Transcript—Full, Uncut Interview
Episode 6 (September 2020): Surinamese Artist, Marcel Pinas, on His Roots, His Work, and His Community
This is entreVistas, chats about Latin American politics, culture, and history, featuring faculty, students, and visitors at the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Chicago.
Marcel Pinas, a Surinamese artist with Maroon roots, sits down with Olívia Gomes da Cunha, from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, to trace his personal and professional journey to becoming an internationally recognized artist as well as a community activist and advocate. Due to technical difficulties, our recording of the full conversation begins with Pinas discussing his time at a boarding school as an adolescent. The remainder of the conversation that we share here is uncut.
Marcel Pinas: Yeah, boarding school, the [Catholic boarding school] Internaat. I was there from the first class until the sixth form, so you can imagine I was there until ’85. So that means I left house for the month and I went back only for the weekend, the last weekend of the month. I went Friday, Saturday, Sunday. [On] Monday I went back to the boarding school. So I was raised by the Catholic Church. But first I was baptized by the…
Olívia Gomes da Cunha: The Baptists.
The Baptists, the Wesleyan [Church in Suriname]. And then after that I [was] baptized for the second time, by the Catholic Church in Abadukondre.
And your family, they had been converted also to Catholics? Because I am assuming that at the beginning your family was Baptist also, or [perhaps] not?
Yes. Because the thing is, if I had to go to school, you have to be baptized to that school. So that’s why when I went to Pelgrimkondre, [which] is Baptis, I had to be baptized.
So when I went to the Catholic school, I had to be baptized again. But my father is not really like…no, he’s not going to church. My grandmother and my grandpa lived at the Pelgrimkondre, so when we’d go for a holiday or [the] weekend, then we went together with them to church. But it’s not like my parents—my father—go to church. No, it was not like that.
And during this period, had you learned any sort of skill of doing things with wood, for instance, with your father?
No. I didn’t learn anything. What happened is when I was home in the village, when the guys making canoes or making pedals, then I would go to see and try. But other than that, there are no creative people in my family, like [an] uncle, or like a nephew, who had skill to do a drawing or carving. No, there’s nobody in my family.
And at school, did you have a specific kind of interest or training in something? Because Dutch schools in general, they are very oriented to handwork and these kinds of things. Had you learned something special about building things, dealing with objects?
No. When I was a kid, I used to draw a lot. So not [the] priests, but [rather one who is ] not a priest, a [sort of] semi-priest. He was taking care of us.
And he used to buy a lot of drawing books for me, because he knew that I liked to draw. So I did a lot of drawing when I was in school. Everything that I saw, I could make a drawing. At the boarding school, it was good, because I learned a lot at the boarding school about discipline. How to take care of myself, how to wash my...The basic things, basic life skills I learned at boarding school. Because if you look at me, and you look at the other guy friends I grew up with, and they were not at a boarding school, you see a big difference, because I have more discipline. And I think that’s very important.
When we wake woke up in the morning, you have to take a bath, and then you went for breakfast, you have to pray, you went for breakfast, and then you go to school. When you come from school, you have lunch, and then you have to relax. And then [the] hour from 3 o’clock to 4 o’clock, we had to do something—cleaning, cutting—, and then after that from 4 to 6, we had like sports, and then after we take a bath, watch television, and do some study. So that was the life and I think that helped me a lot [with the] discipline to do what I’m doing today.
So this experience was unique in your family. How about your sisters and…
So again, there’s a big difference because I’m totally different than them. So yeah, it’s a big difference. I think different, I behave different. But that caused a lot of problem because what happened is like…I’m not really like a part of the family because I’m completely different.
Yeah, you lose somehow your ties.
Right. And that happened overall even in the cultural activities. That’s why for me it’s now so urgently that I want to go back and connect and find the things that I missed when I was a child.
Yeah. And so, from the Abadukondre school, you went directly to the city, to Paramaribo, to attend Nola Hatterman School. Did you attend another school?
