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Alicia Milne (Pinky) and Luis Vasquez (Emigrante) during their residency in the Netherlands. Photo courtesy Sasha Dees

Writer Henry Miller once said, “One’s destination is never a place but a new way of seeing things.” How much more, then, must travel mean to artists? To those who have the creativity to channel their experiences into something more tangible than snapshots; to transform them into something beautiful or controversial? Contemporary artist duo Pinky & Emigrante discovered the answer to this question—and many others—during their recent trip to the Netherlands, where they were artists in residence for two months, ending in August, at Open Ateliers Zuid Oost (OAZO) in Bijlmer, one of the neighbourhoods that form the south-east borough of Amsterdam. The trip was nearly two years in the making. In December 2011, Sasha Dees was invited as Curator in Residence at Alice Yard in Port-of-Spain. There, she talked about the OAZO gallery and its residency programme. Alicia Milne (Pinky) and Luis Vasquez (Emigrante), visual artists who had recently graduated from the University of the West Indies, applied and were selected for the programme.  

The pair originally adopted the monikers as part of a collaborative project they could have fun with. Under this artistic alias, they explored the concept of street art, bringing it into the local landscape via their geometrics and installations. “We wanted to increase the number of people who would encounter art,” explains Vasquez, whose “Emigrante” alter ego reflects his sense of estrangement both in Trinidad, where his mother is from, and Venezuela, where he was born. Milne chose the name “Pinky” as a way to explore the intricacies of social relations. “Being fair skinned and growing up in Arima made for some interesting names being hurled at me in the street,” she explains. By the time they got to Amsterdam, Pinky & Emigrante had become a brand in local art circles; the residency would give them the opportunity to increase both brand awareness and self-awareness. “It was great,” Pinky says of the experience. “We got to meet lots of practitioners and curators, saw a million different museums. When you’re studying art in the Caribbean, you’re looking at all these tiny pictures in textbooks, but there, we were seeing everything in real life!”

Emigrante chimes in, “I went with no expectations, but it was reassuring to see that the quality of work coming out of the Dutch art academies was on par with what comes out of UWI’s Visual Arts programme.  “The biggest difference was the level of support that the artists received from their schools—if someone needed eight projectors for an installation, for instance, they’d get it.
“But,” he adds, “the architecture, the organisation and the culture of how people live were all distinctive.” From the gallery’s perspective, Pinky & Emigrante were expected to produce work that related to the area in which they stayed. Bijlmer happened to be a vibrant immigrant community with people from the Dutch Caribbean, specifically Suriname, Aruba and Curaçao. It struck a chord, but before settling on a concept, the pair decided to absorb as much as they possibly could.  They were encouraged to travel and see great and new works of art, visiting Rotterdam, Berlin, Cologne, Paris, and even going to Venice during the city’s Biennale. “There was just so much art,” says Pinky, “some good and some not so good, but it was interesting to see the trends. As an artist, sometimes the best thing is to just see more work and get an idea of how contemporary art is evolving in each country—its scale, the materials being used and the ideas people are working with.

“For instance,” Emigrante adds, “art in T&T often deals with the idea of identity, but they’re grappling with the same thing in Europe. That idea is not just relegated to colonised countries, and when there are similar ideas, artists get a kind of validation. It suggests there’s something to investigate, that we’re not working in vain.” Back in residence, they couldn’t get the concept of identity out of their heads. They became interested in Dutch colonial history and started researching the national flags and coats of arms of the territories of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.
“They were full of European elements,” says Pinky. “We wanted to redesign them and replace those images with icons that were relevant to the islands. Then, we flipped the relationship in a playful way by incorporating them into a tourism product: we printed postcards and posters with images of the Dutch landscape but there’d be a new coat of arms and the text would read ‘Republic of Aruba’. We wanted people to wonder ‘What if the islands had done the colonising?’”

The pair went a step further with their idea, actually placing their art in the postcard racks of souvenir shops. At the open studio they hosted towards the end of their residency, Postcards from the New Republic really got conversations going. “We were concerned about offending people,” admits Emigrante. “We asked ourselves whether we really had ownership over the material—after all, we weren’t Dutch—but what came out of it was that a lot of Dutch people weren’t actually aware of the history.” The artists’ role, as they saw it, was not to take a position or make a statement about the issue, but simply to start a discussion. The art may only skim the surface of the greater questions in play but at least it provokes thought—which takes us back to that quotation by Henry Miller. Emigrante says of the whole experience, “It went by so fast, but every time I saw something so beautiful that I had to catch my breath, it triggered new ideas.  Sometimes when you’re in the same space, you think of the same things. Now, I can look at my own space with fresh eyes.”

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