Episode 6 (September 2020): Surinamese Artist, Marcel Pinas, on His Roots, His Work, and His Community
This is entreVistas, chat 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, traces his professional and personal journey to becoming an internationally recognized artist, as well as a community activist and advocate. Pinas sits down with Olivia Gomes da Cunha, from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, to discuss his early years in Suriname, his education prior to turning fully toward the arts, his exploration of his Maroon roots through programs in Jamaica and Amsterdam, and his return to the community after years abroad. Pinas navigates his relationship with an understanding of his community, as he developed his craft and discovered his personal identity through his art. His far-reaching conversation has been edited down for the podcast episode, but the full conversation can be found on our website.
Olivia Gomes da Cunha: 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 [you] 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 [of Suriname]. In your case, I have seen many things written about you. In some of them, people present you as being a Maroon artist. In others, they say you are a Surinamese artist. In others, even, a Caribbean artist. What do you think about this way of classifying your way of making art?
Marcel Pinas: When I do my work, I never think about how other people will look at me or how other people will classify me. 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. I don’t have a problem with how people want to call me. I want to be an example for my own community. I want to be example for the world.
But you say that you do public art?
You do a public, or an art intervention?
So you aim [for] a certain kind of audience or 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. I was called two times by the police because I looked like a criminal, and they handcuffed me, beat me. People look at you as a certain way. From that time on, I had the idea, what can I do for my own community? How can I [create] hope? Can I solve the problem?
Because even this guy who is now a criminal, these are the guys that I was together with. Then, we were dreaming that we wanted to work for the bauxite company. Then we’d have a speedboat and beautiful woman, and going on the river…and this guy, he become a criminal. That means something is wrong. 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. We failed as society. Those are the thing that I want to share. I want to talk about [that] through the project I am doing.
Because what happened after the civil war, these people, they haven’t been counseled, not in any way. 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 can, what they can do with who they are. Because that’s something I explained to them, everybody here is special. Even if you cannot write or read, you are special. You have something in you that the world needs. Let’s develop it and let’s sell it for the world.
What did you find when you returned to Moengo, for instance?
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. On 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 then 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 the people who live in Moengo who were affected by the war, and to work with them, to find solution for the problem they are facing. For example, most of the [my projects] happened naturally because I started to go [to Moengo], then [I] went with another friend…[and] we [could not] find food, we [could not] find a place to sleep.
So while working in the community, then you start to think, “OK, 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.
And because that was a meeting point, a lot of things happened. While sitting there, people came. 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. It’s like, you have to start somewhere, and then other things happen. So…it’s like, it’s a natural process.
Two processes of convincing?
Two different kinds of audience.
On one side you had, as far as I know, to convince the community about the meanings of art, [and] we know that has been a big challenge. The second one, I think, and you were very successful at it, [was] to convince sponsors. You did a great job bringing money from big and important sponsors to Moengo and to your institution, your organization. So tell me a little bit about these two sides?
The first one is to convince the community. I’ve learned a lot, that I have to communicate with the community to inform them in different way. 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. I think that’s something that I’ve learned a lot. 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. 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% [of them] don’t believe in the project…10% 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. 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 are there dancing. We work with the community, and they get benefit out of what we are doing. I think that’s very important.
Tell us a little bit about what is going on in Moengo right now, concerning your project?
Everything I do, I have to invest in myself. No matter what I’m doing, I have to invest in myself because it’s positive, the energy is there. When you pass by, you feel the positive energy. When you come, you watch, you listen. Then you say, “Oh, I want to do something,” and it’s interesting. The big guys will say, “I want to be part of this.” That’s how I operate to get the big guys to be part of the project, because they understood 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. My main goal is to keep this project going on. For me now it’s important that the community is part of the project, and for the continuation, because in three years I will retire.
Now we are working with young guys, these guys are the managers. These are guys from Moengo. Beside these guys, we have 30 young people between 18 and 25 who are working with us, helping to manage the festival. We are thinking about five years, six years, that these are the guys who have to continue.
But also, what is important, [is that] the community, they feel that this is their project. If these guys understand that when the Moengo festival is there, they make a lot of money, they will protect the activity. That happened a few years ago, that the space where we have the Moengo festival, someone claimed it, went to the government and got the papers. 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…
... 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. They understood that we are there for them. The festival is their festival.
Thank you very much, Marcel Pinas.
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