Jon Euwema: Creole Tangentleman

By David Knight Jr. Sunday, June 14th, 2015 Categories: Features, Updates

David Knight Jr. explores the wild, tangential world of St. Thomian artist and designer Jon Euwema’s imagination. Bringing attention to issues in the Caribbean that are perpetuated both from outside and within the region, Euwema’s multimedia pieces cast a critical gaze on topics such as migration in the American Caribbean, Creole identity in the U.S. Virgin Islands, racial divides, regional economics and more.

Jon Euwema. Image courtesy of the artist.

Jon Euwema. Image courtesy of the artist.

Inside St. Thomas designer Jon Euwema‘s home studio overlooking Charlotte Amalie, carefully-rendered pen and ink sketches for contracted projects are tacked to the wall near his work station; their lines are precise, methodical, clean. They make a striking counter-argument to another, more unhinged set of blueprints that has gradually been taking shape on the same wall. These are plans for an art piece, part info-graphic/part interactive multimedia installation, Euwema tells me.

Parsing the dense tangle of lines, words and symbols that make up this strange diagram, which Euwema has dubbed The U.S. Virgins: Islands of Green Gold, is a bewildering experience. A .45 caliber pistol, a hypodermic needle, a flying saucer; ethnic slurs, syncretic religions, the dates of political disturbances in the Caribbean basin: all of these are present around a spiraling arrow labeled “cycles of abuse.”

Jon Euwema, The U.S. Virgins: Islands of Green Gold. Image courtesy of the artist.

“The U.S. Virgins: Islands of Green Gold.” Jon Euwema. Image courtesy of the artist.

So are phrases that Euwema himself has coined, such as “conduit zones,” “consolation networks” and “rastazation.” Nearby, a series of caricatures of grotesque looking figures has been tacked up next to a questionnaire from the late 1960′s (immediately prior to the mass-deportation of immigrants from the U.S.V.I. in 1971) with questions like “Do you think the U.S. Virgin Islands should have greater self-determination?” and “What is the best way that people can settle political differences?”

If you guessed that all of this amounts to a cutting piece of social commentary about the U.S. Virgin Islands’ status as a regional (and global) immigration hub, you’d be right, although Euwema is not the type to address a charged political issue without a wink. Clearly, Euwema isn’t interested in meaningless platitudes about the benefits of diversity in the Caribbean. But he isn’t a moralist intending to make a somber point about the mistreatment of migrant workers in the U.S. Virgin Islands, or the perceived loss of an authentically native culture in the unincorporated American territory either.

Euwema describes himself as a “tangentleman,” another term he says he has coined. As I watch his latest piece develop over the course of a few weeks, I begin to understand the reasons for this self-definition. His process is intensely digressive, even for an artist; each time I speak to him new elements have been added to his Islands of Green Gold project, new threads of association are being followed.

Outside the confines of client-based design and architecture work, Euwema allows a sort of “bahn heh” irreverence and his manic sense of humor to guide his creative process. Cartoons, island colloquialisms, drugs and tongue-in-cheek primitivisms are common reference points. His frequent use of children’s toys – matchbox cars, plastic army men – in his assemblages suggests that he wants it to be clear to his viewers that, when it comes to creating art, he is very much at play.

Painting by Jon Euwema. Image courtesy of the artist.

Painting by Jon Euwema. Image courtesy of the artist.

“I’m having fun,” says Euwema. “My whole life I’ve been ostracized for having fun from within this kind of conservative, pious community. So the humor element is maybe a little jab back at that.”

But amidst all the “just joking, I’m not joking” jabs (for instance, in Islands of Green Gold Euwema lists syncretic religions practiced in the V.I. as Obeah, Voodoo, and Wifi), Euwema’s artwork often touches upon provocative social truths.

As Islands of Green Gold develops into its final form, its orientation towards social criticism becomes clearer. Threads of twine connect the U.S.V.I to various other global locations and peoples; some threads with frayed edges hang off the piece, symbolizing connections yet to be made. One thread leads to a tin can containing a small Bluetooth speaker playing “foreign” music that is popular in the V.I. – soca, hip-hop, reggaeton, etc. Euwema is also able to call up the speaker from his cell phone to talk to the art viewer.