Yeah. When I left, I left in ’85 to Paramaribo, and then my father decided for us to go to school in town because of the people he was working with, they advised him. They said, “your children have to go to town to study.” So then we went and I went to Mulo. So, after the elementary school, I went to Mulo. When I was at Mulo School, one year after ’85…in ’86, we had the civil war. Around that time, when I was at the second class of the Mulo, I came across this teacher, she [was] the wife of a famous artist, [inaudible]. And she was also teaching at Nola Hatterman Institute Academy.
She was giving drawing classes, and she saw that I could draw very well. And then she said, “Oh, you should come with us at Nola Hatterman Institute because they have classes like from four to six [in the afternoon]. So from that moment on, I started to go to school in the morning, went home to eat, and then went to…
Nola Hatterman Institute. But my interest, because you know, [in] Moengo there’s bauxite. So my idea, my interest was to become a mining engineer. Because this was my idea, I went to the Mulo, I went to the B rating. So we had the A [rating, which is] more accounting and stuff like that, but B was more like a mining, physics, and stuff like that. And then when I finished there, the Mulo, then I went to the Natin, that’s a technical school. To be a mining engineer. But at the same time, when I went to Natin, I finished the Nola Hatterman Academy. I did things like simultaneously. And then when I when finished the Natin, then I went to the university, one year [at the] university, and then…
Anton de Kom.
Anton de Kom [University of Suriname], to become a mining engineer. But then the art moved because another friend of mine, they [went] to French Guiana to have an exhibition abroad. But the head of Nola Hatternam said, “Oh you go to school, so you cannot go.”
At that moment I said, “I will quit the mining school because I have more ties with the Nola Hatterman.” But because of the war, there [were] a lot of difficulties with my drawing. Because I used to make small drawings, I could [sell them] get a lot of money and with that money, I could finance my own education. But my father is a Maroon, he had two wives. And at a certain moment, he left my mother moved to the [other] wife. And financially it was very difficult for us.
But [by] then I could earn some money for me it was like, “Wow, art,” because with that money, I bought a car. I bought a house…a piece of land and I built my house.
For what kind of audience did you used to sell your things at that point?
I used to sell my painting more for tourists. For Holland, for people from Holland. For people from [the] United States that they want something to take back home. It was good, it was very good. And then what happened in 1986…Because I was very talented—if you look at what I’m doing, art—and then because of the dictatorship, Suriname was isolated, because we could not get more information about art. So what happened, we had James Ramlall, [who] was the director of culture, he was first the director of Nola Hatterman Academy. And he decided to create the possibility for me and three other guys to go and study in Jamaica.
Then I went to study in Jamaica [from] 1997 until 1999. And that was very important, because when I went to Jamaica, I was making, they call it “fry fish,” things that you can sell very fast. I [had] a lot of problems at the school because they said, “What are you doing?”
I could sit now here, [and in] 20 minutes, I could make a drawing or a painting of someone who’s washing clothes, or a bird, or a flower. It’s like [a] computer, but then they said, “No, that’s not you. You have to find yourself, who is [your] happiness? What do you want to talk about with your work? Don’t try to be like Picasso or Rembrandt, be you.”
So then I started to do research about myself, reading. And then I came to understand who [were] the Maroon and what we are able to do. Then I realized how important the Maroon is for the world. From that moment on, I started to use my culture as the inspiration to make art and to create art.
I’m just wondering about your generation of Caribbean artists, because now it’s so clear for us that we can find and point [to] a lot of very important Caribbean artists [and] among them, is you. But I’m wondering at that point, at Nola Hatterman School, who were your friends, your colleagues at Nola Hatterman, what kind of art orientation [did] you receive in Suriname before going to Jamaica? And who were your colleagues, your friends in Jamaica, in Kingston? This kind of difference...
Okay. Because, Suriname is a colony from Holland, what happened is we were more Holland-related. So everything happened in Holland, that was something to hold on [to]. Because most of my friends, they went to Holland to study and most of the teachers came from Holland. Nola Hatterman was a Dutch artist who came and lived in Suriname and she decided to start a school, Nola Hattermna Art Academy. So we were more European related. South America was not important. [The] Caribbean was not important. So we looked at Rembrandt, we looked at Van Gogh—those are [the] artists that we grew up with.
