Masha van Vliet: You Don’t Play With the Saints: interview with Kevin Osepa
Monday, 20 July 2020
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[Translated from Dutch]

With the new program line ‘enhancement, healing and fertility’, Kunstfort bij Vijfhuizen presents itself as a space where ideas about alternative ways of living can be considered in a free, unlimited way, and how, with our knowledge of the past, we can treat each other and our environment. The group exhibition Plural Fertilities, which is on view in the Kunstfort in the summer of 2020, celebrates this new program line. Although the artworks in the exhibition differ greatly in material, atmosphere and story, the artists are all concerned with related issues: How do we become aware of our place in the world and the systems that construct it? In what kind of world do we want to raise next generations? And what, with respect to these questions, can we learn from nature, subjective realities, and rituals?

Kevin Osepa is one of the participating artists. In his video work Con Los Santos No Se Juega (2018), he investigates a specific childhood memory, which took place in Curaçao, where he was born and grew up. Osepa’s youth is strongly colored by the spiritual practices of Brua, an amalgamation of Catholic, African, and indigenous beliefs, which is still very much experienced in the Antilles, although in secret. In his fairytale-like work he gives a simultaneously loving and critical image of the Afro-Caribbean identity in a post-colonial world. He deals with themes such as spirituality, parenthood, masculinity, and sexuality. Editor of Kunstfort Journal, Masha van Vliet, interviewed him.

Where does the title of your work, Con Los Santos No Se Juega, translated as You don’t play with the saints refer too?

It is an old Spanish saying, originally from South America and the Spanish-speaking Caribbean islands. Curaçao is situated at the coast of Venezuela and has, therefore, many Spanish influences. My grandmother and mother often used this phrase as a warning. The title refers to Brua, a term used to describe the spiritual rituals that play an important role in Afro-Caribbean culture. The film is about a specific memory, which I combined with more conceptual images to complete the story. Brua has a very beautiful side. The rituals are there to protect you. Take, for example, the use of Laundry Bluing, initially produced to whiten your laundry. On Curaçao, babies and children are bathed in it to protect them from evil spirits. On the other hand, Brua can also harm you. Certain human characteristics or emotions are considered as something evil that must be eliminated.

Your interest in Brua arose when you moved to Utrecht to pursue a BA in Photography. Back in Curaçao, you also photographed a lot, but you made mostly portraits or more fashion inspired work. What triggered your fascination for Brua?

It was only in my last year at art academy that I started to research Brua. In the beginning I did not dare to make work about my background, especially after one of my teachers said that I had to completely let go my roots. He said it to encourage me to experiment and broaden my horizons, but his words had a big impact on me. It made me never want to investigate my origins or to make things related to the Antilles and my Afro-Caribbean identity. After this incident I started to make very dreamy fairytale like work. I was intrigued by mystical themes, UFO appearances, science fiction. In the third year of my studies Sarah Blokland became my teacher. She was very critical-analytical and encouraged me to investigate where my interest in the mystical came from.

When I started to study the Brua culture in the last year of the academy, it was a revelation for me, because this research brought a lot of things into place that I wondered about my identity and also about a collective Afro-Caribbean identity, which I didn’t really understand before. I see this as the starting point of my work as an artist, because I finally dared to admit that my desire for mystical subjects rooted in my childhood.

Why are these Brua rituals so important to you now?

The rituals were part of my upbringing, but they were always shrouded in secrecy. They played an important role in our daily lives, but they were never discussed. If I asked anything about why those rituals existed, I never got a straight answer. As a child you didn’t talk about it, but you were aware of it. To give an example: once in a while my aunt came to our house. She settled herself in a small room and the other women in my family went into her room one by one. As children, we were not allowed to enter because she smoked and that was bad for us, so we were told. In reality, she was probably reading tarot cards. I think that is why I only realized in the Netherlands, when those rituals suddenly ceased to exist, how important they were to me and how strongly they determined my identity. So my interest for these rituals is probably a consequence of my homesickness.

There is a reason for this secrecy surrounding Brua. In colonial times, everyone had to be Catholic. Other African religions were forbidden. As a result, a kind of hidden religion arose which was professed under the guise of Catholicism, but which was interspersed with all kinds of other rituals. Behind the statue of the Virgin Mary, there was an African goddess. These rituals always took place in secret, and to this day people do not dare to speak openly about it. I use these mysteries and symbols in my work and I notice that because of this indirect way of telling, people are more inclined to talk about it openly, without mentioning anything directly. For example, by taking Bluing and its protective powers as a starting point, you open up the conversation and from there you can also discuss the problematic side of Brua.

