In December 2020, I was one of CATAPULT awardees. For the Artist Showcase edition (that has 2 volumes) I was able to write a text to share my journey with the wider Caribbean. Please read my contribution below but also check out the links of the 2 volumes. Many Caribbean artist and creatives are featured in it. We live in a very dynamic region and I am happy to be part of it.
CATAPULT: CARIBBEAN ARTIST SHOWCASE – CARIBBEAN STORIES (VOL. 1 & 2)
Read my text below
In this written feature, I will gladly share a little of my process and journey to becoming and being a filmmaker/ Visual Artist in the Caribbean. I will share what my desire to connect with other artist and creatives led me to do and I will give examples of some of the overall challenges and lessons I learned so far.
As far as I can remember I was always fond of seeing and observing things. Some of the evidence of this characteristic of mine, are the recordings my mother made of me as a child. She documented me and my brother growing up through digital video. In the recordings you would hear “Mama lagami wak”, “mom let me see “. I early on understood the notion of an image being captured for others to see. The fact that my mom took me to see my first film in the theater might also not be a coincidence as it was also a reaction to my interest of watching so much television at home. Another instance I remember would be during Christmas. I would be sitting in the backseat, my dad or my mom would be driving, and I would look out the car window and see people lining up at snack bars or barbershops. I remember asking my father what was happening out on the street and he would answer something like they are playing Tambu, while at the same time also letting me know that we will not be getting out of the car to see the performance.
I was always curious but that did not always mean that I got to see and experience everything. My car window was closed and so I would only hear a muffled Tambu playing and its only due to the traffic jam of people parking randomly on the street that I am able to see a glimpse of the performance and the diversity of people surrounding the performance. If I had accepted my father’s explanation, I would think it was nothing particular happening but that something in me new that it was attention worthy, and that feeling always remained. Since little, I had this urge to see and understand my surroundings better and not recognizing my context and surrounding in films and television shows made me want to act and do so myself.
I do think that our parents, our surroundings and a series of circumstantial events influence how we perceive thinks and think about ourselves and others. During my adolescent years, my father ended up support my decision to study and aspire to become a filmmaker. He did by worrying like most Caribbean parents would do but also by searching for art schools, he also guided me with applications at schools in the Netherlands. We had several bench sessions where he would answer my question and explained me that if I wanted to obtain a goal, I must plan for it, strategize and have a budget in place to reach those goals. Now as grown up that studied to be a filmmaker, I am able to park my car and step out and experience several cultural occasions for myself. I can look back and recognize that those and several other instances informed my way of looking from the outside while being inside.
My point of view is one that feels the cultural experiences, through a particular connection that I am still discovering, a frequency through the body and soul or a spiritual connection one can say. However, me most of the time having experienced culture “from a car seat window” and having moved and studied abroad for 10 years also meant not having always access and learning to understand the position of an outsider and insider. It thought me to navigate and respect different spaces and cultures.
Culture is worth learning from and informs us about, who we are, where we are at within a larger context. Culture too forms our identity, and like my parents once did I think most of us can and do underestimated or undervalue the meaning and importance cultural expressions in our daily live within our region. We have neglected our own cultural realities because of our colonial history that have had implications of us ignoring our own cultures due to foreign distractions and appraisal of “what is foreign is better”. Throughout my youth in Curaçao and Aruba, commercial foreign representations spread through the media from the United States, Europe and Latin America dominated the Caribbean mediascape and still do. That in the beginning fueled my desire to open new perspectives on Caribbean stories and experiences.
What I also had difficulties with was that when culture was celebrated it meant looking back and endorsing reenactments, like being stuck in time and very traditional. The looking back or maintaining traditional narrative also has a tendency to remain because there is always a small group that has somehow the “awareness of this cultural importance “it meant you had to be very traditional about it. And even though I had the interest in culture, the little space there was for it to develop and diversify did influence the way I would involve myself with culture on Curacao and Aruba during my teens.
In such a way that I had to be away from home in order to move more towards home, and really start asking myself what is my culture or what do I see as Culture?
I choose the field of documentary at first because I felt that the “real” world was so rich and bizarre that I did not have to make up a fictional world if it was all right there. My capability of sharing a story for people to experience or identify did not have to come from a fictional story, I thought at first. Life itself is interesting enough. In reflection I think I also was always aware that if I wanted to make films in the Caribbean, I would not be able to make much fiction due to the financial restrictions and possibilities. So, my choice documentary was a very solid one. “Su solo I playanan”, I made with little to no budget and was able to make it because it was my graduation film and had some other peer graduates as crew member that would not charge me and because I turned my room an my brothers room at my father’s house into ours accommodation in Curacao.
