An interview with Brendan Fernandes
Who am I? This is the question at the core of Brendan Fernandes’s work, whose video "Foe" is part of the exhibition “Found in Translation” at the Deutsche Guggenheim. As in many of his works, Fernandes once again investigates the role language plays in forming cultural identity. Fernandes was in Berlin for an Artist’s Talk, where Achim Drucks met with him for a conversation.
||Achim Drucks: Your biography and the different cultures you’ve lived in play an important role in your work. Would you mind talking about your background a bit?
Brendan Fernandes: My work deals with cultural identity based on the trajectory of my migration. I use these experiences to formulate questions about what home means to me, which also questions ideas of who I am. My family is Kenyan-born, but we are of Indian decent. The area that we come from is called Goa, a former Portuguese colony—hence my last name, Fernandes. In 1989 we emigrated from Kenya to Canada, and in 2006 I moved to New York to study. I’ve been there ever since. The process of my migration has led me to constantly question my hybridity and my own sense of multiple selves.
There is a Turkish saying: He who speaks one language is a human being. He who speaks two languages understands mankind. Why is language so central to your work?
Language is used universally. Even though it can be coded through ethnicity, we all have one that we use to communicate with, and communication is such an important tool. I’m interested in language as a tool to educate and as a tool to disseminate ideas. As an artist, that’s what I do. I work within a conceptual framework to create dialogues. In my work I operate within a visual code. I also have a dance background, and so I’m also interested in language through movement and other non-textual forms, such as the Morse code. It all comes down to a form of creating conversation, creating dialogue, asking questions, making people think.
And if you speak two or more languages you can ask different questions.
Yes, I think so, but it also enables one to ask more questions of a diverse group of people, it allows for more conversations. This privilege can enable you to speak with a richer and more complex verse. For example, things get lost in translation, but if you have the ability to communicate in many tongues, then one of them will give you a clearer and more direct way to articulate than the others.
When you move in different cultures, do you look at things from different perspectives?
Yes, for sure. I’ve gained new perspectives through all of my experiences traveling through different cultures. I’ve been challenged by the new context facing me, the unfamiliar experiences that are not a part of my everyday culture. That said, I always find ways to become comfortable within the new space that I am experiencing. I think I’m good at adapting.
Your video "Foe", currently on view at the Deutsche Guggenheim, is based on J.M. Coetzee’s novel of the same name, which retells Daniel Defoe’s 1719 classic, Robinson Crusoe
. What made you base a work on this book?
When I was thinking about this work, I did a lot of research beforehand. I knew I wanted to hire an acting coach to teach me to speak in the so-called accents of my cultural allegiances, but I did not know what to use as a text. I chose this book because I liked the strange relationship between Crusoe and Friday, but also because the story of Robinson Crusoe creates a dynamic between the civilized and the primitive. Robinson Crusoe as the civilized man finds a new life on a deserted island, where he befriends the primitive figure of Friday. In Coetzee’s book, there’s also a woman on the island and she questions why Friday does not speak. She assumes it’s because he’s a primitive and so she stereotypes him as an imbecile. I feel that this speaks to a colonialist sentiment. Friday does not speak because his tongue has been cut out in the book. Furthermore, the idea that Friday cannot speak because he has no tongue is disturbing, and I refer to that as a metaphor for the history of violence that occurred through colonialism. These are a few of the reasons why I chose this book to be a part of the work.
Watching you being continuously corrected by the speech coach has a comical side to it, at least for me. What role does this comical aspect play in the work?
A very important one. I work with quite serious issues, and so humor becomes a good tool for me to communicate with. When you watch me up on the screen, I look very vulnerable and silly while I try to form the sounds of the accents, and it becomes funny. I’m really struggling in the work. I can read my face, and I know what I’m thinking. I see the pure frustration in my wrinkled forehead. When I watch the videos, I laugh at myself too. When I show the piece at artist’s talks or lectures, I’m always a little embarrassed. The audience laughs, which breaks the barrier between the heavy-handed issues I’m dealing with and allows for a place of entry and understanding. Humor is a good way to bring people into the work.
In a review for "Found in Translation," I read that it’s not English that is the language of the world, but “Bad English”—a creolized version, so to speak, which also appears in your work "Neva There," a series of posters with nonsensical texts.
