Conversation: "You cannot eat from just one plate"

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

An interview with Kurt Nahar by Dutch artist Arnold Schalks; Paramaribo, 10 October, 2008. Both artists are involved in the ArtRoPa project, and Nahar participated a three-month residency in Rotterdam in 2008

[This is an abbreviated version of a conversation was first published, in Dutch, in De Surinoemer no. 5]

Dada in Susu (mixed media collage, 26 x 19 cm, 2009), by Kurt Nahar; photo by William Tsang, courtesy Readytex Art Gallery

Arnold Schalks: What were your expectations coming to Rotterdam?

Kurt Nahar: I went to Rotterdam with very high expectations. It is the dream of every artist to be selected for such a large project. To be recognised by someone on the other side of the ocean, after all these years of struggle with the work.

AS: Has your stay in Europe changed the way you look at Suriname?

KN: Yes, the possibilities I've seen in Europe constantly change the picture. If you live and work in just one place, you get into a vicious circle. The Internet is a possibility [for reaching out], but it is important to be near enough to see things, even smell them. You can only get so much from books or photographs....

The video and sound installations I saw in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam started me thinking. I do not need paint and a brush to express what I have inside. That insight is missing in Suriname. We've been told we have to sell, sell, sell. But art is the thing inside that you need to express. The sales will come anyway. If I want to present my concept in some other way, I have the right to do that, just as I've seen in Europe.

AS: What aspect of Suriname do you think is missing from Dutch society, and vice versa?

KN: In the Netherlands I missed Surinamese liveliness, freedom, and warmth.
You notice that when you come to Suriname. I don't need to tell you that. You've experienced it. Living in Rotterdam, that's what I thought was missing: that extra zest for life. You have everything in the Netherlands, but you still lack personality, individuality. We Surinamese lack your professionalism and industriousness. If we could merge....

Mona Lisa in Suriname (mixed media collage, 27 x 34 cm, 2008), by Kurt Nahar; photo by William Tsang, courtesy Readytex Art Gallery

AS: What do you think is the function of art?

KN: Art is, first, what is inside me bubbling to get out. I release it through art. Second, art is a voice for things at play in the community around me. I reflect these things in my work. Third, art is a means to get closer to the community. As an artist, you have a duty to educate. Through your work, you can show people what is right or wrong, and how to do things differently. Art reaches people better than a textbook.

AS: What is good art?

KN: For me, there is no such thing as good or bad art. An artwork is something I've considered at a particular moment, and it took that form. It's meaningless if someone buys an artwork for a sum of money, hangs it on a wall, and for ten years walks past it as though it were a mirror. The work means something if it touches the community. If I make an installation, within my context, about my own subjects and taboos, and someone stops me on the street five years later, saying, "Oh, you are the artist who made that strange thing with dolls and needles"--that for me is a confirmation that the work I made means something. I enjoy that ten times more than if someone buys a work and I have the money in my pocket, since that disappears in no time.

Untitled 2369 (mixed media collage, 27 x 34 cm, 2008), by Kurt Nahar; photo by William Tsang, courtesy Readytex Art Gallery

AS: Is your art Surinamese art?

KN: Previously, I was tempted to say my art is Surinamese art. My subjects came from my own environment. But the same issues are also relevant in other countries. That's why projects like ArtRoPa are so important....

I am an artist inspired by the things I see around me, and as a citizen of the world I change along with the time and spirit of the place where I currently am. Of course I still deal with Surinamese elements, but to say now that my work is Surinamese art--no. It is also foreign, Dutch, English. This is how I see it.

AS: But you can't deny your origins.

KN: I'll never do that. Suriname is my homeland, and I'll never exchange it for another. But as an artist you need to extend your limits. You cannot eat from just one plate. And I must tell the world about where I come from. That is my task. So, as an artist, I always mention my Surinamese nationality. I am a child of the Amazon, the bush. And then I come to the Netherlands, where the forests are smaller. I have tasted the possibilities of Europe, all the positive and negative things. I travel there to peck a grain of your knowledge. Also to be a bridge to the generations after me, so they can learn what I learned there.

But it works the other way too. You have also come here to learn from us. By talking about what drives us, we learn from each other. That's why I think my time in Rotterdam was the most fruitful period of my career.

AS: You are an omnivore. With great ease you seem to include everything in your work. Are there limits to your choices?

KN: No, I exclude nothing. Artists are strange people. We live in another world with another spirit. Something drives us. I am never ashamed of the voice that inspires me. When I'm out on the street, something tells me, "Pick that up!" And I pick it up. I don't care what people think. And then I put the thing, whatever it is, into my artwork....

AS: Is everyone an artist?

KN: An artist is someone with a free spirit who somehow gets a gift from above. I see it everywhere. It is not just visual art. You know how much appreciation I have for the newspaper vendors there on the streets, folding each newspaper in a certain way? That is a rhythm, a form of presentation. Or the mother in the kitchen, who with the little she has manages to fill your belly. That plate of food to me is a work of art.

Vision 1 (mixed media on hardboard, 60 x 60 cm, 2007), by Kurt Nahar; photo by William Tsang, courtesy Readytex Art Gallery