Installation view Kevin Osepa, ‘Klof: Bario di Spiritu’ (2021), Stroom Den Haag, Photo: Franz Mueller Schmidt. All rights reserved by Hartwig Art Foundation.

Kevin Osepa - Klof: Bario di Spiritu

Issue no2
April - May 2022
countryside & biennale guide

Talking to Kevin Osepa about Klof: Bario di Spiritu his most recent installation at Stroom in The Hague. The second part will be presented at Breda Photo next Summer.

To those unaware of the subject, Klof: Bario di Spiritu, the video installation by Kevin Osepa (1994) at Stroom in Den Haag may appear as enchanting. Reflecting on developing his exhibition the space Osepa relays: ‘for me Stroom was a place that I wanted to enchant, to really bring what it feels like growing up on Curaçao into the space here in this context.’ The audience is invited into Osepa’s world through an immersive, multimedia installation that acts as a portal to Klof, a haunted overgrown 300-metre-long road in Curaçao, an island in the Caribbean, and where Osepa was born and raised.

At Klof, trees grow along the edges of the road and meet overhead forming a dark green tunnel. The trees are not only thick as vegetation, but equally with spirits and ghost stories that brew beneath the leafage, whispering in the wind, reminding visitors of sinister histories embedded in the earth. Stories and folklore are widely known in Curaçao but not openly discussed. Osepa recalls to me that his grandmother would him away into her bedroom to whisper stories to him in hushed tones. ‘Growing up with such stories compelled me to start to question their origin, inevitably uncovering their roots in colonial pain and trauma.’ It now is one of the re-occurring themes that he investigates working with photography, film, installation, and performance.

Klof, similarly to other sites and their specific significances, forms a regular source of both inspiration and comfort for Osepa as places where he likes to feel ‘the energy’ of the location – examining, reflecting and commenting on it within the context of the gallery. Considering the role site-specificity plays in his work Osepa explains: ‘I like to go to places where there is a certain energy or a certain history to create work, just be in touch, which is also performative and magic that I crave.’ When considering outcomes of this process Osepa comments: ‘Questions that arise are often around the representation of stories from my own upbringing and what role colonialism played in forming those stories’. Bringing Klof ‘into being’, Osepa recreated the magic embedded at Klof at Stroom, while calling into question the origins of ghostly stories, untold histories and the voices suppressed there.

Installation view Kevin Osepa, ‘Klof: Bario di Spiritu’ (2021), Stroom Den Haag, Photo: Franz Mueller Schmidt. All rights reserved by Hartwig Art Foundation.

Installation view Kevin Osepa, ‘Klof: Bario di Spiritu’ (2021), Stroom Den Haag, Photo: Franz Mueller Schmidt. All rights reserved by Hartwig Art Foundation.

In entering the galleries at Stroom the viewer immerses into a space of film, sound and light, with projections not only lining walls, but equally the ceiling, depicting dual dialogues from the view of the winding road of Klof to the blue sky, at times slightly hidden by trees. The films play on loops, the winding tunnel of road and trees at Klof, ever present. In one corner a projection moves through different images where a narrator tells a story to the audience regarding the spirits. Suddenly, halfway through, the lights in the room flicker on and off – red and white – reminding the viewer there is a larger and fugitive presence in the room. The narrator shares with the audience the feeling that no one can lift this malediction to the colonised indigenous people. Ambient sound and ‘ghost music’ is played on a brenta coinciding with the stories unfolding in the projections on the wall, as language is also significant to Osepa’s installation, occurring in text and narration, in multiple tongues and through visual clues. The wall text in the room is translated into three languages: Papiamentu, English and Dutch.

Klof: Bario di Spiritu acts as an intersection between dual narratives. Klof is an example of a place where the lands of indigenous peoples, informed by a violent colonial past, have in turn given rise to history of aural narratives and stories of the local people. These stories stem from traumas that continue to reverberate but that nevertheless pose the question: how can we introduce, and have those conversations? Osepa says he was interested in why this particular place had such strong negative connotations manifested and shared amongst the local people in the form of ghost stories.