Neva There developed during a residency in Trinidad and Tobago. Before I got to the island I thought that language wouldn’t be a problem because it’s an English-speaking country. But it turned out to be an issue of sorts, because people spoke with a very heavy accent and used a lot of slang. In Trinidad I noticed hand-made signs in the city streets inviting people to gatherings and parties, but they didn’t make sense to me at first because of their use of broken English and slang. After spending more time on the island and becoming familiar with the native speech through my immersion in it, I began to understand the vernacular used in the signs. In Neva There, I took the philosophy of Rastafarianism and created slogans made up of broken English or Patois that mimicked the street signs, where I invited people to gather together to find freedom and emancipation, but in the work I didn’t give any direct indicators as to where to locate this place. The utopian idea in the work is undone because the location is unknown.
Africa is often present in your work, but you mostly use images or objects that stand for the exotic and a touristic view of the continent where you were born—like masks, lions, or zebra patterns. Why did you choose to work with these images?
When I was growing up in Kenya, my father worked in the tourism industry and so I spent a lot of time on safaris. When we left Kenya and came to Canada, I used to watch many documentary films about Africa, and it gave me a sense of nostalgia. Through the process of longing to return to Kenya, I questioned who I had become; why did I absorb Kenya through a medicated view of an African Safari as prescribed in documentary films? Furthermore, I questioned myself as a tourist. What have I become since leaving Kenya? “Africa” is still exoticized as a cultural monolith, the dark continent. The use of artifacts and masks became relevant because they’re also used by the souvenir industry. For instance, in New York you can buy these masks in Chinatown; I asked myself why—how have these objects become a stand-in for Africa and a New York souvenir all at the same time? I was also interested in how, throughout history, many artifacts were removed from Africa and placed in museum collections, but rarely do they have proper records of provenance attached to them. For me, by analogy, these objects are a metaphor for myself.
You also work a lot with boxes or containers—as a link between the places these artifacts come from and their new locations.
These boxes or containers are like a transitional home for me. When you move from one country to another, you always have things in boxes, it becomes a temporary home. And of course goods are shipped in containers as well.v
You also used them for your sculpture "Future (• • • - - - • • •) Perfect," which is constructed from shipping containers pulsing with lights that signal S.O.S.
The work was part of the festival Nuit Blanche in Toronto, 2008. The event only lasted 12 hours. When asked to participate, I was told that my installation would need to be built in a parking lot in an area called Liberty Village. I didn’t know where this site was, but later realized that it was an area that had been gentrified and renamed. I was interested in how gentrification cleans up an area, but also displaces communities. Through the piece, I made references to Moshe Safdie's utopian housing scheme "Habitat," produced for the 1967 Montreal Exposition. It was meant to be for all people, to break down codes of class, race, gender etc. But in the end it became a very expensive housing scheme due to labor costs. The utopian idea that propelled "Habitat" was destroyed by capital. In my work, I created a non-monumental sculpture that stood 40 feet high for 12 hours. It resembled the modular shape of "Habitat" and pulsated S.O.S. in Morse code signals into the cityscape. It was realized at the height of the economic crises in both the US and Canada and at a time when both these nations were holding elections. It was a precarious time in North America. The shipping container has many meanings—it ships goods or even, sometimes, people. In Canada we import far more than we export. So we have all these graveyards of shipping containers, almost like vacant cities of some kind. At one point the Canadian Olympic Committee wanted to build an Olympic Village for the games in Vancouver from these containers, but in the end it didn’t happen. Also, in Copenhagen and in Korea I’ve actually seen people living in constructions made of shipping containers. I like the idea that this object transcends the notion of home in many ways.
You have been on residencies in very different places like Prague, Karlsruhe, New York, Korea, and Trinidad. How did these places influence your work?
These residencies are very important for me. I am a restless person. I like to be in different places, where I put myself in different, challenging situations. I always have to find a way to negotiate and consider myself in these places. It’s always a challenge, but one that I’m up for. Through these experiences I always have the chance to meet amazing people and to have interesting conversations. I become influenced by the time I spend in these places, and the experiences become places to draw ideas from, which then become works of art.
And could Berlin be an inspiring place for you?
Definitely. I would like to move here someday soon. I like the resonance of what the city is; you can still feel the history of what it was. It’s a city in transition with a lot of newness and positive energy. I definitely would like to spend some more time in Berlin.