After graduated I could not take the same approach anymore, so one of my methods was to make sure I can operate the camera well enough as well as managing the edit so I would not depend on having a crew in order to make films. So far, I made about 7 films, 5 installations and 1 single screen work. The duration of my film projects is approximately from 1 to 3 years from idea to finish. And the reason I think I was able to make them was that I would start with making films even if funding was not there. Really believing in each one of them and just to start. This led to people being able to see what I can do without financial resources to trusting that I could make an end product worthy of sharing. Some examples of productions are with MKLQ, Gregory Richardson a at that time PhD student doing a research on calypso asked me to collaborate after seeing su solo I playanan which than became a duo project outcome a documentary Mighthy Lords Kings and Queens, a film made on a really small budget and an important video installation. Michel Drenthe an awesome film producer in Curacao Caribbean Filmcom also has seen my graduation film and when he was ready to make a film about Grupo Serenada. He believed in me and asked me to direct what had become “Yamada” a portrait of the musical group called Grupo Serenada. Both MLKQ and Yamada I had filmed and largely did the storyline edited myself. I had to learn to deal with feedback knowing that I have several hats on and am not a DOP or editor, I was a director wanting to make films and doing this while developing a voice and working with the skill set, I had at that time. My first short film called “Juni” was also a pearl because it thought me not to shy away from fiction and that working with both genres it will enhance the way I can bring stories within a time frame.
Receiving feedback is something that was challenging for me as well but over the years I had learned to appreciate it and it is during projects that I learn much more than if I would let my fears take over. My stance became that my work and style will evolve, each production will be an exercise to develop and grow upon. As I produce more work, I learn to live with the uncomforting zones and the feelings of insecurities of not knowing if things will work out. Knowing that those feelings might always be present.
There is allot of the Dutch Caribbean history I don’t know about and that is not out there and when there its written from a particular angle or European in our case European Dutch perspective. Or it takes more effort to gather the information in the first place. There is allot missing, but also allot of archive and stories are present but either forgotten or waiting to be contextualized and interpreted. Unlearning much of what I have learned while studying in the Netherlands. Giving value to myself and my own sight and perspective has also been an important process that gotten more significance because I moved back. I have done many projects and have achieved some milestones but honestly, only now I feel I am at a place where I am beginning. Where I am getting to know myself, my interest and getting to discover and display my voice and signature.
Africa in the picture in 2012 was an important year when showing su solo I playanan, I remember seeing Ava & Gabriel for the first time and being blown away by it. That festival made me more aware and critical to what I was making and how I would go about it. Based upon that and an encounter with a professor from rietveld, I applied to Master artistic research at the royal academy of the arts. There is where I moved my practice beyond a filmmaker and committed my process to more research-based art works. I had an open and experimental approach that led me to also make audiovisual installations where I develop the stories I am interested in to convey in a more active and immersive way. I found that dealing with the Caribbean reality had limitation in terms of representations by just the means of the documentary genre. I would ask myself If I was the image maker how would I contribute to the dialogue, and artistic production from my point of view? Only making documentary film just felt short to me.
Working in a space where the audience can be the author as well and decide things for themselves like where one walks, what the audience understand or not, how long does the audience stay or not. And how does the audience interreact with others in the space while experiencing the work. Appealed to me. The engagement with films changed with time from big cinema theaters to mobile screens. Feature length films rarely get it due credit or mostly during filmfestivals. The technology innovations and being constantly teased by allot of option and always access to use the scroll bar, robs me from experiencing a film and so working to create an installation pauses me from that changing world whereby I shift my focus to create a space and think about what keeps me busy and offer that identification that exists because we are all human. Nowadays also my pre-production efforts grew quite seriously as well since now I tend to start with and ethnographical research in order to realize the project
Characteristic of my previous installations and films is a multitude of voices and sounds. I create spaces for specific experiences. With my cinematographic installations I aim to immerse you in life in the Caribbean. I seek a continuous balance between concepts, visual mediums and a combination of aesthetic forms that are natural and familiar to the Caribbean.
My Doh mix meh up: We always negotiatin (2014), plays an important role in my career because I have abandoned the conventional method of filming based on a previously written script. As an experiment I filmed and collected material during the celebration of Carnival on Aruba. Not having a script allowed me to conceptually construct the work afterwards. Instead of departing from a script, I worked from an idea and I worked without a film crew. The goal was to capture the intensity of the party from within with the camera. So many cultures come together in Aruba that it is impossible to put a finger on the national identity of the island. During the carnival the diversity within the community is traded over and over again: whoever experiences it, gets an understanding of the community. My recordings were informed by literature research and resulted in a spatial multi-screen installation that reflects the celebration of diversity. In Doh mix meh up, I experiment with the interaction between elements such as the capability/incapability of representation, presentation and understanding of a postcolonial time and space. In the work I used Calypso and Road March songs together with recording of the discussions surrounding it as a metaphor for negotiations on Aruban identity and nationalism, which keeps reinventing itself. This work was also important cause during the making of it I started making a documentary that ended up being MLKQ and a video installation.