When I went to Jamaica, it was completely the opposite. Because what happened? Most of the teachers, they came from England. They came from New York. We had also Cuban teacher, Jamaican artists, Colombian. It was more like a variety of possibilities of seeing things, of seeing Basquiat, of seeing Jeff Koons, or traditional Jamaican artists like Petrona Morrison. And then I think that was very important because now, most of my friends are not Surinamese. I have friends in, for example in Jamaica, Miami. So those are people I communicate with, to have a better sense of things that I’m doing.
So it was at this point that you became more Caribbean-oriented in your own work, but at the same time you realized your Maroon roots?
So, I would like to explore a little bit, because I know that you went to Rijksakademie, after [the] Manley School in Kingston. But this kind of discovery about your Maroon roots, it happened in Jamaica. How about Holland, because [in] Holland, I assume you [were] seen as Surinamese but also as a Maroon young man?
It was good that I went to Jamaica, because in Jamaica, I understood myself. I had my handwriting, I grade my own way of thinking, way of doing things. Because, for example, in Jamaica I was one of the most outstanding students. And that was something to be proud of, because all my teachers, they bought my work. So that means there’s something. And then when I went back, it was difficult, because when I went back to Suriname, when we had the exhibition, they looked at the work, and they said, “Oh my god, you have been wasting your time in Jamaica.” Because, for example, I was not selected to participate in a huge exhibition in Paris because I…
You didn’t represent Suriname.
No. And then, it was very difficult to deal with that. Because I had a mission, I had something to [say] with my work. So the first [success] was, we had [an] exhibition, and then paintings and galleries and blah blah blah.
But I was not happy, because I had a mission, I had a message for my own community. But I could not reach these people. So then, I changed from painting [to] public art, to confront them with things, with my message, because I had something to share with them. Then I started to do [public art] in the beginning of the 2000s: 2001, 2003. Then the director of the Rijksakademie came to Suriname. He saw my work and he said, “Wow, there’s something, apply at the Rijksakademie”
So then I applied to the Rijksakademie. I went for an interview because I had an exhibition somewhere in Paris. And then I went back to Amsterdam for an interview. In the afternoon, they said, “You were accepted.” Then I went to the Rijksakademie. But going to the Rijksakademie, [at] the first moment, I didn’t want to go, because I said, “What do these guys have to offer?” And then, my girlfriend [at the] time said, “No, you should go, go, go.” And then I decided to go.
The Rijksakademie, it was fantastic, because I already knew what I wanted to do. But when you are in Europe, at the Rijksakademie, you had a lot of possibility, technical support. You just come with an idea and people search for [a] solution.
At the Rijksakademie, we had studio visits. And that was a problem because when some of the guys came to my studio, they looked at my work and they said, “This doesn’t have anything to do with Europe. Look at Picasso, look at this.” Then I said, “Why should I look at Picasso? I’m Marcel Pinas. I want to do something with my culture.” It was a big problem because sometimes they refused to come to my studio. But these guys, after one year, they realized that this guy knew what he was doing. And then we started to become friends again.
I think that’s something [that] happens normally when someone leaves Suriname to go somewhere else. For example, in Holland they try to make you become [a] product of their society. So the moment they see that you don’t [want to do] that, then it is a problem. But I decided not to change the way I think because I had a mission, I had a vision that I wanted to do with my work.
And I was happy because the director of the Rijksakademie, we had every week a meeting. And he [would ask] me, “What do you want to do with your art?” We sat down every week, every two weeks, and together we made a plan. Because I told him what I was doing in Moengo, doing the objects in Marowijne, going into the villages, working with the community. And then he said, “Okay, we’ll make a plan.” And that’s why we made a plan [for my work in] Moengo, that in Moengo, we wanted to have guesthouse, a place where we work with the community, a theater, a museum, an art park facility in the village to work with our community.
That was something we did in two years. Because he said, when I went to him, he just dropped a few things and said, “Go and think about it.” And then we had the plan. But it was difficult, because the plan would cost about 500,000 euro. And then we went to shop [for funding], Prince Claus funds, Mondrian funds, nobody gave [us a] penny.
