The birth of a multi-cultural society
As early as 3000 BC, Suriname was inhabited by Native Americans. Several distinct communities, like the Arowak, the Carib, the Trio, the Wayana and the Warau, lived in this region. The first Europeans who set foot on South America’s ‘Wild Coast’ were Spanish explorers and Dutch traders. The English Lord Willoughby from Barbados was the first to successfully settle in Suriname in 1650. In 1667 Suriname became a Dutch colony and is now the only Dutch-speaking country on the continent of South America.
As happened in all of the Caribbean, many people either came or were brought to Suriname. People were taken from Africa and forced into slavery, during the 17th, 18th and 19th century. When slavery was abolished, indentured laborers were brought in from India and Indonesia. Some developed roots in their new country, whereas in other cases whole generations continued their journey to other destinations. Those who stayed built a multi-cultural society.
Attempts at discussing art in the multi-cultural setting of Suriname uncover different outlooks. Which cultural expressions should be considered art? Where does craft end and art begin? What is Surinamese art actually?
When does Surinamese art history start?
Several answers are possible, but more questions remain. Does Surinamese art start with prehistoric Indigenous petroglyphs? Or with those who sojourned en worked in Suriname and produced beautifully illustrated books? For example the German-born Maria Sibylla Meriam (1647-1717) who produced the Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium, or P.J. Benoit (1782-1854) from Belgium, with his Voyage à Surinam. With Gerrit Schouten (1779-1839), born in Suriname, of mixed race, and who lived there his whole life? He received national and international praise for his beautiful botanical drawings and dioramas.
Before the Second World War, the capital Paramaribo was considered the only centre of art and culture, and was completely focused on Europe. Nonetheless, setting aside developments in what was formally considered art, there were other developments in the area of culture and art.
Striking examples of art from the melting pot
Some striking examples: The Maroon people also lived in relative isolation for a long time, inaccessible beyond the waterfalls in the great rivers. The art they developed in the hinterland astonished researchers such as Sally and Richard Price, when confronted with it in the nineteen sixties.
After the arrival of the Europeans, the Indigenous People had retreated from the areas where later the capital and the plantations would be founded. As a result, they were able to retain their unique culture and art forms for a long time.
Javanese immigrants introduced their multifaceted culture from Indonesia. Part of this culture has almost unnoticeably become interwoven into various aspects of society. Another part has survived as "traditionally Javanese".
Growing nationalism since the Second World War resulted in Independence on November 25, 1975. Many artists gradually started experiencing the various cultures of the melting pot that Suriname is as their own. That is why not only the reflection of tropical light and the natural environment is clearly visible in visual art, but also cultural diversity. This almost inexhaustible source of inspiration is what makes Surinamese visual art unique and special. The rich presence of various influences makes it impossible to speak of a uniform Surinamese style.
A different focus
Internationally, Surinamese art was initially focused on the Netherlands. This changed after Independence. For example, Suriname participated in two Biennales in Sao Paolo, and also in most of the CARIFESTAS. Suriname was present at the first Caribbean Biennale in Santo Domingo. Besides the big 1996 exhibition of Surinamese art in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, and an exhibition organized by the IDB in Washington in 1998, there have been various individual and group exhibitions of Surinamese artists abroad.
Unlike a few decades ago, when most artists wanting to break through moved to the Netherlands, more and more artists stay in Suriname and broaden their vision by traveling, exhibiting abroad and participating in artist-on-residence-programs.
The big world outside is incredibly attractive, especially for the younger generation in this small country of slightly more than 500.000 inhabitants, and so people keep leaving. But with all that coming and leaving, international exchange in the area of art has lead to new challenges and insights, also for those who have stayed in Suriname.