Nowadays, the Brua rituals are practiced mainly by the older generation. They are therefore becoming increasingly obsolete. I think that’s a shame. It is part of our identity and history, and by that I also mean Dutch history. Brua is a symbol of resistance. It was a way in which enslaved people communicated with each other. I think this heritage should be preserved. Through my work I hope to talk about it with my own generation. By showing it we will be able to understand each other better.

Do you also experience spirituality here in the Netherlands? 

I do not feel the spirituality in the Netherlands. It has something to do with the architecture and the landscape, and also the fact that the people around you also feel it. It is so permeated in everything; in the language, in the way you move and act, in the way you approach other people. Many people ask me whether I believe in the rituals or not, but actually that is not so important to me. It is the heritage of my ancestors that I try to preserve. What initially originated from homesickness, has grown into a more anthropological research, a way to preserve a history and make it tangible again.

When you were seventeen you came to Utrecht to study art and continued to live there. Do you still think you have an Afro-Caribbean identity? 

Every year about 300 students move from Curaçao to the Netherlands to study, because the courses offered by the universities in the Antilles are limited. After finishing their studies, many of them stay in the Netherlands, simply because the job opportunities and earnings are better. As a result, the movement of young people to the Netherlands is also part of that collective Afro-Caribbean identity. When I talk to other young Antilleans who moved to the Netherlands for education purposes, I notice that we are having the same conversations and that we have the same frame of reference. When I talk to them, for example, about the Bluing ritual, they’ll understand the meaning of it. When I first came to the Netherlands, I was very critical about the Antilles, but over time I realized that I can’t be too hard on Curaçao because there has been a disturbance in its history, which makes that things are changing in a different pace over there. I am still critical about Curaçao, but I don’t blame her either.

Can you give an example of what you are critical about?

When it comes to the acceptance of my sexual orientation, for example, I feel free and accepted in the Netherlands, but rejected in Curaçao. If it concerns the color of my skin however, it is the other way around. I’m struggling with that; I don’t feel completely at home in the Netherlands, but on Curaçao I can’t be myself either. The moment you leave and come here, you can feel endlessly misplaced.

Do you also express this criticism in your work?

I would say that my work is mildly critical. I touch upon the acceptance of my sexual orientation and skin color, so I can’t avoid taking a stand in this. But I always relate it to my own experiences. My work is very autobiographical. With my work, which looks beautiful and attractive, but also shows my pain and traumas, I try to seduce people to talk about the difficult themes I address. By mystifying themes I manage to start the conversations that I hoped to achieve with my work.

Women play an important role in your work. You depict them as powerful and protective characters. Why do you do that?

The stories I tell in my work come from women: my grandmother, my mother, my sister. They are the people who have always protected and cared for me. They are my main sources and that’s why I want to give these women a prominent place in my work. At one point in my film Archangel Michael appears, but in the figure of a woman. Many African gods are feminine. African gods and Christian saints are intertwined in Afro-Caribbean culture. I want to show that goddesses also play an important role and therefore I reverse male and female characters.

What projects lie ahead for you?

I just finished a new video installation for the Wereldmuseum in Rotterdam, for which I took objects from the collection of the museum as a starting point. The work follows the difficult journey of a boy to a sacred place on Curaçao, called Watamula. In the story I reflect on the role of religion, masculinity and gender perceptions. I see it as a love letter to Curaçao, but also as a way to open a conversation with my own island. I’m feeling a bit nervous about presenting the film; I do not want to confirm prejudices or criticize Curaçao, I merely want to give context to the difficulties that I experience when I’m there. Watamula will be shown at the Wereldmuseum in Rotterdam from September on, and the film has been selected for the Nederlands Film Festival Debut Competition.

I’m currently also working on a new film, commissioned by the Amsterdam Museum, entitled Kloof. Kloof is a street on the west side of the island, which is surrounded by a vault of trees. It is a very beautiful place, but also historically charged since a large slave revolt started there and a lot of blood was spilled. During my childhood many mythical stories existed about this place, which made a deep impression on me. The stories are illustrative of how a trauma is passed on from generation to generation. The work will be part of a presentation about the Golden Age in the Amsterdam Museum.

And recently I started taking pictures of my sister again. We often did this when I was still living in Curaçao and it is because of her that I became interested in photography. We are working on a portfolio, which we hope to get published in a fashion magazine. I feel at home in fashion photography. It is a nice change from my longer-term art projects.

Kevin Osepa, still from 'Con Los Santos No Se Juega', 2018.

Kevin Osepa, still from 'Con Los Santos No Se Juega', 2018.

Kevin Osepa, still from 'Con Los Santos No Se Juega', 2018.

Kevin Osepa, still from 'Con Los Santos No Se Juega', 2018.

Kevin Osepa, still from 'Con Los Santos No Se Juega', 2018.

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