Then I went back to Suriname…Because they said, “Why do you go to Suriname? What does Suriname have to offer? You are in Amsterdam. This is the center of the world…to go to Kassel, to go to Venice, to go to New York.” But then I thought, that’s not something that I want. I want to go back to my own community and develop this plan. So then I went back with one hope that in Suriname the government will find some money, but that was not possible. They looked at me, and then we started. Then I said, “Okay, no plan, nothing.” I just drove to Moengo, had some friends and then they said, “Use this space.” And that how I started.
Okay. Before you go back to Suriname and Moengo…I tried two different ways of looking at your career. For instance, looking at you in relation to Moengo Cottica Maroon culture in general. But also your career can be seen from the point of view of your generation as being a Surinamese artist. We can see other artists from your generation that live in Holland, that made trajectories somehow different, because they are not Maroon. But they also discovered their own roots or their own culture outside Suriname. And in your case, I have seen many things written about you. And in some of them, people present you as being a Maroon artist. And others say you are a Surinamese artist, and others even a Caribbean artist. What do you think about this way of classifying or categorizing your way of making art?...before you go to the community issues in Moengo…
When I do my work, I never think about how other people will look at me or how other people will classify me. I’m just focusing on what I want to do, and how I want to do it, and that I want to succeed. Because classifying things, that’s something that puts a lot of pressure on you as a human being.
Because if you look at the history, what happened…we were all the time being down there. These are Maroon problems, [Maroon] community. Even from a problematic situation, I don’t talk about the problematic situation. I try to be the opposite. Just to do just what I want to do. I cannot change the way you think about me, how you want to call me, or how you see me. I just do what I have to do. So I don’t have problem with how people want to call me. I want to be an example for my own community, I want to be an example for the world. Doesn’t matter how you want to call me.
But you said that you do public art?
You do a public or an art intervention.
So you aim at a certain kind of audience, or a community you want to speak to?
Yeah. Definitely what I’m doing. I educate my own people about what makes us so special. I want them to understand that. So I work for inside and for outside. Outside, [the message is] “Hey guys, here we are, look what we can do. We are not coming to beg and we’re not coming to open our hand. We are the solution for the world, for a problem for the world, for the future.”
Because, for example, when I went to Amsterdam, the Rijksakademie, we were with 52 international artists from Zambia, South Africa, China, and they were talking about biological food, it was very expensive. They tell me, “Oh, this is what you have to eat, biological [organic] food.” At that time, I didn’t understand what is biological. Then one day I asked them, “What is biological food?” Then they explained to me. And I said, “Oh guys, you are behind. This is the food I grew up with. My history is your future.”
I think people have to understand it. My community has to understand it. Other people have to understand it. It’s like I’m working for both communities, for inside and for outside.
When you returned to Suriname and to Moengo, you already had information about the effects of the war because your family fled somehow from Moengo. What had happened in Moengo, what happened in the Cottica area with refugee people? What kind of information [had] you heard about that? And at that point, what were your projects?
You know, this thing about the war, it affected me before, since ‘85, ‘86, but I couldn’t place it. Because when we went to town, the Maroon, [we’d hear] “Oh, the Maroon are this, the Maroon are that,” and that affected me. Because when I was in town, [in] ‘86, ‘87, when they told me that I looked like a Creole, I was happy, I didn’t want to be Maroon.
Then a lot of things happened before going to Jamaica and after Jamaica. I was called two times by the police because I looked like a criminal, and they handcuffed me, beat me. You go into a shop and people look at you as a certain way. And then Jamaica, then I realized... those things, [what] the problems were. From that time on I had the idea, what can I do for my own community? How can I help? How can I solve the problem? Because even these guys who are now criminals, these are the guys that I was together with, and then we were dreaming that we wanted to work for the bauxite company. Then we’d have a speedboat, a beautiful woman, and going on the river. And this guy, he became a criminal. That means something is wrong. He became drug-addicted.
My old friend, when I was at home, he ran to my house, knocked on the door without shoes, clay on his foot, with a bag full with money, with guns. So there is a problem. And then [that’s] the problem that what I wanted to work on, because this is not something…you cannot blame them.
