Curtis Talwst Santiago: Cant I Alter
On ViewThe Drawing Center
This month, the scaffolding in Curtis Santiago’s installation at The Drawing Center hits differently than it did when the show opened in February. Can’t I Alter remains a meticulously arranged selection of interrelated sketches, sculptures, and murals installed into the hunter green scaffolding standard in New York City, where the artist is based. This exhibition looks to the simultaneity of interrelated narratives, including the history of the Black knights of the Order of Santiago of the Red Cross in Portugal, the J’ouvert celebrations in Trinidad, skewed European histories, and more broadly to ancient lineages that are felt but not traceable due to colonization and empire. The scaffolding physically weaves Santiago’s works together and creates a space meant to represent the home of the fictional J’ouvert Knight, who recurs throughout the exhibition in temporally ambiguous vistas. In the weeks since the city shut down this installation has adjusted, in my mind, to not only hold space for the unknown or fantastical, but also to point to the precarity of historical narratives and the need for structural malleability.
The scaffolding modulates the space, creating irregular rooms with awkward sizes and diagonal walls that ignore the white cube architecture and incorporate the permanent neoclassical columns into the address of Santiago’s work. The altered space fragments the incredible range of work included in the exhibition, from lists of words on scrap paper to massive drawings on paper molded to look like brick walls. It creates a semicircular room to view Santiago’s looped film Sir Dingolay (2020); it carves out a display space for a full-body beaded suit of armor; it frames unusual sightlines for early drawings. In some areas, Santiago creates subtle archways using the scaffolding, seemingly to acknowledge the archeological sites of his research and to avoid didacticism about the role of this aspect of his installation. At the same time, the scaffolding is not ornamental; the artist maintains its vernacular visual culture by drawing on it, pinning to it, and using cut-out areas for display, as in the case of the diorama J’ouvert Knight, Self-Portrait (2019). At points, the diorama falls into the background and you forget what the space looked like before.
In Santiago’s drawings, some of which are on canvas, the artist uses his signature combination of graphite with charcoal, pastel, and aerosol paint to create dexterous yet opaque compositions that inquire into the liminal spaces of history. It is challenging to speak specifically about what one is looking at in the works, as they do not align with the way we have been taught to understand narrative through chronology or empire. For instance, in Road March (2019) Santiago references the Carnival dance path. Subtly reminiscent of old battle scene compositions, dozens of people are depicted in a range of scales, interacting in a way that seems to combine dancing, embracing, and engaging in conflict. Their dress is of the past and present, referencing the Caribbean, Western Europe, and South Africa, and their context is unidentifiable as they float along a curvy, invisible path. The narratives Santiago considers are not entirely knowable due to colonization, which, ironically, is characterized by the false assumption of complete knowability. The ability to gesture to these disparate interactions without visual descriptors is the truly wonderful thing about incisive drawing.
In other works, such as Candy Flipping (Boogoo Pouring the Spell in Sir Dingolay’s Ear) (2020), the mythical J’ouvert knight appears centrally. His towering stature is rendered in charcoal, wearing a combination of a Beninese head dress, medieval mail, and sneakers, as he gazes into the distance. The lower half of his body is overlaid with a rich pastel drawing of an interracial couple embracing, being watched by Jab Jab, a trickster character. To the right of the knight, two landscapes are haphazardly superimposed. The multiple splits in narrative reflect on simultaneities and unresolved, perhaps contradictory, relationships which are further emphasized by the layers of paper from numerous panels that Santiago drew, cut apart, and pieced back together. Around the corner, the component-parts of these large wall works are parsed out as you are immersed in a series of ancestor portraits, dozens of visual and linguistic studies, and two sculptures: a portrait drawn on a large rock, and a glass nose placed on a column. Which vandalized ancient sculpture is being reclaimed?1
Around the same time of the opening of this exhibition, a translation of Édouard Glissant’s first published essay Sun of Consciousness was released.2 It was poetic timing to read Glissant’s exploratory texts reconciling his lived experience as a Martiniquais man in Paris while thinking about Santiago’s work. There is a shared interest in opacity and an acknowledgement of the density of transnational history that cannot be told solely through literary and artistic structures which lean towards summary or historicism. Santiago has previously said that he is interested in the potential of “genetic imagination”3—an embodied knowledge that exists outside of written history—as a way of moving into unknown spaces and stumbling outside of our conditioning. The exhibition’s titular proposition, “can’t I alter,” reflects on this, suggesting a dialog between dominant global narratives and the artist’s interest in exploring their liminal, precarious, evolving spaces. Santiago makes work that is intentionally decentering—floating real and hypothetical historical and contemporary narratives together, without searching for distinct beginnings, ends, or resolution. Ultimately, it is within this entanglement that “truth” lies.
1. For more on these sculptures see Masilela, Nomaduma Rosa. “Remediating Defacement” in Curtis Santiago: Constructing Return, p. 9-11, ed. Magdalyn Asimakis. Saskatoon: University of Saskatchewan, 2017.
2. Édouard Glissant, Sun of Consciousness. Translated by Nathanaël. New York: Nightboat Books, 2020.
3. Black Passages: Curtis Talwst Santiago Interviewed by Ayasha Guerin. BOMB, June 2018.