There is something beautiful and haunting about Wouter Klein Velderman‘s monument in Moengo, Suriname, which is a South American nation that never seems to be in the headlines and 99% of people outside the country probably couldn’t even place it on a map.
In his photos, the giant sculpture, titled “Monument for Transition” (2011), appears to be bathed by a magical light and strangely feels a part of the landscape, even though it is obviously manmade.
Klein Velderman is an Amsterdam-based artist who often travels to foreign countries to produce large-scale objects informed by local knowledge, materials and cultural traditions. His wooden Mickey Mouse in the jungle is his latest project.
I spoke to the artist about his curious work far away from the more conventional boundaries of the contemporary art world.
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Hrag Vartanian: Why were you in Suriname?
Wouter Klein Velderman: I was invited by the Tembe Art Studio to reside for a period of three months in beautifull Moengo, Suriname. In Moengo, visual artist Marcel Pinas initiated the Marowijne Art Parc. Over the next few years artists from all over the world will be invited to add monumental sculptures to the interesting enviroment of the region of Marowijne. Their works will find a place in public space and eventually together will make Marowijne the art region of Suriname.
A detail of the back of the Mickey Mouse legs, which depict carvings by local youth who added their touches to the work. (image via wouterkleinvelderman.nl)
HV: You are calling your large-scale sculpture a “Monument for Transition” (2011), what do you mean by that?
WKV: “Monument for Transition” is a monument for the constant changes that the people of Moengo and Suriname are subject to. It’s also a monument for changes in the past as well as for changes that are happening at this very moment. It’s a monument for small changes, which are hardly noticable, and huge changes with great consequences.
It’s a monument for nature, which rapidly changes all unused objects into jungle by covering it with moss, bushes and tropical flowers. It’s a monument for Toyota, which changed the streetscape drastically by filling up the streets with their cars. And it’s a monument for the Chinese, who came to Suriname and took over almost all of the supermarkets.
It’s also a monument for the enormous amount of schoolchildren who grow up in Moengo and are developing their talents and eventually might use these talents to make even more transitions to the town. But it’s also a monument for the enormous transition that took place after the civil war that ended in the early 1990s. A transition that is still having its effect on the people.
And at last, there are the transitions that are still to come. What transition will the current government bring? And what transition will take place after Suralco, the mining company where many Moengonese are employed, leaves the city?
I wanted to use an existing icon that stands for a certain kind of transition. One of the icons that changed Western society a great deal is Mickey Mouse, the Walt Disney cartoon character. So, I asked the people of Moengo and the children from the surrounding villages to help build the Mickey Mouse using techniques, materials, and woodcarving elements from and about their own culture.
HV: What fascinated you about the work of local artist David Linga and why did you choose to work with him?
WKV: For the monument to succeed I needed the best woodcarver from the region to participate. I wanted to initiate a sculpture that the people of Moengo could be proud of for a long time.
Marcel Pinas showed me photographs of Linga’s work and put me into contact with him. Linga’s works of art are very much about the history of Suriname and its habitants through the years. His strength is to very realistically and in a lively manner depict scenes from the past. These are scenes about the plantations, slavery, but also about the people of Suriname in modern times.
To make the monument interesting for a wide range of people I wanted to make its foundation a realistically carved base that tells the story of their own people. David is by far the best man for the job.
A detail of the "American" portion of a leg that depicts a collared shirt and tie. (via wouterkleinvelderman.nl)
HV: What was your impression of Suriname and the challenges of society there?
WKV: Moengo is a small town in the bushy east of Suriname and it’s a region that hasn’t been taken care of very well by the government since the civil war at the late 1980s. At first sight, the people were a bit stiff towards new initiatives, especially when it comes to a thing like contemporary art. That’s why I tried to actively drag them into the project. When they discovered what the sculpture was about, and it was for them, they warmed up to it.
Finally, on my ride from Paramaribo to the airport, to take my flight back home, the cab driver told me about a giant Mickey Mouse that was being built in the jungle of Moengo, by a man called “Ras2.” For me this was a signal that society had “enfolded” my sculpture.
HV: Did you encounter anything that surprised you about the art of Suriname? Can you give some specific examples?
WKV: The Suriname contemporary art world consists of a very intense, fast and professional group of people. Artists like Marcel Pinas, George Struikelblok, Remy Jungerman, Charl Landvreugd and Patricia Kaersenhout are conquering the world of art rapidly. These artists stay very close to theirselves and that brings a certain necessity in what they produce. I was not surprised by their huge productivity, though it did surprise me that their work stays so interesting and close to themselves, even though their production is quite high.