Through 2D works and captivating dioramas, Curtis Talwst Santiago creates visual art of unflinching social commentary that’s both visceral and contemplative. Addressing topics like indigenous and racial heritage, lineage and transculturalism, Santiago unifies ancestral rights that have been coöpted, splintered and scattered through a historical and ongoing diaspora.
“My art is a reflection of my varied experience because we have all of these preconceived notions of people, where we … just look at them,” says the Brooklyn-based Santiago. “And we don’t have a backstory; where they’ve come from and what they’ve seen. So I find my art is always trying to understand these things.” He notes some of his peers hit a wall with their genealogies since their family history ends, with only not-too-distant photographs left. “Unless your people have been in America and have been able to trace your ancestry, for those from the diaspora, their history often ends at a certain point. It’s a place where documents aren’t [very] in-depth or you simply just can’t look too far back.”
Born in Toronto, the 38-year-old Santiago, of Canadian-Trinidadian descent, says his art is about connecting with ancestry through the practices of art-making and meditation.
“Different religions and cultures believe you’re able to connect to your ancestors through communication and meditation, dance and ritual,” he says, describing his art as a ritual practice.
In lieu of what he calls “gridding out an image,” Santiago simply sits in silence with his materials, allowing the image and idea to occur intuitively. “I’ll put on some vibe-y music and just trust what my mind’s eye sees. … [I don’t] always know what it’s going to make. But in the end, I’ll have learned something from it.” There’s a “connection” when his emotional thoughts are injected into the works.
Recent 2D pieces like Untitled and Uncle 1 (both spray paint, oil and charcoal on paper) are dark-colored portraits buffeted in swaths of vibrant color, a seemingly visual dialogue between native and Aboriginal races. With the same media, Higher Self Portrait and Uncle 2 crackle with similar imagery; some visages seem inscrutable; others content.
Since Nov. 1, Santiago has been the artist-in-residence (AIR) for Long Road Projects. Created under the auspices of Aaron and Stevie Covart Garvey, the residency program is based in Riverside and Murray Hill. “It’s been a great experience so far,” says Santiago. “I’ve met some cool local artists and am getting a sense of this place.”
Santiago says he’ll focus on his Infinity Series for his LRP residency. The miniature dioramas are contained scenes, if not realities, housed in jewelry box-like spaces. A Zulu mother and child, a Christmas scene, brutality, rape, torture and slavery, a slain matador and even the woodland phantasmorgia of 2014’s Die Puppe. Das Entartete. Das Genie—ideas that generate pieces at turns captivating and gut-wrenching.
Santiago injects much life and action into settings of frozen moments. “You don’t need to talk about police brutality and just have a cop beating up on person,” he says, of placing big issues in tiny realms. “No; there are ways you can say that which will have more of an impact and a conversation without being so literal.”
One dialogue that ignited a wave of outrage and activism was the 2014 murder of Michael Brown by the Ferguson, Missouri police. “I was sitting in my studio in Canada when that story broke. After being in New York for a moment, and being stopped by the police for no reason, it really hit me when I realized, ‘Oh my God; that could’ve been me.’”
Santiago kept meticulously creating dioramas depicting racial and socio-political injustices, never imagining they’d receive such press and be exhibited in museums. He says the pieces were a response to his “self care” and the sad absurdity and maliciousness that still raise questions America is resistant to, or unable to, answer.
“How can this continue to happen and how can we still be having these conversations? How can the media portray this young man in such a manner? There was so much anger but not confusion; because I know the rules, of this supremacy and a system of oppression. Those rules are all put squarely in place.”
During his LRP residency, he’ll work on paintings and dioramas, and open his workspace for the public, art students and other artists to visit. “It’s one thing to have any artist tell you how they do their work; it’s another to have them invite you into space and see how an artist relates to their work in the space, and relates to you. I’ve always appreciated that much more.”
Since 2008, Santiago’s works have been featured in more than 50 solo and group exhibitions around the globe. He’s been in six AIR programs, a sphere in which he thrives. Most recently, a residency at Gallery Momo in Johannesburg, South Africa, left a deep impact.
“South Africa was complex and [layered]. Growing up in Canada, being there was eye-opening because the culture is so rich. But there are complexities of being only roughly 20 years out of apartheid.”
Santiago notes that South Africa is still figuring out its resurrection and freedom.
“The violence there would escalate so quickly and then just as quickly deescalate. So it could be a lot to take in. Those moments remind me that as an artist, it’s my role to see the world and then push it out through my visuals—and get a greater understanding of the world.”
Curtis Talwst Santiago is Long Road Projects' artist-in-residence through Dec. 1. For info about Santiago’s LRP residency or to ask about a studio visit, go to longroadprojects.com. To check out Santiago’s work, go to curtissantiago.art.