Article | Jul 2010
Conversation with Brendan Fernandes (New York, US)
By Johan Lundh
Born in Kenya of Indian heritage, Brendan Fernandes immigrated to Canada in the 1990s. After studying Fine Art York University in Toronto, and University of Western Ontario in London, Canada, he went on to attend the Whitney Independent Study Program in New York. Fernandes’ practice examines the concept of authenticity as an ideological construct that both dominant and subordinate cultures use to their own ends. According to Fernandes, authenticity is a notion that shapes cultural experience, and thus also shapes concepts and formation of identity. The conversation between Brendan Fernandes and Johan Lundh took place in New York City in June 2010.
Johan Lundh: I want to begin this conversation by asking you about your background. Born in Kenya of Indian heritage, you immigrated to Canada in the 1990s. Would you mind shedding some light on this?
Brendan Fernandes: I have a bit of a hodgepodge background. My family is of Indian decent from an area that was colonized by the Portuguese. Goa was a colony of Portugal then it later came under British rule. The British persuaded Indians to migrate to Kenya, to work on the railroads. A lot of Goan’s went there with the promise of a new life and better prospects. In 1962, Goa was given back to India. I only know of my Indian history through an oral account, having never been to the country. Even my parents and my grandparents grew up in Kenya, so we have been African Goans for generations. There is also an interesting connection to the Catholic faith via Portugal. When the Portuguese colonized Goa, Goans were made to convert to Christianity. Goa to date has the largest concentration of Catholic’s in India. My last name, for example, Fernandes, came from the Portuguese priest who converted one of my ancestors. Fernandes is one of the most common names within the Goan community. There is a Catholic tradition of naming childen after a saints, so I’m named after Saint Brendan. People that only know me by name are usually quite surprised when they first meet me.
Johan Lundh: Yes, we are conditioned to think that there is a somewhat apparent connection between ones background and name. In your case is this relationship obscured by colonialism and migration. Furthermore, your practice mostly addresses your African background. I am drawn to some work in which you complicate your identity even further. In 2008, you made a piece that attempts to capture your multi-layered background, Foe. The work features video footage of you receiving lessons from an acting coach hired to teach you the "accents" of your cultural backgrounds. Would you mind talking a bit about that?
Brendan Fernandes: When I speak of Africa in my work, I do so through lived experience. Since I moved to Canada, I also look back at my life in Kenya with nostalgia. That's what has drawn me to things like nature documentaries or mass-produced masks, which both represent and signify how Africa is portrayed within the Western hemisphere. Masks, for example, have a duality as artifacts and souvenirs in the West. This has impacted me too, living in North America for most of my life. When I think of Kenya now, I don’t imagine my everyday life but seeing animals on Safari’s, i.e. the perpetuated narratives of Africa within a Western cultural construct. I have lived most of my life in Canada, where I had to negotiate my background and try to take on a new identity. As a consequence, I left things behind. For example, I used to speak Swahili fluently and now I don’t.
When we talk about “Africa” its always portrayed as this cultural monolith, when its is in fact a extremely complex continent. It is still represented as the primitive and the exotic in the West. When we look at things like the mask venders selling things outside of MoMA or in Chinatown here in New York, those objects are still seen as primitive. What interests me is how these things function here, they still exist as African objects but are also as commodities, which can obtain new meanings. By analogy, it makes me think about myself. Have I lost some of my Canadian identity and am I further away form my Kenyan heritage now that I live in America? This must be true if you, like myself, believe that identity is in a constant state of flux.
Johan Lundh: I agree with you that Africa mostly is seen as a monolith which of course is troubling. Conversely, I wonder what kind of specificity you give to the “African masks” that feature in your work? How have they come to symbolize “Africa” as a whole in your practice?
Brendan Fernandes: I don't give them specificity in my work, I allow then to function in their hybrid state, being one thing and then another. In some installations I have asked people to give me there "African" object to be included in a work, I get many different things, from souvenir masks to animal trophy heads. I then mixed them with objects from museum collections. I am not interested in the authenticity of the objects but in what they come to signify as being “African”. I use them a cultural tropes, signifiers place holders that claim a place and space. Through the use of the stereotype I am trying to create critic.
Johan Lundh: There appears to be a slight difference between America and Canada in this regard. While most American’s have left their origin behind to a certain degree, are Canadian’s more eager to keep a double identity.
Brendan Fernandes: Yes, just like my parents identified themselves as Goans in Kenya, they perceive themselves as Goans in Canada. Officially, Canada is presented as a melting pot but in reality it can be quite community based. This type of segregation also exited in Kenya because this was the way the British governed their colonies: they divided up the population so it would be easier to control them. My parents went to a school for Goan’s only, which led to an isolated and homogenic community. In the 1990’s, there was a mass exodus from Kenya and whole communities ended up in Toronto. English was my first language and so I did not have an issue when moving to Canada. In Kenya you had to be able to speak Swahili and so I was bilingual, since being in Canada I have not used the language and have now forgotten it. The Goan language is a dialect called Konkan, I do not speak it. I don't think it is really spoken within the Diaspora. My parents never spoke it and I think my grandparents only spoke a little of it. Most of the Goan community in Nairobi in the early 90's began to immigrate and chose to either move to Australia or Canada, as the country was going through unstable political times. My family obviously moved to Canada!
Johan Lundh: I want to shift back to talk about your art practice again. Over the last few years, you have participated in artist residencies in Denmark, Korea, Trinidad and Tobago, and US. How has residencies and travel shaped your work?
Brendan Fernandes: I would have to say that being able to travel and participating in international residencies has given me the opportunity to immerse myself into new cultures where I learn and experience from the place and its people. I gain a lot from these opportunities, one being that through the process of being displaced I eventually gain a sense of belonging where I am able to maneuver and interact within the space. I am always influenced by the countries I visit as they allow me to reflect on my own sense of self. I always research into the socio political aspect of the place I am in. New ideas and investigation always come from these types of experiences, and they continue to influence my work even after the residence has occurred.
Johan Lundh: Finally, you are currently working on your largest solo-exhibitions to date. Could you talk about the one at Art Gallery of Hamilton in Canada, until we fearless, and Art in General in the US, tentatively titled Africa Shop?
Brendan Fernandes: My show until we fearless is my first museum solo and it features a new body of work that deals with the constructed narrative of "Africa" through language at the Art Gallery of Hamilton. I am using Dadaist poetry to create nonsensical rants that are spoken through the veil of an Africa mask. The wording plays on ideas of colonial histories and comprehension is challenged and possibly understood through chance. The show is currently up and runs until October 3rd. I am currently researching and producing work for an upcoming solo at Art in General in New York, scheduled for December 2010. For this show I am looking at the site of Canal Street as a place where African objects are sold as New York Souvenirs, again I am looking at the notion of provenance that does not exist for these objects. The work will culminate in a sound, animation installation.
Images: Courtesy of the artist and Diaz Contemporary, Toronto, Canada.