanders through and interrupts the dominant Dutch colonial framing of the Surinamese arts.
But how do we read Afro and Asian aesthetics outside of a Western framework? How could Surinamese art move away from the Dutch art historical canon and archive? This collection of works shows a set of spatial and temporal dimensions that fall outside of the linear scope of Western art. The title of the exhibition refers to multiple forms of art education, knowledge production between artists, and the founding of independent art schools. How is the idea of ‘schooling’ expanded in this exhibition? How does it radically transform pedagogy? I am pulled by the multiple registers through which the everyday and quotidian appear in the exhibition. Here we get to dwell with diasporic poetics. We get to pay attention to rupture, visibility, and experimentation. We get to configure our relationship to the worlds that exist within the Surinamese School.
I am interested in the concept of the everyday—the myriad ways in which experiences, feelings and sensations, as well as politics are navigated on a daily basis. The everyday is where cultural formation happens. The articulation of the concept is slippery, and it is by no means a stable category. But by traversing everyday experiences, the exhibition allows us to engage with the different techniques, perspectives, and transformative aesthetics that are part of the Surinamese School. Here, the everyday, the ordinary, and quotidian are in conversation with each other and are woven into the exhibition through themes such as spirituality, history, and daily life.
In the exhibition, charting everyday experiences is not about trying to offer a conclusive story about the nature of Surinamese art. Rather, it invites us to use the exhibition as a place of intermission, as a passage. A place to pause and contemplate how art practices in Suriname are negotiated through the multivocality of everyday experiences.
Tuning into artistic practice allows us to look at genre and form, but it also opens up a broader conversation about other modes of seeing. We get to move beyond the confines of the nation and think toward and with the region, allowing multiple connections to ensue. Engaging with artists such as Jules Chin A Foeng and Soeki Irodikromo bring South-South relationships to the fore
The Surinamese School exhibition puts new structures in place for its viewers. By using ‘schools’ as an experimental educational concept, instead of its traditional art historical usage, a complex multidimensional quality is brought to the exhibition. This usage speaks to the interrelatedness of discipline, genre, and training. It is within this interrelatedness that a constellation of students, peers, teachers, and family commune. There is room for breakage, too. Breaking with educational models and approaches. A necessary breaking of hierarchy, and an opening up of new imaginaries.
The Caribbean leisure and tourist imaginary is pervasive in Western culture. Colonial visual culture thrives on dismissing the everyday in order to retreat in mythical escape. Often everyday objects become commodified and appropriated within such Western visual registers. This makes the level of detail in a work such as Jules Chin A Foeng’s Chinese Flip-Flops (1981-1983) (fig.1) all the more compelling. The slippers shown belong to the artist’s brother Allan, and we see the heel of one slipper slightly touching the other. This light touch feels like a subtle performance of the everyday. The work also conjures up familial and collective histories of migration. Chin A Foeng’s photorealistic style captures the details of the slippers through an affective register. The work seems to tease out questions such as: how do these flip-flops, these familiar objects, somehow capture diasporic movement? The work raises questions relating to home and belonging, precisely through the intimacy that these everyday objects convey.
Chin A Foeng is said to have brought photorealism to Suriname, after his studies in New York and Tilburg. There is thus another layer to the migration and movement embedded in the work. The stories of educational migration that undergird the exhibition, speak to the circulation of praxis. Evidently, these educational journeys go beyond North-South exchanges.
Returning to the familial, multiple artists in the exhibition have interwoven the mundane and the mythical. In Soeki Irodikromo’s paintings, we see clear influences of traditional Javanese mythology as well as references to the other cultures that surround him. By fingerpainting and using materials such as pallet knifes, old brushes, and pieces of wood, we get to witness interconnected structures on the canvas. Irodikromo’s oeuvre shows the close relationship between everyday life and the imaginary. We see this reflected in paintings such as Bruid en Bruidegom (1974) and Lebusuro (1971) (figs. 2-3). In Lebusuro (1971), Irodikromo draws on a scene from the Ramayana, which is one of two Sanskrit epic poems, the other being the Mahabharata, in which Sugreev and Vali fight over Rama while Hanuman holds them apart. In his work, these cultural and spiritual experiences are homed in the everyday.
