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Dhiradj Ramsamoedj: Portrait of the artist

By Nicholas Laughlin

First published in ARC no. 2, April 2011

If every work of art is an assertion of presence and agency — someone made this — in an artist’s self-portrait, there is even more at stake. I make myself, it suggests, whether that self is boastful or timid, confident or tentative, heroically aloof or jostling in a crowd. And I am a self worth making. The artist’s assertion is thus also a challenge to his audience, and their own sense of being in the world.

Dhiradj Ramsamoedj has lean, austere features, quizzical brows, and a shy smile; he wears black-rimmed spectacles, and looks even younger than his twenty-five years. A stylised self-portrait, rendered in graphic black and white, with his face half-shadowed, recurs in his recent work. It opens A Passage of Memory (2008– ), a sort of visual dream-diary painted directly onto the pages of a series of old novels. It has appeared on posters around Paramaribo, been screenprinted on t-shirts, and on the invitation to his most recent show. The portrait is a disarmingly mild image, but it nonetheless makes a bold claim. It is something like a graffiti artist’s tag, something like the logo for a brand, and it states, simply: I am here.

Not every self-portrait is a literal likeness. A mask or a costume is a disguise that can reveal more than a naked visage. Take the strange, shaggy figure posed in a corner of an old house in Paramaribo. At first glance, it looks like an oversize toy, both silly and oddly threatening. (“Spooky,” as Ramsamoedj puts it.) Nearly six feet tall, Flexible Man (2009) wears black-rimmed spectacles, a pair of stout boots, and a tufted multicoloured pelt made from hundreds of scraps of cloth. These are discarded fragments collected from the floor of the artist’s mother’s workshop — she is a seamstress, and his late grandfather was a tailor. This discomfiting character is assembled from pieces of Ramsamoedj’s family history, and gestures to the family profession. It is a portrait of the artist as a mongrel Muppet.

Flexible Man was first shown in February 2010 during Paramaribo SPAN, an exhibition of recent work by artists from Suriname and the Netherlands, at various sites around Paramaribo. Ramsamoedj invited SPAN audiences to his home neighbourhood, west of the city centre. In what was once his grandparents’ house, and is now his studio, a modest building with red-painted wooden floors and high ceilings, he installed a series of recent works in several media: installations and sculptures, paintings and drawings, a video projection, and conceptual sketches for an as-yet-unrealised large-scale outdoor project. Flexible Man, spotlit from below and casting an ominous looming shadow, dominated the front room of the house, and provoked conversation.

One visitor from across the Atlantic mumbled the name of Nick Cave, the American artist whose Soundsuits are pieces of wearable sculpture. Someone else might have been reminded of the Guyanese-British artist Hew Locke’s garish figures — a monumental head of Elizabeth II, ranks of alien warlords — composed of plastic detritus. Other visual references might come from New World masquerade traditions featuring characters garbed in strips of cloth or paper — Trinidad’s Pierrot Grenade, Jamaica’s Pitchy-Patchy, the maracatu rural of Pernambuco in north-east Brazil, and even the intricately layered crêpe-paper fringes of Bahamas Junkanoo costumes.

Flexible Man’s name is a structural description — rising on a metal frame with his boots weighted, he rocks gently if nudged — but also a statement of intent, or perhaps of faith. Ramsamoedj speaks of him as a hybrid creature, an embodiment of Suriname’s and the Caribbean’s multiple cultures. This too is a kind of flexibility, an ongoing interweaving of ethnicities and languages, histories and desires. The result is this rainbow coat, at once protecting and showing off, both hazmat suit and Carnival finery.

Eight months after SPAN, Ramsamoedj unveiled three further works in what was now a series. (He plans to make ten in all.) Caribbean Woman, the female counterpart to Flexible Man, is a kind of earth mother, with black rubber boots hinting at the agricultural labour that roots rural communities. Caribbean Soldier is armed with a sort of flail — a weapon consisting of a ball attached by a chain to a rod, designed to be swung — covered with the same strips of cloth that make up his suit of armour. But his real weapon, Ramsamoedj insists, is his “colourfulness.” This is no grim oppressor, but a guardian of hopes. Nearby, Mighty Man has a superhero’s name and the half-crouched pose of an action figure waiting to spring into a fight. Like Flexible Man, these are versions of alter ego. And — at a point in history when the idea of “the Caribbean” seems about to collapse under the burden of competing ambitions and disappointed dreams — they are a young artist’s audacious claim of belonging to an imagined Caribbean whose fractious variety is its paradoxical strength.

Installed in the main gallery at De Hal, a new exhibition space in Paramaribo, the three figures were surrounded by the expressionistic paintings for which Ramsamoedj is best known by his home audience. Here, too, it is tempting to discern elements of autobiography in the narrative vignettes. Ramsamoedj’s eerie domestic scenes, often set in traditional houses like his grandparents’, are populated by what he calls bigi ede people — big-heads, with swollen, hairless craniums, eyeless and earless. They represent “the face behind the mask,” he says, revealed “like you peel a fruit.” These are beings of preternatural calm and poise, seeing and hearing no evil; they have evolved past family or community conflict. They suggest an alternative version of the harmony embodied in the coats-of-many-colours of Flexible Man and his kin.

Still in the foreday of his creative career, Ramsamoedj is restlessly experimenting with medium, form, and scale, as he figures out how to make the substance of art from the facts of personal history, from mundane observations and emotions. In his body of recent work, there are times when his formal imagination and the sheer presence of some of these objects seem to outstrip his arguments. Because the work is its own argument, its own assertion. Swaying gently if nudged, Flexible Man is mouthless and speechless; but not quite silent. I make myself, he says. I am here.