We speak to the Toronto-based artist about the craziest year of his career so far.
The Rape (2014)
A few years ago, in a cafe in Vancouver, a woman approached the Canadian artist Talwst (pronounced "tall waist") and told him that she was receiving a message for him. An artist that he loved and admired would become his guide for the next three years. He immediately thought about the photo of Basquiat on his wall at home, and knew that that was who she meant. He admits it sounds crazy, but his life has been full of so many strange coincidences lately that a message from the other side feels about as real as anything else.
Not long after the coffee shop incident, the Art Gallery of Toronto asked Talwst to act as an advisor for its major Basquiat retrospective this year. "Throughout my career—as much as I work my ass off—these weird moments have just lined up," he told me over the phone from Vancouver. This year, he's also showing work at a major museum in the U.S. for the first time, as part of A Constellation, the current exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem.
Talwst, whose legal name is Curtis Santiago, grew up in Alberta, the son of a Trinidadian mother and father. ("Talwst" is a reference to his Caribbean grandfather's and father's nickname, Tall Waist.) And while he remembers feeling at home in Canada, he also recalls the anger he felt while watching American TV shows like Seinfeld and Friends. "The lack of racial diversity just pissed me off," he says.
For his ongoing series, Infinity, Talwst creates intricate reenactments of scenes from history and art history inside used jewelry boxes. They are often deceptively beautiful to look at. In The Rape, a miniature indigenous woman is carried into a tiny painted forest within a carved ivory box the size of a walnut. In one subseries, Marginalized Histories, Talwst restages the shooting of Michael Brown with painted figurines no taller than thumbnails. Each piece is a portable snapshot of cultural history that begs a closer look.
Why does telling stories in such a small form appeal to you?
I don't know why I do miniature. But I do know that it was probably triggered by my childhood. I come from The Sims and Where's Waldo? generation. I always think about the first time people saw a photo of the earth from space. And I often get the feeling when I'm working on this scale that I'm in a Google Map, zoomed into this point, and it's the first time we're seeing subject matter this sexual or this violent on this scale.
What scenes are you working on right now?
I'm looking at Shunga [Japanese erotic art] for my series History of Touches, named after the Björk song. Shunga is the erotic art of the people. It mixes class and gender. So I'm also thinking about my transgender friends as I continue the series. There are still stories that I want to tell—and Shunga artists sometimes made series of four or five hundred images.
Is Minimized Histories an ongoing project also?
Yes, I'm working on one now about the Syrian refugees. It was partly triggered by going to the MoMA. The exhibition there told the story of the Black Migration after slavery, after Jim Crow. And I became obsessed with the movement of people, and how my own family from the Caribbean came to Canada in the late 60s and early 70s.
These mass migrations now are going to shift those countries, and I always think that's for the better. Look at New York—the Irish, the Italians, the African-Americans. I make art because it saves my sanity but I also have to tell these stories because I don't want them to be forgotten or pushed aside.
How much does your personal story and your heritage inform your work?
It's an ongoing thing. When I travel the world now, I constantly have my lens shattered, or sometimes cleaned up. I remember the first time I came to the U.S. I didn't fully understand what it was like to be a black man in America until I was stopped and frisked and called all sorts of names. I still feel like I'm just a small kid from Canada and I should be able to talk to everybody. So it always informs my work. You know that term "the male gaze"? I think my work is based on my gaze , and my gaze is expanding all the time—especially as I am gaining sensitivities to what [life] is like for other genders and races.
What other experiences do you want to explore in your work?
The treatment of indigenous people in Canada, which is echoed in many countries. My mentor is a Canadian indigenous painter, Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun. I grew up in the studio with him telling me, "You got to do it with candy." Candy is what gets them in the front door and then you have to have a message. His paintings are beautiful, with these bright colors, but they are talking about issues, about the atrocities that went on in Canada. He talked to me about the connection between the African spirit and the indigenous spirit and how in times of grief and loss our tribes have communicated and connected here in Canada. It sounds really idealistic, but I think there's enough space in everyone's heart to care enough about the atrocities happening outside of you.
Was there a specific moment when you realized that you were going to make art professionally?
When my brother showed me Basquiat for the first time. Later, after the Art Gallery of Toronto asked me to be an advisor for the Basquiat show, and had commissioned a performance piece, all these things started to fall my way. I was coming out of a hotel in New York and I bump into a guy and I say, "You look familiar. Oh shit, you're Glenn O'Brien!" I show him my work, and he says, "This is fearless. The only other person who I have met who pulled out work from their pocket is Basquiat."
Then I meet his sisters and we go to a lenders' dinner and the person sitting next to me is Suzanne Mallouk (I had a picture of her and Basquiat on my wall for the longest time). I had two pieces in my pocket, one called Sad Boy and the other is a troubadour. I hand her Sad Boy and when she opens it her eyes start tearing up and she says this is exactly how Jean felt.
Later, she said, "Jean would have loved you. You talk about race the same way he does." I know how many young artists feel a connection with Basquiat, but I felt like we would have been home boys. And to have it validated and be accepted by his peers…
That's a crazy story.
I even left out some weirder parts because I don't want this woman to think I'm a kook! But my life works in this weird, serendipitous way. I spent so much of my career rushing, being, like, "I want to be the first. I want this. I want that." Now I am taking my time and enjoying it. It feels like I am living a dream.
Text Alice Newell-Hanson
Images courtesy Talwst