Curtis ‘Talwst’ Santiago is a Trinidadian-Canadian mixed-media, multidisciplinary artist currently doing a residency at Pioneer Works, Brooklyn. He creates detailed diomaras, including real-life scenes of killings of African-Americans at the hands of the US police.

He mainly sets the miniatures and mini-dioramas in antique boxes and does collages as well as charcoal drawings. I caught up with him in his studio to find out more about his practice.

Execution of Michael Brown, 2014

Where are you from?

Originally I’m from Edmonton, Canada but I’ve been living in Toronto for the last seven years.

How did you end up in New York?

I decided to study. When I went to Paris I saw the work of Markus Lupertz and a sound went off in my head. I thought if you want to understand figure the way these people do you have to study.

I was in New York and I went to an exhibition in Chelsea and I saw this other artist, Bruce Gagnier and his work reminded me of Lupertz.

Two weeks later I ran up to see a friend in a building in Greenpoint and there’s these weird shapes in the window behind me. Then this guy comes out to put his garbage out. I ask him what the figures are and he told me it was his studio and those were his sculptures. I go in and realise it’s Bruce Gagnier.

I ask him if I could study with him privately and he said no, that he teaches at the New York Studio School but he could get me an appointment with the dean tomorrow. I went the next day and then decided I was going to come to New York and study there. That was in January. August was when I met him.

What’s a day in your life as an artist?

Right now at the moment as my career is gaining momentum it’s a lot of paperwork. I’m getting ready to hire someone. Right now I’m having a hard time trying to balance the making with all the administrative to push this further.

Can you describe some of your work?

This collage is a series of characters that were all related to or friends with an actual character, a man named St Maurice who appears in paintings and in the art book The Image of the Black in Western Art. I started to think about what his posse, his crew friends would look like. They’d be different Popes and different Saints.

For example there’s Pope Karim, named after a dancer and a guy who peddles objects near my school. He often sells me my art books. Then there’s Pope Jamal that started the whole series.

I just think of people I met on that day and I’ll just use them and project them onto that character. I’ll think about them when I’m making the piece; their distinct stylistic things I remember about their posture.

Would you say you’re a political artist?

No, I reflect what is visible in my world and affects me. Politics… just the word, is quite messy and abrasive. I’m speaking on timely things and the things that make me feel emotional and whatever makes me dig deeper.

It’s been seven years of working with dioramas. They’re like my meditation, I view them like Dutch prayer beads. It has nothing to do with prayer and everything to do with just zoning out. Letting the mind just wonder.

Have you ever worked in a larger scale?

I’ve done thick collage paintings but I move around so much. I’ve always just been really drawn to the detail of tiny things.

Do you feel any tension in moving in an art world that is particularly white?

I don’t because a lot of my friends who are people of colour are doing really well. They’re just killing it, making a lot of money and making work they want to make.

I have a friend from Canada who said ‘There’s a lot of attention towards artists from the diaspora’. I asked him why he thinks that is and he said ‘Frankly because they’re making the best art right now.’ It’s not a matter of just market trends it’s about the stories being told right now. It’s a good time. I hope it opens the door towards more diversity.

I’m not saying my path has been easy; it’s been challenging. But I feel my ideas are being received pretty well.

What are you up to next?

I have a solo show in November, looking at the Japanese erotic art of Shunga. I’m using couples who share their intimacy on Tumblr and having them stage classic Shunga paintings and recreating them.

Why Tumblr over Instagram?

Because Instagram has censors. Tumblr you can find… whoa.

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