Although he hesitates to talk about it, the transition from Surinam to the Netherlands is an issue. It is a transition from a religious culture to a more secular culture. The move from a traditional art academy to an ‘everything-is-possible-academy’ must be enormous. These transitions challenge everyone’s identity.
Rob Perrée on the work of Ruben Cabenda.
THE STRUGGLE OF RUBEN CABENDA
Ruben Cabenda (1989) was a student at the Nola Hatterman Art Academy in Paramaribo, Surinam. He made paintings and drawings in a figurative style; however his rich fantasy made it impossible to call his work realistic. He was part of an exchange project between Nola Hatterman and the Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam. In spite of his initially rather traditional way of working, it was obvious that he was a talented student. This is why he got the chance to continue his education at the Rietveld in Amsterdam. To quote the artist: “It changed my work completely. In the beginning I was still painting, but I soon realized that I could use any medium. I felt free to experiment. That would have been impossible in my country.”
I visited with him at the academy. He shares a space (you hardly can call it a studio) with Annemarie Daniël, also from Paramaribo. At the entrance a big sculpture is blocking my way. A primitive, traditional house covered with pangi fabrics (1) balances on top of a ‘tree’ made out of children’s heads. A puzzling work. Does it refer to ancestors? Does it have to do with slavery? Is it a symbol of death? Lost in the corner are two paintings. Relics from the past?
On the walls a wide variety of computer prints. It looks like an announcement board in the hall of a big, crowded university. The messages are stumbling over each other.
His paintings are his past. His most important medium now is animation. The wall with prints appears to be a kind of script board. Objects, photos, drawings, existing images, and notes transform in his laptop into moving collages. Short animated stories in which dream and reality mingle, in which a symbolic language mixes with a daily language. Because Photoshop is an important tool the images look artificial, the colors are often very bright, the contours of the figures are edgy or they are reduced to shadows or silhouettes. The rhythm of the films is unpredictable. Repetition is no exception. The sound varies from silence to distorted nature sounds to heavy string sounds. They are almost always threatening.
Ruben Cabenda grew up Christian. There was always a latent curiosity for ‘the other side’ of believe, of religion. In the Maroon culture the Winti (2) religion plays a large role, the believe in spirits expressed through various rituals. It was a no-go area for a serious catholic but it triggered his fantasy. “My work has a lot to do with dreaming about that part of my culture.”
These dreams were confusing because he knew that they were in conflict with his loyalty to his family, his parents in particular. On the other hand he also knew that he was part of that traditional culture. Winti is very controversial in Suriname. Many people consider it their real religion and they even have tried to get it officially recognized by the parliament. Opponents refer to it with disparaging cynicism, calling it an “evil practice” and “dangerous nonsense”.
Since the recent death of his parents he was forced to find answers to religiously infused questions like: “Is there a hereafter?”, “Is there more between heaven and earth?” His lively fantasy got another boost of confusing elements.
Underneath all that is yet another factor that must influence his work. Although he hesitates to talk about it, the transition from Surinam to the Netherlands. It is a transition from a religious culture to a more secular culture. The move from a traditional art academy to an ‘everything-is-possible-academy’ must be enormous. These transitions challenge everyone’s identity. Who am I? Where am I? What kind of world am I living in? It explains why he is always the main and only ‘actor’ in his work. Him and the world. Him in the world or him facing the world. Many times he hides his face behind a mask. Literally as well as figuratively.
Within this identity context a couple of works are exemplary. In the completely drawn animation ‘Abandon’ (2013/2014) a young man is struggling with an umbilical cord. After many desperate movements he manages to cut himself loose. In an untitled performance Cabena raps himself (in fetal position) in transparent plastic. There is no way out. For now a vague photo is the result of his action. As an image it will show up again in one of his short films. No doubt about it. That will also be the case with the photo where his face is swathed. A scary image.
His struggle with religion and spirits is the theme of ‘Aanwezig’ (‘Present’, 2013/2014) and ‘Sound’ (2014). In the first animation we see a person sleeping on a bed. Next to the bed emerges an almost spastic moving man who hides his face behind a blue mask. Sometimes an aureole ‘decorates’ his head. A cross is hanging in the middle of the wall.
In ‘Sound’ (2014) the face of a sleeping man is touched by the hands of a ghost, in the second part that same man is lying in the grass – surrounded by objects that refer to the Maroon culture – while his ghostlike alter ego is moving around him. The story ends dramatically. The man drowns or just disappears?
Although animation may be his main medium now, Ruben Cabena made a couple of interesting installations where traditional wooden houses and heads of kids are linked with each other, where ancestors and tradition seem to deal with each other. For Cabena these and other works are just material or props for his films. “To be honest, the process of art making is often more fascinating for me than the works itself. I create behind my computer. There I combine all these images to get a moving story. I try out all the possibilities. I mix drawings with photos and moving images.” At the end he wants to show the result on tablets on top of pillars or pedestals. The viewer has to look down on it. He is more or less forced to take the time to focus on it.
Ruben Cabena is an admirer of Paul Thek, the American artist who died of AIDS in 1988. It is not so much that the work of Cabena resembles the work of Thek, it is more the mentality they have in common. Also for Thek every medium was possible. Like Cabena he was not interested in the aesthetic quality of his work. Content and impact are the things that count. Throwaway stuff was Thek’s material, his Surinamese admirer does in fact the same: everything he makes/paints/shoots he uses as material for his animations. A comparable way of throwing it away.
Ruben Cabena will return to Suriname after graduating from the Rietveld Academy. He wants to teach at the Nola Hatterman Art Academy – “I want to convey what I have learned”- and he wants to develop his own work. “Within the context in which it is rooting.” He realizes that he is just starting. He knows what motivates him, he made the choice for the medium he wants to use, but he prefers to leave all options open. “I am not there yet.”
(on Youtube you can find a couple of his animations)
Brief bio: Rob Perrée is art historian, independent writer and curator. He is founder and editor of www.africanah.org. He lives and works in Amsterdam and Brooklyn.