"The U.S. Virgins: Islands of Green Gold." John Euwema. Image courtesy of the artist,

Jon Euwema, The U.S. Virgins: Islands of Green Gold. Image courtesy of the artist.

Little toy construction workers, police officers and soldiers have also been incorporated into the piece, miniature ghosts of the years referred to in the Virgin Islands as “the development decades.” A faucet juts out from the place on the diagram that represents the U.S.V.I., a hummingbird probing for its nectar. An antique agricultural tool belonging to a deported friend from Anguilla hangs off the bottom of the piece.

“Hopefully this will create meaningful dialogue, from understanding the socio-economic drivers that force inter-Caribbean migration, to the pull of “The American Dream” which is transforming before our eyes as well. Hopefully some dialogue about the byproducts of people movements – everything from drug smuggling to cultural influences,” says Euwema.

Whatever these migratory byproducts may be, Euwema is undeniably exploring them from within, a challenge in a society that struggles to find consensus regarding its identity. Aside from his own Afro-European “mangrove” genealogy, which stretches back seven generations in the Virgin Islands on his mother’s side, Euwema’s father is himself an immigrant to the territory, a Dutchman who moved to St. Thomas in the 1950′s.

To ask Euwema about his local artistic influences, in fact, is to inquire into his family tree. The Kean family, Euwema’s mother’s extended Virgin Islands clan, is so saturated with artists that one local curator recently floated the idea of doing an “All Kean” gallery exhibition.

“Probably four or five of the seven generations of my family in the Virgin Islands have been involved in the visual arts, music or education. I was lucky to have gotten a kind of creative mentoring from my family in everything from painting to carnival costume design to culinary arts.”

Euwema suggests that to talk about a contemporary U.S. Virgin Islands identity is to “become sort of stunned,” which often leads to a denial of the islands’ complexities.

"Evolutionary Purgatory: Archaeology of Self." Jon Euwema. Image courtesy of the artist.

Jon Euwema, Evolutionary Purgatory: Archaeology of Self. Image courtesy of the artist.

“We turn our back on the Creole identity. We don’t use it. We look towards big brother America who’s totally screwed up the region with the wrong sensibilities,” says Euwema.

“The Virgin Islands really are the zenith of creoleness. We have all kinds of Caribbean influences from all over the region here. But it’s kind of acting the ass to try to promote and create an identity in a time when we [Native Virgin Islanders] are becoming a minority in our own home.”

Perhaps this ambivalence is why Euwema, outside of circles versed in theories of Caribbean creolization, prefers to describe himself with the word “ethnic,” by which he says he means simply a person of the world, with mixed cultural heritage.

Euwema says he has traveled the world looking for cultural connections, leading him to embark on adventures across 75 countries in everything from drumming in Africa, to making assemblages in Southeast Asia. “Tangentleman” indeed.

There is frustration in these travels into the wider cultural marketplace of globalization for Virgin Islanders too, and Euwema is quick to bemoan the lack of an art museum or permanent collection in the Virgin Islands and the hollow commercial tourism product that is often sold in the territory. Euwema says that it is countries that “truly live and breathe a vernacular artistic tradition and are able to express it globally” that he most admires, citing Morocco, Mexico and Thailand as examples.

“The Caribbean in many ways is the center of the world, but the visitor doesn’t really interact with that, and that’s our fault,” he says.

“We don’t have a cultural tourism model in the Virgin Islands. We live in a kind of tourism industry that becomes a rough industry to operate in. It can kill the vernacular. It can kill the environment. It can even even kill the tourist. But what is certain is that it neuters culture. “

"Calypso." Jon Euwema. Image courtesy of the artist.

Jon Euwema, Calypso. Image courtesy of the artist.

