‘My works are the residue of a ritual process’
The Dr A.H. Heineken Prize for Art 2022 is awarded to Remy Jungerman. The Surinamese-born artist combines elements from different cultures in his sculptures, paintings, and installations. Materials and rituals from Africa and North and South America form the basis of his work and he incorporates them in a modernist way. The jury praises his recognisable and unique style and the stratification in his work that makes the viewer think.
When I walk into Remy Jungerman’s studio, I am surrounded by an impressive collection of colours, materials, and geometric shapes. ‘This work is not yet finished,’ Jungerman says immediately, pointing to a panel against the wall. ‘But I actually think it is quite beautiful as it is. Sometimes it is difficult when you have to let go of a work.’ It is a panel on which he has stuck black and yellow chequered strips of fabric in different directions. In many of his works, Jungerman uses this type of chequered fabric, which comes from the culture of the Surinamese Maroons – descendants of escaped enslaved people who live in the Surinamese rainforest. On his panels, Jungerman forms exciting rhythmic and geometric spectacles by covering the fabrics with porcelain clay and then scratching the chequered pattern into the clay. In this way, his work brings together the culture of the Maroons, his ancestors, and Western modernism.
This connection can also be found in his sculptures and installations. ‘I look at geometries and patterns that travelled from Africa to North and South America via the transatlantic slave trade,’ says Jungerman. ‘I try to tell new stories with them. This cultural reference is an important theme in my work. From that perspective, I seek a connection with modernism. People often think that my inspiration comes from De Stijl. But it is the other way round. I draw my inspiration first and foremost from the chequered patterns of the Maroons’ textiles and the Winti religion to which they adhere. The grid that I build is not related to Mondriaan, but to these textiles. Perhaps this is also because, as a child, I could not go to the museum to see works by Mondriaan, Malevich, or Agnes Martin. That came later when I was at art school. But in the end, I did consciously use modernism as a tool to tell my story.’
Remy Jungerman grew up in Moengo, a small town in the middle of the rainforest in Suriname. He was already creative as a child. He was brought up on making things. ‘My home situation was a creative source,’ says Jungerman. ‘But this source was actually more about making utensils and working behind the sewing machine. For example, we made frying spoons, which we sold to earn something extra. But we also made everything ourselves: a new body for the washing machine, a rabbit hutch, an extension onto the house. I also made a lot of my own clothes using the sewing machine.’ Jungerman did not have the opportunity to visit museums and galleries there, but he remembers his first encounter with art well. ‘I was 8 or 9 when I saw an exhibition by Moengo sculptor George Barron, who made very beautiful, polished mahogany sculptures. I was totally flabbergasted. I thought, wow, if a human being made this, I want to be able to do that too.’
But it took some time before Jungerman himself ended up in art. It was only after studying mechanical engineering and working as the head of a mechanical workshop at a telecommunications company that he ended up at art school. ‘I am actually very glad that I had that preliminary phase in which I learned the techniques,’ he says. ‘That is why I can build large sculptures without them collapsing. The hanging sculptures I showed in Venice, for instance, were quite complex structures.’
Jungerman is referring to Visiting Deities, one of the works he created when he represented the Netherlands at the 2019 Venice Biennale art exhibition. He built the installation around a long table, filled with blue-and-white and black-and-white chequered textiles used in Winti rituals, treated with porcelain clay. ‘I put them on a dry seabed or riverbed, with cracked earth,’ says Jungerman. ‘This calls back to the silent stories of the transatlantic slave trade, which ended up at the bottom of the sea. In the hanging sculptures above the table, people could see ships. I did not have that in mind when I made it.’ Jungerman drew his inspiration from an oracle, an object carried by two people on a wooden stick, covered in textiles in the middle, which is used in Maroon culture on important occasions. For example, to introduce newborns, pray for the harvest, make legal pronouncements, or for pilgrimages. ‘I thought, if I analyse the meaning of the oracle, it will result in these sculptures. And I as a person am also part of that analysis – the fact that I studied at the Academy for Higher Art and Culture and the Gerrit Rietveld Academy, that I studied both western and non-western art history. But that is a very complicated approach. It is easier to think because of their shape: these are ships.’
Jungerman does not mind that people give their own interpretation of his work. ‘I think it is great. And it is primarily the first impression. If you take a longer look, you reach different interpretations. For example, I also added three water samples to the work: one from the Cottica, the river in the region where I was born in Suriname; one from the Amstel, near to where I now live; and one from the Hudson, where I often am when I am in New York. Historically, too, these three places have a triangular relationship: New York first belonged to the Netherlands, who traded it with Great Britain for Suriname. Of course, it is a lot more complicated, but that is why I am what I am today. There is a connection there. The table is a Kabra Tafra, an offering table that you set for the ancestors. I thought it was important to install this table in Venice. The Giardini, where the Biennale is held, has always been a glorification of the colonial past. There, all the rich countries could exhibit the wealth they had amassed from free labour through their colonies. As someone who comes from former colonial territory, I wanted to use the table to purify the space, and in doing so, to start the conversation.’
Yet Jungerman does not make his work primarily to show this dark history. ‘I do not find that indictment so important; to me, it is more important to look at what the richness is from which I can draw. Other people might take more of a political, activist stance, but I prefer to celebrate culture.’ Part of that richness also lies in the many rituals that colour the Maroon culture. ‘I think it is important to look not at the moment of the act, but at what remains after the act. For me, that is the work of art. I use materials that come from the ritual context, such as fabrics and clay. I take them with me to the studio, and there a work of art is created from the material. I also see creation in the studio as a ritual process, and the work of art is actually a residue of that act.’
