Kwesi Abbensetts – Tending the garden of fragmented memories

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The name Kwesi Abbensetts is one that most social media savvy followers of contemporary Caribbean art and photography should be familiar with. In fact the works of the Guyanese-born overseas-based photographer and artist have been featured in a number of high profile

Kwesi Abbensetts, My Dreams Talk About A Place, from the series, Pieces of Land, From Where I Have Come, 2016. Mixed media, painting, and photography on canvas, 8 x 10 in. (Photo: Courtesy of the artist)
Kwesi Abbensetts, My Dreams Talk About A Place, from the series, Pieces of Land, From Where I Have Come, 2016. Mixed media, painting, and photography on canvas, 8 x 10 in. (Photo: Courtesy of the artist)

publications including Afropunk, The Fader, Format Magazine and ARC Magazine, to name a few.

In a recent interview we discussed some of the mixed media works he submitted to the now-concluded Un|Fixed Homeland exhibition at the Aljira Center for Contemporary Art in Newark, New Jersey; his (dis)connection with “homeland”; how he mines his personal archives in an attempt to piece together memories from his time in Guyana; his relationship with language and how it factors into the reading of his work.

DH: There’s a gap in the quality of production coming from creative practitioners here in Guyana and it’s something that I’ve spoken about before. It’s hard to find a significant number of young practitioners producing really dynamic works. Tell me about your experience as a creative person in the U.S., having been exposed to such a large and thriving creative community.

Kwesi Abbensetts, You Booked Your Passage, from the series, Pieces of Land, From Where I Have Come, 2016. Mixed media, painting, and photography on canvas, 8 x 10 in. (Photo: Courtesy of the artist)
Kwesi Abbensetts, You Booked Your Passage, from the series, Pieces of Land, From Where I Have Come, 2016. Mixed media, painting, and photography on canvas, 8 x 10 in. (Photo: Courtesy of the artist)

KA: In terms of works that you see in Guyana versus what we’re producing here I guess there’s a broader scope because we’re exposed to broader ideas. Experimentation is something I always try to do every day because I never want to repeat or imitate. We all imitate in a particular way but for me that’s not where I get my drive. At the same time I’m always seeking to move ahead of what I’ve done before. So I go back, look at the old work and I recontextualise it. Most of my work is really the process of creating material. That material then becomes an additive to further the work that is made by embellishing, adding or taking out. For me it’s always about trying to dissect and experiment.

“What can I create from my memory?” “What can I create from what I’ve lived?”

In a way I’ve been detached and the name Un|Fixed Homeland, feels that way. My connection in relation to Guyana feels that way. I’m from there. I was living there. I grew up there most of the time. But in terms of the connection now there is a detachment. I wanted to show that with the materials I used for example, rice, sugar and some photos I added from when I was last in Guyana. Those were juxtaposed with the painting on the canvas. So I don’t look at myself as merely a

Kwesi Abbensetts, I Am Losing Your Familiar, from the series, Pieces of Land, From Where I Have Come, 2016. Mixed media, painting, and photography on canvas, 8 x 10 in. (Photo: Courtesy of the artist)
Kwesi Abbensetts, I Am Losing Your Familiar, from the series, Pieces of Land, From Where I Have Come, 2016. Mixed media, painting, and photography on canvas, 8 x 10 in. (Photo: Courtesy of the artist)

photographer. I would say that I’m an image-maker. Beyond that I’m also an artist where I paint and do all of these extended things. But within the world as it is for me, I’m known mainly as a photographer because that’s the work I put out.

DH: Tell me about the titles of your works. I feel like they’re important because while they don’t necessarily direct the viewer in a fixed way, I do think they provide a lot of information to consider.

KA: I chose them to reflect Guyana. I chose them to reflect a certain sentimentality that I have and the memories they evoke. For example, there’s one called Rice and Stew and that’s a common thing that I grew up with, eating rice every day with stew. Once lunchtime came it was rice and stew, and dinner was the same kind of scenario. With the naming [of the works] I wanted to create a context of identification with Guyana. So if you were to look at the work and you encounter the name you would have to think about what that name means. What does it reference and why is it important? There’s also one I named No. 64 Village, which is where I grew up. In a way it’s distant but it’s also the place that gave me most of my foundation in my youth and [shaped] how I grew up in Guyana which is with what I would call “wild abandon.” So I try to make the naming [of the works] connecting points because as I said this is a patchwork of memory.

DH: Even before seeing your work and reading the titles I had a feeling that language was very important to you. I noticed on Instagram you would post a lot of really interesting words and phrases that most persons wouldn’t necessarily think to put together, and then really interesting things would start to happen.

KA: Language has been an interesting thing to me of recent because generally most people think language is fixed in a particular way, meaning you shouldn’t write this phrase this way or you shouldn’t put that punctuation there. But for me those things are extensions of my creativity. Here I am playing with language, meanings and references and I don’t want to do it in the usual way. When I do it and someone says, “He made a mistake” or “He did this wrong” or “He shouldn’t put it there,” it’s not really about that. It’s more about challenging people to say, “Can you do this?” “Can you create this using language in a free style?” It’s kind of like how we have Patois or what they call broken English. When you speak broken English it has its form and its foundation but [depending on] how it’s applied it creates a different form of language. For me language is about that.

DH: One of the things I noticed from observing your activity on social media is the fact that you’re very open about your process. Some artists are very shut off or they don’t like to share the mistakes or the experimentations or the trials and errors. But I feel like you’re very open about those things.

KA: I show everything because I want to show whoever wants to be an artist/photographer that there’s a process to this. Most times people do things in a way where they hide the process and just show the finished product and that’s fine. I don’t have a problem with that but I like to be able to say that there is a story. It’s like giving the reality and the illusion at the same time. The process is like the reality of it all. I’d just rather be able to go through that process to show people that this is how it was done and say, “These are the different stages that this image went through.” My work is like a garden and that’s what you’re basically seeing me doing, gardening. It’s liberating in a way and it allows me a certain type of transparency. I don’t have to hide behind the finished product. Once you’re a creative it doesn’t really stop. And why do we do it? Do we do it for our own selves or for people to experience our work?

Growing up in Guyana the idea of being an artist was never something that was talked about. It was never something that I thought existed. All of those things I discovered when I moved away. I had inklings and ideas of things that I wanted to experience and do but all those things came when I was here.

I would love to come to Guyana to do extensive photography work, recording, going all across Guyana and just photographing Guyana. Interestingly that’s a project I’m doing with Jamaica, which is a country I love. I love the way it looks, the people, the energy and even that aggression is special to me in a very interesting way. I’m doing this project in this island and I’m not doing it in Guyana and sometimes people question that. But I guess it will happen in its own time.