Installation view Kevin Osepa, ‘Klof: Bario di Spiritu’ (2021), Stroom Den Haag, Photo: Franz Mueller Schmidt. All rights reserved by Hartwig Art Foundation.

Installation view Kevin Osepa, ‘Klof: Bario di Spiritu’ (2021), Stroom Den Haag, Photo: Franz Mueller Schmidt. All rights reserved by Hartwig Art Foundation.

Working together with anthropologist Richinel Asano, it became clear that this particular location on the island, Klof, stood witness to many atrocities. Osepa recalls the information their research uncovered: ‘On that particular spot lived a group of indigenous people and when the Spanish came they were murdered, moved away or transported to Spain, years later, enslaved Africans hid there during the revolt of 1795 but they were found and killed on that specific site. Now, in what I like to call ‘the contemporary layer’ there are a lot of car accidents on this very spot where people lose their lives – it’s a very slippery road and so dangerous to drive on’. Osepa reflects on these histories: ‘I’m really interested in all these sorts of layers [of history] on top of each other.’

This sense of a layering of narratives come through multiple vantages in Osepa’s work where nothing is as it seems, as motifs reoccur as reminders for the viewer to call into question their ideas of history, offering an alternative perspective, but also acting for Osepa, as geographical signposts for Curaçao. One of these motifs is an ultramarine-coloured laundry detergent called Reckitt’s blue which comes in a black and was popular in the 1950s and 60s. This everyday household item has transformed in function and come to have spiritual value to the people of Curaçao, used to award protection. Osepa considers the symbolic significance of Rekett’s blue in his work: ‘I find this laundry detergent very interesting because economically today, they still use it, but a lot of people from South America and also from the Caribbean use it for rituals and not necessarily to wash clothes, it strikes me as sort of a power, that these sub-communities have, reclaiming something and making it their own, I also see it as a mode of communication.’ Osepa refers to this both physically in the space at Stroom, as well as in video, as Blue coats the walls of a small doorway in the room, anointing the room with good luck. When looking through this small doorway to the other side, the viewer can both be reminded of the richness of its colour and its presence but also the winding roads of Klof simultaneously projected in the background. The rich blue also reoccurs painted on the face and body of a woman who moves and dances around next to a dark mass slowly growing beside her; she seems to accept it and is at peace with its presence.

In Osepa’s ‘world’ and collaboration, the public is invited into the narrative as well having to move throughout the space and through performances

Performance Night ‘Klof: Bario di Spiritu’, At Stroom Den Haag, The Hague, 26 November 2021, photography mezadericardo, courtesy Stroom Den Haag

Performance Night ‘Klof: Bario di Spiritu’, At Stroom Den Haag, The Hague, 26 November 2021, photography mezadericardo, courtesy Stroom Den Haag

Performance Night ‘Klof: Bario di Spiritu’, At Stroom Den Haag, The Hague, 26 November 2021, photography mezadericardo, courtesy Stroom Den Haag

Performance Night ‘Klof: Bario di Spiritu’, At Stroom Den Haag, The Hague, 26 November 2021, photography mezadericardo, courtesy Stroom Den Haag

Another reoccurring motif present are the small white snail shells called Cerion uva. The Cerion uva appear as projections on a screen as sand blows over them, the shells remaining firmly fixed to the ground, quietly existing, experiencing the unfolding of time. In this, a voice narrates their story of Klof, communicating to the viewer why the spirits at Klof will always remain: ‘no one can lift this curse, the curse of the indigenous can’t be lifted …. the indigenous will never lift the curse because they know the suffering their friends went through.’ These snails originate and can only be found in Aruba, Bonnaire and Curaçao and so for Osepa they remind him of that particular location. He states: ‘I see them as a silent witness of everything that has happened in these spaces, so they are the only living being[s] that can tell us these stories, they embody the soul of this pain. Bringing them in to image for me is like pin-pointing a geographic location – and that is Curaçao.’ Over time these snails become fossilised, fixed to the spot in clusters and found on lower ground in high quantities, around places that have hauntings, like Klof.