It’s the society, we failed as [a] society. And those are the things that I want to share, I want to talk about through the project because what happened after the civil war, these people, they haven’t been counseled, not in any way. So then through the process of what I’m doing, we try to find a solution. Not really talking about the problem, but being there to give them opportunities, to see opportunities, what they can do with who they are. Because that’s something I explained to them, everybody especially. Even if you cannot write or read, you are special, you have something in you that the world needs. Let’s develop that, and let’s sell it for the world.
[This is] how I approach it, but this is basically, those are the things that have driven me to do what I’m doing. It’s like a hot pot with one drop of water that just psssshhhhhSo there’s a lot of things to do still in the community.
And what did you find when you return to Moengo, for instance? How was it, the community?
From when I started, before going to Holland, I knew that it would not be easy because this is a fragile community, a community that don’t trust people anymore because of the history. Because a lot of people went into the community and abused the community. I knew that it would be difficult, that I would have a lot of problems, but I also knew that I have to start small.
[I needed to] go into the community, look at what the community wants, work with who wants to participate, and try to convince them to be part of what I want to do. That was difficult to do because you have to work on different levels. You have to work on a lower level. So at each level, you have to educate them about what you want to do, how you want to do it, why this is important for them. It’s a difficult process.
You found other people also, because Moengo’s community is composed [of] different people. When you talked and taught about community at that point, you had in mind [the] Ndyuka, Aukaner community? Or [did you have] in mind a whole Moengo lanes community?
In my mind, I’m talking about Moengo community, not [just] one special [one], the Maroon. I’m talking about the people who live in Moengo, who were affected by the war, and to work with them to find solutions for the problems they are facing. As I said, most of the time, when people have [a] problem, they don’t even realize that it is a problem. They see it like, “oh, this is a way of life.” But being with them, you have to communicate [with] them and when they do something, you correct them and try to be there for them, listen to them. And while listening to them, you develop a project based on the need.
For example, most of the things happened naturally because I started to go and then we went with another friend…[and] we cannot find food, we cannot find [a] place to sleep. So while working in the community, then you start to think, “Okay, we need a restaurant,” because sometimes people want to come and see what I’m doing, and I have to organize food for them. I have an aunt who cooks, but she cannot cook for 25 people [in the space that she has]. Then we saw, “Oh, this is an empty, abandoned building. We can use this to become a restaurant.” It took like six months, eight months. We have transformed this place to a restaurant, the restaurant where eight women [are] working, women who go to school.
So people went there to buy food. And because that was a meeting point, a lot of things happened. While sitting there, people came. So, the restaurant, we had to open it up. So you need music. A band comes. So the band comes, they don’t have instrument, the quality is not good. So then they tell me “Oh, we want to do better music, we want to learn.”
When we opened the restaurant, a few guys came and then I brought the brass band. They drum drum drum, and then the young guys came and saw that. So when the event finished, after one week, this guy came to me and said, “We would like to drum.” He came like four or five times, then I saw, “Oh, they need it.” Then we started the first brass band. So you have to start somewhere and then other things happen. And then from there, you move on. So it’s like, it’s a natural process.
And two process of convincing, two different kind of origin. On one side, you had, as far as I know, to convince the community about the meaning of art, that we know has been a big challenge. In the second one, I think, and you were very successful on it, to convince the sponsors. So you [did] a great job bringing money from big and important sponsors to Moengo into your institution, your organization. Tell me a little bit about this two sides of…
The first one is to convince the community. It’s not easy to convince the community [about] something that they never knew before. “Why do you want do it?” “It’s suspicious.” “Oh, this guy will come for his own benefit.”
I’ve learned a lot, that I have to communicate with the community to inform them in different ways. And all the possibilities, have the possibility to give them the information you have to use. That’s what we do. I know that if we are doing something, for example, on the news, important people are talking about it. For the community, that’s something they say, “Wow. The minister was here, so that means it’s important.” It’s like we have to find all the possible [ways] to convince them, but that was not easy. It’s like all the time you find new ways, you have a plan, right? You want to go there. But then while being here, you realize, “oh, we cannot go further.” So we have to pull back far away and use this [information to plan again].
