When people ask me about my research and being a curator, I believe that sometimes they are surprised by my responses. The more I travel and the more that I think about my approach to actually curating an exhibition, I learn more and more that my work is less about exploring art and more about investigating the context that creates the art…of the artist of African descent. Perhaps I’m well on my way to a career in Anthropology, following in the footsteps of Dunham, Hurston and Primus. Or perhaps I’m creating a new niche within the discipline of Africana Studies. Whatever it is, I know clearly that I as I strive to remain consistent, I sharpen my voice and allow my work to validate itself. The support from the people to whom which I make it accessible, further stamps its approval.
That’s why my curatorial work can’t be duplicated nor am I phased by or interested in performing some of the more traditional roles of a curator. I am much more than a curator, in the Western sense, and I am primarily a curator at the same time, in the African-centered sense. It’s sort of an oxymoron, a tad Eshu-ish. The work, defines what I do and how I do it, because it is an assignment from the ancestors. That I much, I know and believe to be true.
I arrived in Suriname two days ago, after my flight was cancelled and ridiculously delayed. That night, I was instantly struck by the distinct differences in phenotypes that I saw awaiting family members and loved ones in the receiving line outside of the baggage area in Zanderig International Airport. On our ride to Paramaribo we passed through somewhat of what I’ll call a rural area filled with houses that range from mini-palaces to one room shacks. Bonfires blazed brightly as Surinamese Hindus participated in the eve of an ancient Indian festival of color known as Holi (Phagwah).
My first real day in Suriname, the greenness that engulfed everything in the environment, intoxicated me. With the exception of Brasil, in terms of faraway lands that I’ve had the privilege to travel to, Suriname puts the T in Tropics. Maybe because its capital city is only a few steps away from the rainforest so it seems like someone took the city out of the rainforest but it couldn’t take the rainforest out of it. I’m careful about the words that I use to describe this place because I’m well aware that the language that we use, sometimes in describing our own selves, dwellings, characteristics and being, are words assigned to us by a foreign people who were, non-Black and European. So, when I talk about the landscape of Suriname, you will not here me saying “jungle” or “bush.” Nor will I refer to the various groups of Maroon people as “tribes.” That is the language of European former enslavers and colonizers.
As I became acclimated with my new temporary residence in a South American country nestled between Guyana and French Guyana, just north the massive land mass known as Brasil, I took note of the convergence of different peoples in a land where the population is roughly 500,000. But more than that, I also had the honor of learning my first lesson in Surinamese life from the father of a woman is quickly becoming a dear friend, Mr. Wilgo Baarn. Without saying anything about himself or his stature in this society, I watched other people’s reactions to this apparent living legend in the places we visited in my first day about town. Jennifer told me that her father, is an important man in so many words, but I think her description was actually an understatement, probably an act of decisive humility and grace on her part. She is his daughter after all and apparently cut from the same cloth. While in his presence, I heard others speak of him in reverence. I witnessed groups of men, literally bow before him, and symbolically kiss his feet. He is royalty.
Then we sat to eat and supposedly since we were both hungry, well I’ll speak for myself and say that I was famished, we sat in silence for the first fifteen to twenty minutes while we ate our meal at a Javanese restaurant in one of the Javanese neighborhoods in town. He broke the momentary comfortable silence then he asked me how I came to know his daughter. I told him. Then he began to speak about her mother. Her mother,M Mrs. Elfriede Josefine Marie Baarn- Dijksteel, transitioned and became in ancestor in 2012. One of the things that was most moving about his impromptu sonnet for his beloved was the fact that he held so much reverence for her and still does. In the times that we live in, it’s so rare to hear a man speak about a woman so adoringly. He said this to me “I was so proud of her.” Wow. I was literally stunned because there is some place in me that only hopes that I too will meet a man as great as Mr. Baarn who will have the same admiration for and support of the work to which I’ve wholeheartedly dedicated myself.
Uncle Pops, as I’ve begun to call him, started to speak of Mrs. Elfriede Josefine Marie Baarn- Dijksteel in a very quiet yet matter-of-fact manner. I call her name because that is what one does in honor of an ancestor. He began to tell me how important Mrs. Elfriede was in life but the the fact that she now has duties to perform in her death. Without having the honor of meeting her, his testimony and that of others who I’ve met on my journey, gives me a clue of the sheer magnitude of her spirit.
His testimony and my reflections on the type of woman his daughter, my friend, Jennifer Baarn has exhibited herself to be, led me to ruminate on both the power of fulfilling one’s destiny, the role of ancestors and spirituality and the power of the Black family in a New World context.
That moment was followed by a series of interviews with three Winti practitioners the following day, including one very well-respected priest. Speaking to them further reiterated the point of my being here. There is a clear need to continue to bring our spiritual traditions to light. Primarily as practitioners and secondly, as research, there is also a need to create more comparative analyses of the survival of Africa’s sacred systems in the Diaspora, and imperative that we include the Dutch Caribbean Diaspora in our discourse.
In Curacao, I was told that one of the largest feast days celebrated on the island was for San Antony, who is the Catholic syncretization of none other than my favorite, my main man, Papa Legba. Today I was told by Ramon, the Winti priest that I spoke with, that after paying respect to the Supreme Creator, then the Mother Earth and her husband, all Winti ceremonies are opened with acknowledgement to Leba, who “clears the space.” Again, Eshu/Ellegua/Elegba/Exu makes his presence felt in my path…at the crossroads.
On Friday, I’ll be attending a workshop of a Winti dance for Leba. According to Deepak Chopra’s Spontaneous Fulfillment of Desire, there is no such thing as coincidence. Synchronicity exists. Miracles are real. Evidently, this not merely research for art’s sake but for the sake of something that goes well beyond the tangible. I am in the art world, but not of it.
Diaspora Diaries continue.
NOTE: All photos where I’m pictured were taken by Don Fela Ford.