Klof: Bario di Spiritu gives form to a feeling around ‘sense of place’, conjuring a spiritual place while playing with the tension of it – on the one hand, the familiarity of those stories, and the magic, but equally questions about their origins in post-colonial trauma. By exhibiting this work in a Dutch context Osepa juxtaposes a very different space within the gallery and society, as a space that is comforting and familiar to him while trying to balance out dominant narratives often that are portrayed around colonialism. Osepa feels that this is what he wants to try to do as an artist: ‘I want to just infiltrate the conversation, to show one side, then just let it be’ to portray his narrative, but also: ‘narratives that are often hidden or not necessarily being told’.

However, the capacity to represent collective identity can have limits, Osepa reflects: ‘I wanted to create a that there are multiple ways of looking at it and I think that’s what adding performances also does.’ So, during Klof: Bario di Spiritu, supported by Stroom, Osepa decided to collaborate with performance artist Eugenie Boon, as well as writer and artist Travis A. G. Geertruida, and sculptor and poet Guenn Ramon Gustina. Together the artists shaped an evening of dynamic performances in accompaniment to Osepa’s exhibition, with Eugenie Boon acting as creative director, further broadening the conversation. This intervention in the gallery space at Stroom engaged the local public, further embedding Osepa’s work locally in the Hague, while tapping into Stroom’s ambitions to act as a platform where exhibitions can be engaged in an active way. All three collaborating artists have strong relationships to Curaçao and tap into similar themes to Osepa in their work, notably around ritual, religion, absence in domestic life and the tensions of a diasporic identity. Each of the performances was repeated throughout the evening simultaneously and on loop, activating the exhibition space and inviting the viewer to consider their own body in relation to the space and the various narratives presented. Although Osepa’s installation was turned off for the duration, strong elements of the performances, although disparate, personal and unique, clearly connect to particular elements of Osepa’s work forming a network of collective identities. Motifs occurring during the performances included: ritual and renewal, dance, dual identity and narrative and a sense of a hidden voice or dialogue as well as the idea of the ‘cycle,’ presenting relationships to ideas to do with non-linear time formations. By coordinating this collective evening these artists communicate the importance of the collective, and that there cannot and will never be one cohesive experience, even if there are extensive similarities between each of the individuals. In Osepa’s ‘world’ and collaboration, the public is invited into the narrative as well having to move throughout the space and through performances.

Not only is collective difference important to the notion of shared and inherited trauma, but also when considering the potential for healing via a site like Klof with its historical layers of violence and how this might become part of a contemporary moment and narrative. Osepa thinks around the idea of how the site might be able to be freed: ‘I think about it a lot how can this place cause so much pain, hurt and suffering and how do we free this place?’ As he moves forward, he will explore this potential in the second chapter of this work to be presented at BredaPhoto in September 2022. Osepa reflects on his own question by considering whether places like Klof can ever be freed from pain: ‘I think it might be a desperate attempt, something which fails, because you can never fully do that, … [but] … maybe we need this as a reminder.’

The tension in Osepa’s work embodies notions of cyclic tensions, always in motion, moving back and forth between history and the contemporary moment, Curaçao and the Netherlands, paralleling the way that old traumas reverberate. The key for now remains in representation, counterbalancing the traditionally one-sided colonial narratives in the Netherlands, and other countries to open up spaces for conversation whilst recognising the fact that the past cannot be undone.

Klof: Bario di Spiritu was on show at Stroom Den Haag from the 16th of October until the 5th of December 2021 funded and supported by the Hartwig Art Production and Collection fund in their inaugural year. Kevin Osepa was one of fifteen artists democratically chosen by a large coalition of curators for the fund’s ‘special-project 2020-2021.’ The resulting installation will be donated after the exhibition to the ‘Rijkscollectie’ a growing collection of artworks owned by the Dutch state. The second instalment of Klof: Bario di Spiritu will be presented at BredaPhoto in 2022 supported and funded by Forhanna and BredaPhoto.

Alyxandra Westwood
is an artist, writer and curator and is based between Utrecht and Melbourne

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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 2 — 2022