Seeing Irodikromo’s range, I was struck by an early observation of the white Dutch artist Nola Hatterman about his artistic practice. In 1978, Hatterman writes: “An Indonesian student, Soekidjan Irodikromo discovered his Javanese-ness, while working and studying, which resulted in characterful paintings”. Hatterman is part of an early-twentieth century group of upper middle-class white women who had colonial ties to the Spanish, English, and Dutch Caribbean. In the essay that Mitchell Esajas wrote for the exhibition, he discusses the ambivalent position that Hatterman holds within the field of Surinamese art. Hatterman assumed that Irodikromo was using his artistic practice as a means of self-discovery. However, Irodikromo grew up in Javanese culture and was surrounded by other cultural influences: there may not have been a need for him to discover his cultural identity as such. Hatterman’s observation is indicative of a Western framing of Surinamese artistic production.
Distance and Makeshift Archives
Journeying with the everyday brings into focus the complex histories of slavery, indenture, colonialism, and migration touched upon in the exhibition. Typically, everyday experiences linger at the margins or outside of official history-making processes. But here, our attention is drawn to people at dinner tables, at markets, making music, surrounded by nature, or sitting for portraits. Often, the everyday might be unmarked or go unnoticed. A quick, fleeting moment. But these different modalities of daily life show that the everyday is active across the different styles, expressionist, abstract, cubist, used by the artists
The curatorial decision to include the photographs of the sisters Anna and Augusta Curiel is therefore all the more significant. In the early 20th century, Augusta Curiel set up a photo studio with her younger sister Anna. The selection, curated by Jessica de Abreu, offers an in-depth overview of the Curiel sisters’ practice and notes how exceptional their work was in terms of its sharpness and clarity. Most of the work was commission based, which brings into question the politics of documentation under colonial rule. The images, as de Abreu points out, present “a rose-tinted view of Surinamese colonial society”. How do we begin to grapple with the aesthetics of Western respectability politics, which erase the violent workings of the colonial regime? What are the limitations of such a collection of photographs, and what possibilities does it pose? The images compel the viewer to consider how the Dutch imagined themselves. Photography as a medium is complicit in the Dutch exploitation of indigenous communities such as the Wayana people: we know the images were commissioned, but we know little about the sitters (fig. 8). What might we have seen had the sitters commissioned the photographs? This is not to say that sitters don’t have agency, but it requires a different way of reading, looking, and listening. I am interested in the unseen relationalities between those who commissioned the images, the sitters, and the Curiel sisters themselves.
The Dutch construed a colonial archive that requires an undoing of hierarchal knowledge production. If anything, these images show that this archive is not static. Dutch colonial governance orders people, time, space, and the making of history. The colonial archive is about collection, documentation, categorization, discipline, and power. Photographs taken by the Curiel sisters, such as a Creole married couple (ca. 1910), a Javanese orchestra (ca. 1915) or a Hindustani gathering (ca. 1923), are testament to the complex histories and hierarchies of race in Surinam. Similarly, images documenting the cacao harvest (ca. 1920) and Dutch colonial governors (ca. 1921) speak to the aftermath of slavery and the politics of indentured labor (figs. 9-13). Yet, woven into these staged photographs are stories about place, arrival, resilience, and survival. The images revolve around the optics of presence and absence. The efforts to portray clean streets in the Curiel collection point towards the colonial politics of the backdrop. This transpired in other former Dutch colonies as well. In South Africa, missionary photographers and colonial anthropologists employed photography to garner moral support for colonialism and to evidence their white supremacist theories of evolution. Colonial photography would continue to play an imperative role in the establishment of apartheid and the subjugation of Black people.
Colonial aesthetics also played a complex role in studio and street photography. In the Indies, for instance, studio photographers would use colonial templates and backdrops in order for the images to appear more “cultivated”. While we must always be mindful of historic specificity, I would like to think with the Curiel images, across geographies, in order to unpack the tensions between the colonial archive and everyday experiences. Situating the Curiel collection in dialogue with family photo albums would shift the conversation to self-representation and collective histories. The articulations of race, gender, class, and meanings of home and place-making in family photos can be incredibly generative. Such an endeavor goes beyond simply engaging with genre and form, and invites a closer look into the intimate settings that are not solely marked by resistance or violence.