In 2018 I was invited to travel to Aruba via Caribbean Linked to present my work there. The trip ended with a presentation in Ateliers ’89 at the Academia di Bellas Artes, where I showed the installation En Mi Pais (2018). En Mi Pais invited viewers to reflect on questions such as What is the real value if the information and knowledge of what one’s country has to offer merely becomes a repeating dictation and not a self-awareness or understanding of context and cause and effect? Who is investigating, documenting, narrating and showing our multiple selves and social/human needs? This work later on got to be fully displayed at the volkskrant beeldende kunst exhibition at the Schiedam museum where I won the audience award. It is incredible to realize that my work in this case the installation speak to an international audience and that It got so far because of also having infrastructures and people seeing you and your efforts and offering you a platform. A platform, curators , writers art lover a infrastructures can be big and hinder you but it also helps you grow with granting opportunities to create and show work.
Not always was I granted opportunity like I am now in this moment, I was always in continues search for opportunities myself. In the sense of being very aware that it was in my hands to create it. I was longing to connect with peers that knew or were from the Caribbean region and that were studying film & arts in the Netherlands as well. I have had times that it feels very lonely especially when not being understood or having to explain yourself to teachers and in a class where you are the only “foreigner”. It was not only the color of your skin but you whole perception and reality back home had informed you differently, even that there was a different with the diasporic classmates. Their understanding would also reach a limit.
So, I remember understanding that a foundation was the best way to create a sustainable infrastructure that could also let you apply for not for profit project so in 2010 I did it. I founded Uniarte, not knowing all too well what in in tailed, I visited a notary and from the salary of my part time job I paid to setup a legal foundation.
So, the main idea I had was why not create a platform with a Dutch Caribbean focus. To create a space and time for us Caribbean creatives studying abroad so we could get to know each other. We were not a lot and would live in different cities.
I was at the same time also looking for ways to make myself and the people back home understand the importance of respecting art & and life experiences within our diverse communities.
From my experience as a filmmaker and artist I knew I needed space. To work, to breath, to gestate, to explore, to process. A safe space. Not an establishment approved blue print but a bottom up space, run by artists for and with fellow artists. I felt that the artist needs to be able to explore. To work their way through the chaos of uncertainty, to allow their art to be born in violent throes or serene meditation, or both. The artist needs to be able face the potential of any situation or work of art with an honest and daring approach, irreverent of public opinion. This is the only way the artist can reach a form of security within themselves.
And had already realized the most important which is that it is a process. The finished artwork is not the result by which success is measured. The development of the artist while exploring, gestating, failing, succeeding & innovating is. In this, the artist needs a supportive environment. An environment free of corporate or even semi-governmental & institutional interests. The artist needs room to work on their art without having to put labels, expected results or budgets on their unique material.
And those thoughts became the first Uniarte statement made during the first year being active in Curacao. I knew that usually people who would come from abroad would be seen as they know it all, so I did not want to come back and start doing things like I know what was best. Avantia Damberg an artist who participated in an Uniarte event in the Netherlands had already moved back to Curacao and indicated that there is a need for a space for artists and that she did not manage to find one yet.
To me the doctrine of coming back home and giving back to your country meaning something more for the next generation worked and I made it a thing to create space where we could meet and chat and share experience and a place where we could be more visible to public.
With very high ambition and starting in gathering in my living room in Amsterdam till now that I moved back home in 2016, I had the opportunity to use and transform 2 building with the help of all the artist and individuals who spread the word.
All was done without funding and without pay because even do I had an organization , I had to muster up the courage to do so and I wanted a solid experience and portfolio for the organization. 9 of the 10 years was with no pay, but wanted to prove a point. With space open mindedness and trusting creatives and artist allot can be accomplished. We organized film nights, exhibition. Young aspiring artist could use the space and the accessibility of the public was reduced seeing it was in the middle of the city center. For you to get a better idea please visit the website and Facebook or Instagram of Uniarte for you to get a better idea of all that happened.
Unfortunately because of the uncertainty of Covid we had to move out of our last house. In essence, the building/house represents a chance for Uniarte to contribute to art on the island and to provide artists of all disciplines with a work & project space, studios, and affordable programming. However, this also presented an opportunity for artists to comfortably produce work and develop their practice. By offering a space, Uniarte is also trying to influence and increase the way innovation and creativity is encouraged across social agendas and different generations. Around the world artist run spaces initiatives have proven to bring communal, cultural and economic benefits to break new ground. Even do Covid made us move out it also made Uniarte go back to its roots, without fixed building, were we also will manage to set up something nice by artist for artist and a general public.