If it isn’t already obvious, one thing that distinguishes Euwema in the U.S. Virgin Islands art scene, often oriented towards conservative, pseudo-nationalist representations of culture, is that his “tangents” frequently lead him in critical directions, which sometimes gets him “the raised eyebrow.”

“We’re a small community. We’re a traditional community. And criticism coming from within our own ranks is often not taken well. People often say ‘oh, well that’s negative,’ which is the easy way out of dealing with criticism.”

In one piece for a recent group exhibition on St. Thomas called Defend Paradise: Intersections Between Social Change and Environmental Advocacy, Euwema tackled racial segregation and prejudice on the island, among other difficult issues, in a piece with the provocative name White Trash, Black Garbage.

"White Trash, Black Garbage." Jon Euwema. Image courtesy of the artist.

Jon Euwema, White Trash, Black Garbage. Image courtesy of the artist.

Inside an acrylic box with red and white “caution” tape, Euwema framed a hostile battle between white and black trash bags colliding with each other. On one side he wrote the vernacular “easend” for “East End,” a region of St. Thomas known for boating, bars, and gated condominiums. On the other side he wrote “duntown” for “downtown” (with the double meaning “done town”), the economically-stagnating capitol of the Virgin Islands, whose streets are filled with historic buildings undergoing demolition by neglect and the sounds of gunshots that Euwema says frequently wake him up at night.

In another piece for the same exhibition, Euwema used ski-masks, “tourist propaganda” images, sand, and dimebags to create an installation titled Eco Terrorists. Euwema says he wanted to address what he calls “a kind of wanton grab at our environment, about 50 percent by outside developers, about 50 percent by our own government.”

Eco Terrorists. Jon Euwema. Image courtesy of Steve Rockstein.

Jon Euwema, Eco Terrorists. Image courtesy of Steve Rockstein.

Increasingly, Euwema says he wants his work to reach out and engage audiences beyond the Virgin Islands, multimedia work that maintains a playful but critical eye on the contemporary Caribbean. At a recent annual U.S.V.I. community show entitled Caribbean Colours, which centers around a different color and theme each year and is often dominated by painterly rather than concept-driven pieces, the contrarian Euwema decided to indulge in theory.

The result was Dreams are Closer Than You Think, partly a commentary on the thaw in relations between Cuba and the United States. Euwema hung a jerry-built appliance made of mirrors, dollar bills and rabbit ear antennaes on a local gallery wall. Beneath it he constructed a makeshift Santeria altar complete with a burning candle and torn up American bills gathered in a silver collection plate.

"Dreams are Closer than You Think." Jon Euwema. Image courtesy of Don Hebert.

Jon Euwema, Dreams are Closer than You Think. Image courtesy of Don Hebert.

At a time when much of the art world sees critical work from artists at its margins as grave and self-regarding (just look at the divided coverage of the 2015 Venice Biennale), Euwema’s attraction to one-liners and put-ons can be read as a mockery of art as a tool for social change. Or perhaps it’s just a hard-won realization that humor is an appropriate form of rebellion from within the turbulence and disorder of modern creolization in the American Caribbean.

“There are upsetting themes sometimes,” Euwema says about making critical art in the Virgin Islands. “Upsetting processes sometimes. I’ve been trying to dial in ‘the solution’ for a long time. Even trying to understand the problem is challenging sometimes, because we have this really complex mileu.”

“Within a Creole identity, you have a chance, if you so desire, to choose the sides you want to be a part of. Or you can just stay in the middle and just take licks from every side. Or you can go to the extremes of each side of the fence and play in those fields, with those different cultures, push the envelope.”

As far as routes towards artistic expression go, Euwema’s isn’t a bad one to follow. Just expect detours.

Sketch for an Installation. Jon Euwema. Image courtesy of the artist.

Sketch for an Installation by Jon Euwema. Image courtesy of the artist.

David Knight Jr.

David Knight Jr. is a writer from St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands who is currently based on St. Thomas. He is the co-founder and co-editor of the online journal Moko. His criticism has appeared in ARC, The Caribbean Review of Books, Caribbean Beat, and The Caribbean Writer.