In his practice, Curtis Talwst Santiago, has extensively depicted the ritual of Carnival. The Trinidadian-Canadian artist identifies this playful space as one in which bodies and identities can take on various forms and appear from the grotesque to more pleasing shapes.
Curtis Talwst Santiago, "Hey Minch yuh see meh play a mas," 2023 Oil, oil stick, Flashe, acrylic and charcoal on canvas 81 1/2 x 114 1/8 in 207 x 290 cm. Photo: Dirk Tacke.
C& América Latina: I would like to begin with the relationship of the figurative in your paintings and embodiment. A recurring motif in your painterly practice is the celebration and ritual of Carnival, especially in the Caribbean context. Carnival is a very embodied celebration, involving costumes, play with characters and metamorphoses. How does painting help you transport this experience?
Curtis Talwst Santiago: My paintings always begin with a drawing. To me, drawing feels like a dance – it’s liberating and it involves my entire body. Through drawing, I’m able to capture the immediate energy of the moment. I prefer working with charcoal because it’s unpredictable: with just the right amount of pressure, it can explode in my hands like a cymbal crash. When creating a painting, I return to the initial charcoal drawing repeatedly throughout the process, building up layers of color that resemble vocal harmonies. The drawing, appearing and disappearing, maintains a rhythmic quality, while the colors bring life to the piece. My artwork resides in a space between drawing and painting.”
C&AL: You often talk about the influence of music when it comes to your practice. In a recent talk at NirAltman in Munich, where you were showing, you also mentioned a collaboration with Frank Ocean, an artist who is known for challenging genres, media and preconceived notions of identities. How do you make sure that you are not reduced to a specific medium or category?
CTS: My studio is designed like a fitness gym with multiple workstations, including sculpture, drawing/collage, painting, a library, and music/sound production. During my workday, I rotate between these stations every few hours. I intentionally limit myself to 1-2 hours at a time, so that there is a sense of excitement when I return to something that I was vibing with earlier. This approach also helps to create a thread between all the mediums, as they inevitably speak to each other.
Curtis Talwst Santiago, "Let we play a white mas," 2023 Oil, oil stick, Flashe, acrylic and charcoal on canvas 39 3/8 x 39 3/8 in 100 x 100 cm. Photo: Dirk Tacke.
C&AL: I know that you are interested in intergenerational dialogue and transmission. And not necessarily in expressing inherited trauma only, but also joy. How do you experience negotiating this in a European or German art context?
CTS: As someone based in Munich, I have found a sense of community here that I have also found in other cities far from my hometown and my closest friends. The African barber shop is a place where the diasporic connection can be revitalized. In this space, I seek advice from elders on how to raise my son in this new land that I now call home. We laugh, we celebrate, and we share stories of hard times, but mainly we simply enjoy the pleasure of telling stories and taking off our armor.
C&AL: Now that you live in Munich with your family and are raising a child here in Germany, as well, how has this transition in recent years impacted your art practice?
CTS: While still being fairly new in this transition, I find that raising a child has given me a true sense of the value of time. From the time we get to spend with each other as a family, to the time we spend at work, every moment feels more precious than ever before. I have learned to work in a more focused way because the last thing I want to do is spend all night at the studio when I can be cuddled up with my beautiful little family, listening to my child talk to Mama and Papa in their sleep.
JOYvastated, 2023, Reclaimed jewellery box, clay, acrylic, paint, plant
seed, plastic rubber, 3 1/8 x 3 3/8 x 3 1/8 in, 8 x 8.5 x 8 cm.
I paint for personal pleasure and the challenge of bringing my internal imagery and emotions to the surface.
C&AL: Who do you paint for?
CTS: I paint for personal pleasure and the challenge of bringing my internal imagery and emotions to the surface. Each attempt allows me to be more honest with myself, even though each piece may not appear exactly as I envisioned. Despite moments of difficulty, I find joy in the process and see it as a form of self-care. I also know I am not alone in the ways I perceive the world and my place in it, and I know that sometimes others, for whatever reason, see themselves in my paintings, and that is equally satisfying.
Curtis Talwst Santiago (b. 1979, Edmonton, Alberta, of Trinidadian descent) is a painter, sculptor and dioramist currently based in Munich. Early in his practice, he studied as an apprentice of Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun.
Magnus Elias Rosengarten is a writer, curator and performer currently living in Berlin.