The textiles that Jungerman uses are all from the Winti religion, the Afro-Surinamese religion that the Maroons, among others, adhere to. They wear these chequered textiles in different colour combinations for all kinds of rituals. He uses the textiles in combination with kaolin, a porcelain clay. The Maroons use this material during rituals to purify bodies and objects. ‘In installations or sculptures, I sometimes use other objects that are used in rituals,’ says Jungerman. ‘For example, bottles of Dutch gin used in libations, or chickens used in sacrifices.’ Limiting himself to those materials with a specific source is very important to him. ‘You can probably buy similar textiles here in the Netherlands, but I think it is important that they are symbolically worn by Suriname. Perhaps some of the textiles are now manufactured in the Netherlands and shipped to Suriname. But I bought them in Suriname, and they made the journey from Suriname to the Netherlands. I like that.’
Enclosed interior space
In addition to the origin of the material, the titles Jungerman gives his works are also important. ‘Sometimes they are titles of rituals or names of Maroon clans’, he says. ‘Or, for example, of geographical locations where Maroons settled. When I make cubes, they have an enclosed interior space. That interior space is as important to me as the outside of the sculpture. Before I close the cube, I sometimes place pieces of textile there, or I say words into it, for example, of those geographical locations. I think that kind of thing sets this apart from the modernists or De Stijl. The intention is different.’
The connection with the Maroons is very personal for Jungerman. On his mother’s side, he is descended from the Bakabusi, a group of Maroons who lived in the interior of Suriname. ‘The chief, Broos, is my great-great-uncle. But I call him my great-great-grandfather, because in that context he is important as a kind of father figure.’ One photograph was made of Broos, which Jungerman has also used in his work. ‘There are six other Maroon groups, but I use the Bakabusi, to connect to the wider Maroon culture through them.’
Plans for the coming period
Jungerman is currently exhibiting at the Kunstmuseum in The Hague, the Goodman Gallery in London, and at the Katonah Museum of Art in New York. He is also staying in New York for an extended residency in the International Studio and Curatorial Program. ‘I am very much looking forward to the coming period,’ says Jungerman. ‘And it is as if this prize has come at exactly the right time. Although it is always the right time to win a prize,’ he laughs. ‘But I am so keen to continue my research into the journey of geometries from Africa to the Americas and how they influenced the aesthetics of the Surinamese Maroons. In addition, I want to study the Gee’s Bend quilts from the American South, in which similar geometries are used. I now have the opportunity to do so.’ These quilts were made by women from the isolated African American community of Gee’s Bend. This community lives in a large bend of the Alabama River in the US state of Alabama.
‘In New York, you have the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture,’ says Jungerman. ‘American anthropologists Richard and Sally Price have done a lot of research on Maroon culture. All the textiles and objects they have collected can be found at this centre. There was an advertisement in the New York Times, in which they say about an exhibition of the Maroon shoulder cloths: “If we didn’t tell you it came from the Suriname rain forest, you would think it was modern art.” These textiles had an enormous influence on me when I studied at the art academy in Suriname, and they still do. I now have the chance to go there and touch and smell those shoulder cloths. I want to study the similarities between the geometries of the Maroon shoulder cloths and the Gee’s Bend quilts and use them as inspiration for my new work. My dream is to have a major exhibition at MoMa in New York or Tate Modern in London. And I want to exhibit recent work from this research and some of these textiles (shoulder cloths and quilts) to tell the big story of the journey of geometry from the African continent to North and South America, through the aesthetics of the Maroons in relation to the Gee’s Bend quilts. The quilts are so well made, some look like paintings.’
Remy Jungerman (1959, Moengo, Suriname) is a visual artist. He studied at the Academy for Higher Art and Culture Education in Paramaribo in Suriname and continued his education at the Gerrit Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam. He was an artist-in-residence at Art Omi in New York in 2013 and at the International Studio & Curatorial Program, also in New York, in 2018. Jungerman co-represented the Netherlands at the Venice Biennale in 2019 with the exhibition ‘Measurement of Presence’. Jungerman has exhibited frequently in the Netherlands and abroad, including at the Kunstmuseum Den Haag; Prospect 3, the New Orleans Contemporary Art Triennial; the Brooklyn Museum in New York; and the Havana Biennial in Cuba. In late 2021 and early 2022, he curated a major solo exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, entitled ‘Behind the Forest’.
Remy Jungerman creates sculptures, paintings, and installations in which he combines elements from different cultures. Materials, traditions, and rituals from Africa and North and South America form the basis of his work and he incorporates them in a modernist way. Specifically, he draws much inspiration from the Maroons of Suriname. He uses, among other things, textiles from the Winti religion, to which the Maroons adhere, and kaolin, a porcelain clay used in this culture during rituals to purify objects and bodies. In his large installations, he also uses other materials from rituals. He wants to use the aesthetics of these materials to tell new stories. All his work contains a stratification that makes the viewer think.
Every two years, five renowned international researchers and one artist are awarded the Heineken Prizes. The first of the prizes, the Dr. H.P. Heineken Prize for Biochemistry and Biophysics, was established in 1964 by Alfred H. Heineken, as a tribute to his father, Dr. Henry P. Heineken. To this award were subsequently added Heineken Prizes for Art (1988), Medicine (1989), Environmental Sciences (1990) and History (1990). Alfred Heineken’s daughter, Charlene L. de Carvalho-Heineken, continues this tradition. The C.L. de Carvalho-Heineken Prize for Cognitive Science (2006) is named after her. The prizes are made available by the Alfred Heineken Fondsen Foundation and the Dr. A.H. Heineken Foundation for Art. The Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) takes care of the nomination and selection process.