Born in Canada to Trinidadian parents, Curtis Talwst Santiago vividly recalls his first childhood visit to Trinidad and the annual J’Ouvert celebration, where he witnessed the tradition of applying red clay to the faces of family members. Years later, as an artist working in New York, he began using spray paint to draw radiating red faces on portraits of imagined ancestors on paper, canvas, and stone. This trope has become a central element in Santiago’s drawing practice, which has expanded significantly over the last few years. In all his work (the artist is also known for his Infinity Series, an expanding group of miniature dioramas built in reliquary-like containers, and he is an accomplished musician), Santiago explores what he terms “genetic imagination,” that is, the ability to access generational knowledge through imaginative recollection and projection. For the artist, this method serves as an means of navigating histories both lost and hidden.
Over the last year, Santiago has been living and working in Lisbon, Portugal, where he is researching and creating work around his own ancestry, combined with representations of Moorish knights. Many of his new drawings are inspired by 17th-century capriccios—landscape paintings where the real and the imaginary, the contemporary and the anachronistic, share the same fantastical space. In winter 2020, Santiago will create Can’t I Alter, a narrative drawing installation exploring the theme of ancestry and the necessity of preserving the past while acknowledging the fallacies implicit in historical recollection.
This project is a radical departure for the artist who will work in three dimensions on a life-sized scale for the first time to create an installation of walls and passageways in which his drawings and objects will be situated. The effect will be as if one of his dioramas has come to life, with the visitor led through a fantastical landscape in which the real and the fictitious alternate and merge. The installation will be accompanied by a newly commissioned film, as well as performances organized by Santiago.
Organized by Claire Gilman, Chief Curator, with Isabella Kapur, Curatorial Assistant.
Curtis Talwst Santiago: Can't I Alter is made possible by the Canada Council for the Arts. Generous support is provided by Rachel Uffner Gallery, William A. and Pamela K. Royall, the Consulate General of Canada in New York, Cathy and Jonathan Miller, Barbara Polla, Carol Saper, Carla Shen, Isabel Stainow Wilcox, and Anonymous.
Image: Curtis Talwst Santiago, Red Face Ancestral Vision 1, 2018. Spray paint, oil, charcoal, pastel, acrylic on canvas, 39 3/4 x 39 1/2 inches (101 x 100.3 cm). Courtesy of Rachel Uffner Gallery.