I think that’s something that I’ve learned a lot while working in a community. For example, when we bring an artist, one visual artist, they go to the school, they work with a community to make this art object for the public space. This artist will reach 150–200 people, [but that’s] not enough.
When you bring a dancer or a musician here, a small concert reaches like 200–300 people. Then I realized, the majority of Moengo, they don’t believe in our project, because let’s say [we get] 1,000 out of the 10,000 [who live here]. We said, we have to change the plan. We have to do something bigger. That’s why we came up with a Moengo festival, for the community to participate. Because 90%, they don’t believe in the project…10% believe, but you have those people who they want to see things first, before they believe. The festival was that moment for them to realize that even they don’t believe in it—the process— they [can] participate in it and they can benefit [from] it, even if they don’t believe [in] it. That’s what happened with the festival, because for example, the church was protesting [some of our projects], like a peaceful march to pray around a Tembe Art Studio. These are the same guys, when we have the big festival, they are there.
They’re there dancing. And I think that’s very…in a playful way…We work with a community and they get benefit out of what we are doing. And I think that’s very important.
What was the second question again?
I think maybe we could mix two questions. Last one with this one, I will remind you is about the sponsors.
Oh yeah, the sponsors.
But I want you to add what is going on in Moengo right now. Because I know a lot of things you have made during this period, since the Moiwana monument until now, a lot of things have happened. But tell us a little bit about what is going on in Moengo right now concerning your project? Maybe you can say something about the sponsors.
Okay. I believe in everything I do, I have to invest in myself. And no matter what I’m doing, I have to invest in myself. And while investing in myself, it’s positive the energy [that] is there. So when you pass by, you feel the positive energy, you cannot pass. Then you say, “Oh, what can I mean for you?” That’s my approach, I have to invest in everything that I’m doing.
So when you come, you watch, you listen, then you say, “Oh, I want to do something.” So that’s the way how. And if interesting, the big guy will say, “I want to be part of this.” So that’s how I operate to get the big guys to be part of the project, because they understand that this is not only about me, this is about a whole community, this is something that we try to develop, to find a solution for a lot of problems that we are facing. And the second question was?
I talked about the sponsors.
And then that the other one?
Who they are?
Oh, the sponsors. We have Mondrian funds, we have... So these are most, let’s see, Dutch-related organizations. We have some people from Suriname. The government they want to, but not really. Some Surinamese company, like SRB—this is our very important sponsor. Recently, we have the French, who see this project as a solution for problem they are facing in French Guiana. So they will become a very important partner of what we are doing.
Now in Moengo, we are in the process, a lot of things [are] happening in Moengo. A lot of things are happening now in Moengo. But my main goal is to keep this project going. That’s why, for me now it’s important that the community is participating. The community is part of the project. And for the continuation, because after three years, I will retire.
So now we are working with young guys, 28 years, 26 years [old]. These guys are the managers—Donovan, Brahmi, Watson, Toto, Virgil. These are guy from Moengo. And beside these guys, we have let’s say 30 young people between 18 and 25 who are working with, helping to manage the festival. So we are thinking about five years, six years [out], that these are the guys who have to continue.
But also what is important [is that] the community feels that this is their project. Because for example, the guy who’s selling the fruit from the forest, the mareeba, he couldn’t sell mareeba because he didn’t have enough mareeba to sell. And if these guys down there understand that when the Moengo festival is there they make a lot of money, they will protect the activity. Because that happened a few years ago that the space where we have the Moengo festival, someone claim it, went to the government, and got the papers. So it’s like, we could not do the festival.
That was the signal I gave to the community. I couldn’t believe what happened because they stood up, they protested, [it was in] the newspaper. Certainly the government had to…how do you say?
…change completely the project.
... to change the plan, yes, and said, “Oh, this space is for the community.” As long as the community gets benefit out of what we are doing, the local community, that’s the most important thing. And that’s something that is taking place now, they understood that we are there for them, and the festival is their festival. They are better off with this festival economically, educationally. So I think is they understood that is for their own empowerment.
Okay, thank you very much, Marcel Pinas.
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