Temporal Loops and Butterflies
I want to conclude my essay by circling back to the opening artwork of the exhibition. Gerrit Schouten’s 1839 diorama of butterflies (fig. 14). This opening is a homage to Schouten, who is understood to be one of the first professional Creole-Surinamese artists. At first glance, it looks as if real butterflies are mounted, but the diorama is actually an intimately detailed work of paper. There are about a hundred South American butterfly species depicted in the glass display. Schouten was highly skilled at making diorama’s and made them on commission for European settlers and travelers. Presumably, his mixed heritage made it easier for him to receive these commissions. Schouten’s dioramas often made their way to Europe, where they were used as research material. The purpose of the diorama was to portray ‘other’ and ‘exotic’ cultures in the most realistic way possible. His dioramas can be found in the collections of the Museum of Volkenkunde in Leiden, the Tropenmuseum and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. The display technique of diorama’s can be lead back to scientific racism, stemming from colonial ideologies. The classifications of nature would later lead to the Enlightenment’s creation of racial taxonomies. In the 1930s, staged and live dioramas were used for colonial exhibitions and world fairs, in cities such as Amsterdam, Brussels, and Paris. These colonial ethnographic display techniques contributed to widespread racist ideas of the “Other”. In this sense, the diorama became a moral tool to keep the colonial project alive.
Butterflies are known for their metamorphosis: the changing and shifting of shape. Behind the glass, the butterflies make time stand still. Beyond these confines, the butterflies could also be read as a symbolic, temporal gesture. Using this display as an exhibition opening device propels us to simultaneously look to the past and the future of Surinamese visual art and painting. All too often, the discussion remains focused on how Surinamese art might fit within the Dutch canon. Such Dutch contemporary art discourses are therefore perpetually looking to include and diversify. Within such a schema, Surinamese art is situated in the temporal loop of “catching up”. These are fraught points of departure, as the artistic range of this exhibition shows. The Surinamese School exhibition however, propels us to think beyond the Dutch canon.
The aim of this text was not to define the everyday, but to think with multiple ways of viewing. While this show is curated with the intention to think about Surinamese art from the Netherlands, we could easily shift this framing. What does Surinamese art say about the affective register of Afro and Asian aesthetics? This exhibition calls for an exploration of other vantage points that would allow us to move away from the linear framing of colony and metropole. While the 1955 Bandung conference continues to be a frequently cited point of departure for such endeavors, it’s worth asking; what other gatherings and coalitions have since formed that provide insight into the possibilities and complexities of engaging with Afro and Asian aesthetics? The artists in this exhibition refuse to simply fit into ‘Surinamese’ and/or ‘Dutch’ artistic practice categories. There is thus a necessary collapse that creates new possibilities for how the Surinamese visual arts are engaged.
The rich tapestry of everyday experiences invites viewers to think through Afro and Asian artistic practice outside of Western frameworks. At the same time, we would all gain from honing other frameworks, registers, and locations through which the vastness of Surinamese art can be located. Positioning Surinamese artist in conversation with work from the Caribbean, the Americas, Indonesia, and South Africa, for example, would offer generative dialogues in future exhibitions. Such projects could also have the potential to move beyond the limited existing frames around migratory inclusiveness. Critical engagements with the links between slavery, indentured labor, and colonialism would be needed here, too.
Finally, the focus on arts education and schooling in the exhibition unavoidably touches on the reality that art schools—both faculty and students—remain predominantly white in the Netherlands. This exhibition cannot be read outside of this context and can definitely not be seen separate from the continuous work that Black artists, activists, and curators have done in calling out the anti-Black structures within Dutch art institutions. Ultimately, The Surinamese School exhibition can impact collection policies by prompting institutions to question whose futures are worth investing in.
 See Davis et. al., ‘Introduction: Art as Caribbean Feminist Practice’, Small Axe, 53, pp. 34-42.