You graduated with a major in Graphic Design and a minor in Critical Studies. Did that contribute to your present identity as a designer?
Serana: My major gave me an orientation on the graphical field and provided references, while Critical Studies showed me that “thinking critically” is a study, and that it is also a driving force that can have positive influence on creativity. However, both studies had a Eurocentric outlook and afterwards I really regretted my choice for Critical Studies. In both courses, I was being directed very strongly. I noticed that I didn’t enjoy the same liberties as my white fellow students. Apart from the feedback I received, it also showed in the curriculum, which was mainly focused on white male heterosexual philosophers. I tried to distance myself from it, to find my own direction. As a result, I met with a lot of resistance from teachers. The work had to meet their Eurocentric standards and their world view. There was no space for me to explore my own fascinations, although I tried to take this space anyway. It led to a limitation of my creativity in various ways, like sowing doubt, undermining, and negative evaluations. Once you’ve finished the Academy, there are no more evaluations, no one to answer to anymore. For a long time after I left the Academy, the events there created shadows in my mind. It took me at least two years to get rid of them. In retrospect it was useful for my technical development, but I wasn’t free until after my studies.
After you finished your studies, was there a place that did define you?
S: The Black Archives, absolutely! I ended up there because I couldn’t find a decent job. For two years after my graduation, I did nothing but side-jobs and creating non-commissioned work 24/7. Someday, when Mitchell Esajas, the co-founder of The Black Archives, asked me how I was doing, I just told him things weren’t really working out: I couldn’t get a job, and I really needed to take a step that would get me closer to my passion. I wasn’t just talking about graphic design, but also about programming for example. And he said something like: well, we happen to have an opening at communications that might be just the thing for you. That’s how I ended up at The Black Archives. Eventually, my activities shifted from communications to what I’ve been trained to do, and I became a graphic designer there. That puts you on top of an incredible mountain of knowledge, I’m at a loss for words. Your right to exist just falls into your lap. In the context of my previous experiences, it energised me only more.
Did your experiences there give you a different view on design?
S: Certainly, yes, if only because there were several graphic designers involved with The Black Archives. To a certain extent you are being moulded, not just with regard to content, but aesthetically as well. I did have some moments of doubt. Who was shaping me? Was that something I should actually want? In this sense, I tried to redefine my own aesthetics.
Given that my work is pretty minimalist, how does it relate to the European, Dutch tradition? You would immediately think of Mondriaan, movements like De Stijl and Modernism – movements that arose in a colonial era and form a racist binary between what, in Europe, is considered as primitive – African – art, and modern – European – art. It’s not something I want to identify with as a Black creative with a similar aesthetic.
I researched the origins of modern, abstract art and where it was derived from. That’s how I discovered that the aesthetic has been inspired, among other sources, by the Congo. It has been documented in Colonialism and Abstract Art for instance, a book by Hank Willis Thomas. In the end, it allowed me to draw my own conclusions and give my own visual language a new direction. Additionally, I look at the role of graphic design in suppression, how they relate to one another. Then there’s the responsibility; as soon as I get a commission, I feel a strong responsibility to put a stop to toxic visual culture and racist perception. I can’t end it of course, but at least I can make sure I don’t reproduce it. I carry that with me anywhere I go, almost unconsciously in a sense. It’s exactly what I was able to perfect at The Black Archives, my understanding of how visual culture works.
What kind of themes are you using in your work right now? From where do you start and what inspires you?
S: For a long time it used to be Curaçao – and it actually still is. If you look at my autonomous work, it was always about Curaçao. At first it mainly addressed the unequal treatment of the local population compared to the Dutch people living there; tourism, degradation. Then it focused on the Dutch architecture on the island and how colonial architecture determined the landscape. The most recent work, Sinds 1634, is about the royal house. Now, I try to incorporate Curaçao more as an aesthetic, especially the liveliness and the energy I derive from it. The spirit that is your heritage if you are from there, or partly, in my case. To see how being in Curaçao revitalises your father, how it differs form the Netherlands in a wonderful way. I find it hard to explain, it contains a lot. A strong desire, I guess, which Is why it often comes up in my work. There is still so much left to discover because I never felt the freedom to explore.
You recently realised a new project at Hama Gallery, that allowed you complete freedom to make whatever you wanted. How did you handle that? What was the process like?
S: I actually found it very hard. The commission made me aware that my right to exist always depends on certain conditions. Upon reflection, I realised that the last time I showed my autonomous work anywhere, it had always had a theme; colonialism and inclusion. In that sense, you feel that you’re being limited again. This already happened at the academy, but it repeated itself with my autonomous work. So I thought: okay, apparently these are the conditions for me to exist. So when Nina Hama gave me that freedom, I really had no idea how to use it at first. I even asked her if there wasn’t any theme. As it turned out, I wasn’t the only one to ask this. You see, we, the three exhibitors, we’re all Black. We didn’t know any better, and to suddenly be given this freedom to do whatever you want, was very awkward. Not pleasant at all at first; it’s only after you get over that initial discomfort that you realise how much has been taken away from you. Now I am incredibly happy to have gone through that process, and I never want to go back again.
How did you get started?
S: I came up with my own theme of course: my queerness, my relationship. The fact that I never had any examples to measure myself against. It took me a long time before I became aware of it; I wished I had had this awareness earlier. Popular culture teaches you the ‘norm’, that is where the project originates. You have Absent Examples, that what’s missing, and you have Empty Abundance, about what’s present.
And how did the design come about?
S: At first sight, it looks very cheerful, decorative and flamboyant. But that’s also because I’ve appropriated those two elements, they are like mottos. Everyone is free to interpret them differently, everyone has their own abundance of emptiness, their own absent role models. It counts for everyone, so it is self-explanatory as well. It might be a matter of compensating or thriving despite everything.
The design was very free, an experiment. In a way, that’s a different track altogether; I want to develop myself artistically. All I want is to experiment, to find something new, that opens yet another door. When that happens, I completely go for it. I started playing, and intuitively created patterns along the way.