Reading: “Shaved Ice and Wild Buses”

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Sean Paul

Jamaican dancehall star Sean Paul painted on a minibus in Paramaribo, June 2009; photo by Christopher Cozier

By Chandra van Binnendijk

[Adapted from an essay in
Schaafijs en Wilde Bussen: Straatkunst in Suriname, by Chandra van Binnendijk, Paul Faber, and Tammo Schuringa, published in March 2010 by KIT Publishers]

One does not have eyes enough when making a trip through Paramaribo. Not only because of the people, the market, the nature, and the buildings. Anyone who pays attention will see that the city streets are filled with fine paintings. Inventive and funny images painted with great skill can be found on a small scale, such as on the fuel-tank covers of buses, but also on a gigantic scale, whereby entire buildings are covered with hyper-realistic advertisement-paintings. Seemingly real drops of water hang on the walls, as if the city is sweating due to the ever-present heat. How to quench the permanent thirst becomes immediately clear through the adjacent painted drink label.

Anyone who hangs around on a street corner for fifteen minutes will see a colourful parade of movie stars and celebrated singers and musicians passing by. The supreme Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan passes by in five or six different film roles, alternating with Bob Marley. 2Pac looks at you with piercing eyes; Britney Spears gives you a provocative gaze that asks: would you like to drive with me, in this bus? On Johnny Sordam’s shaved-ice cart on Domineestraat, the two greatest peace apostles of the twentieth century, Gandhi and Mandela, stand fraternally next to each other, as if indicating that quenching one’s thirst is important, but not the most ponderous issue in the world.

What these forms of street art all have in common is that they are hand-painted with great care, and that the makers are unknown to the general public. The work of these painters does not hang in a museum. The street is their museum. They do not see themselves so much as artists, but in a way as advertisement painters.

never ever disrespect

Minibus, Paramaribo, June 2009; photo by Nicholas Laughlin

This kind of street art has not always existed in Paramaribo. The first scenes painted on buses begin to appear in the early 1970s, as additions to fixed information such as “Route 7, 15 passengers”. These images, portraits, and decorations give each bus a certain accent, ensuring that it stands out, drawing the attention of clients. The first bus painter, Eric Gilles, created highly imaginative scenes which have unfortunately not been preserved in photographs. After Gilles came a few others, such as Dennis Riebeek, Waldi Landburg, and Gerold Lobles. They painted large colourful names of buses such as MAGIC and MUSIC MACHINE, hot women, and internationally famous stars.

These artists all left for the Netherlands in 1990. Ramon Bruyning, an assistent to Lobles, managed their legacy and thereafter built up his own practice. He has worked on a great many of the buses which drive around today, which can be recognised by the motif of a symmetrical medal with a portrait in the middle, and Afro-American music stars. During the mid 1990s a second group of painters entered the flourishing bus-painting sector, led by the brothers Nishar and Johnny Khodabaks. Their repertoire consists mainly of film stars out of the Bollywood film industry, and has become the favourite of many bus owners.

The painting of shaved-ice carts began in the mid 1980s, when the number of ice-carts had a turbulent growth. The carts became bigger, they acquired roofs, and they were decorated in highly imaginative ways — some of them by the owners themselves, and others by the professional bus painters such as Lobles, Riebeek, and Bruyning. The peak is now past, but a number of shaved-ice carts still indicate how varied and attractive they once were.

beer and sardines

Painted advertisements on the wall of a small grocery outside Paramaribo, June 2009; photo by Nicholas Laughlin

Advertisement painting is older than the moveable paintings on buses and carts. It began to conquer its place in the street scene after World War II, following the American example. The logos of international brand names such as Coca-Cola and Bata were faithfully copied, gradually joined by local brand names such as Black Cat and Parbo. Now giant advertisements and detailed reproductions of sweets and shining cars appear on walls and billboards. The walls of supermarkets are totally painted with cans of red beans or sardines.

In the last few years the paintings have increased both in size and in realism. A style of shop-painting has started in which the building is overgrown with advertisement. More and more the designs are prepared on computers, but the execution is still done by hand. Painters such as André Sontosoemarto and Hendry Singoredjo prepare the work and supervise different crews of painters, who tirelessly enlarge the design, covering even the bars of shutters and windows.

All these forms of painting find themselves places next to each other, and intermingle. “A bus is a bus, a billboard is a billboard,” says Sontosoemarto, and most of the painters stick to their particular area, but once in a while a crossover does take place.

Schaafijs en Wilde Bussen, an exhibition of Surinamese street art (including specially commissioned works) opens on Friday 12 March, 2010, in the Open Air Museum of Fort Nieuw Amsterdam in the Commewijne district.

The exhibition is open to the public from March 13 to May 2.
Tuesday-Friday, 9 am to 5 pm.
Saturday and Sunday (and on all holidays), 10 am to 6 pm.
Closed on Mondays.

Portrait of Paramaribo, by George Struikelblok, was created for The One Minutes project and is nominated for The One Minutes Awards 2009