After arriving safely in Paramaribo, Suriname my 2017 began in earnest. I immediately got started looking to make contacts and transportation and logistical arrangements. However, the first thing I did was attend an afternoon UNESCO conference on the Suriname national archives, partly housed in the Nederlands. Although in Dutch, I was able to decipher enough of it to understand what was being discussed. It was also an opportunity to meet two university scholars teaching in the Nederlands and there to make presentations.
Monique Nouh Chaia of Readytex Gallery assisted me by loaning me a local mobile phone and putting me in contact with one of her suppliers who resides part time in his maroon village in the country’s interior. His son, Waddell, accompanied me using his English/ Saramaccan language skills. After a long drive and boat ride I met with the local carver, herbalist, and village elder who also grows the African black rice. It was more than I could have asked to spend two days in his village, eating, visiting, and understanding something of life in the village. With so many maroons now employed outside the “traditional areas” they send money back home, make supply trips, and generally live in a very rural environment, although they have tried to maintain a certain level of closeness to a non European lifestyle. The village I visited, for instance, only had working electricity at sunset until maybe midnight or so (I was always asleep in my borrowed hammock by midnight).
Immediately after returning from the forest I spent two rainy days exploring Plantage Katwijk, along the Commewijne river. The plantation historically cultivated coffee and citrus, which it continues to do. They are the only organic coffee producers in Suriname. In addition, the property which is only partly cultivated is owned by the Readytex Gallery owners. I would love to complete my project by having an exhibition in the main plantation building (shown in the photo) as I think this would put the project in the proper context.
In attempting to verse myself in the history of Suriname I visited Fort Zeelandia and Sticthing Surinaams Museum (Foundation Suriname Museum) sited on the Suriname river. It was an interesting visit which yielded some printed documentation on the history however, some of the items in the museum were mislabeled but the docents are not allowed to correct mistakes even though they are obvious. The director does not allow anyone to fix problems, nor are the docents professionally trained in the archeological, ethnographic materials.
Now into my third week I began to explore Paramaribo a bit more and being more engaged in producing some watercolor drawings and collages. I was just looking to find what was in front of me and make some sense of that, weathered papers in the streets, dilapidated architecture, various debris piles, market stalls, maroon appliqué textiles, botanicals of various kinds.
A few days ago, after the four days of the Easter holiday, I met with Iwan Wijngaarde, who was an agriculturalist and formerly worked in the industrial rice cultivation sector, now retired. He was not well informed about subsistence farming, black rice in particular, but he was very knowledgable regarding the many botanicals of the Amazon region. We spent the entire afternoon talking about plants and African Atlantic culture.
I also visited the Center for Agricultural Research in Suriname (CELOS) to search for any references to rice cultivation. Mostly it was industrial cultivation but a few paragraphs (in both Dutch and English) in a couple books mentioned the maroons and their subsistence farming dating back into the 1700-1800s.
Not having better technological infrastructure put my research behind a wall at times because that is how communication takes place today, email and web searches. At any rate, first hand communication between people is what made this residency successful.
It is also necessary to mention those that have made this residency possible and I thank them deeply: Diaspora Vibe Cultural Arts Incubator ( DVCAI), the Knight Foundation, Tigertail Productions, and Miami Dade Cultural Affairs. In Suriname this would have been impossible without artist, Kurt Nahar, Readytex Gallery owner, Monique Nouh Chaia, Waddell Akobe (translator), and Marcel Pinas of Kibii Foundation and photographer, Ada Korbee.
~ Onajide Shabaka