I first met Kevin Osepa about eight years ago, back when we were artsy teenagers on an island far too small for both of our ambitions. Even then, I remember thinking that Kevin was a creative tour de force. The scenes that he creates in front of his camera pay homage to the visual language of South American magical realism, and radiate the warmth of the ritualistic culture of his birthplace, Curaçao.
In 2012, Kevin moved to The Netherlands to pursue a BA in Photography. After years of avoiding creating work about the place he is from, Kevin finally presented his thesis project, Mester Blousé, in 2017. Focusing on “brua”, a term used to describe the island’s spiritual rituals, each of Kevin’s images attempt to trigger the viewer’s imagination on the subject. Through his use of vibrant colors, he enchants the landscape, highlighting themes like religion, family, colonialism and Afro-Caribbean identity.
I had the pleasure of catching up with Kevin after Unseen Amsterdam 2018, where he presented three new images alongside the existing photographs in Mester Blousé. The following is an edited version of our exciting, afternoon-filling conversation, where we spoke about everything from racism and sexuality to the struggle of maintaining artistic integrity.
Rachel Morón: I remember being fascinated with your images from the very beginning, even before you left Curaçao and went to art school. What led you to photography?
Kevin Osepa: I started taking photographs after I won my first camera by entering a short film competition with my best friend. My sister has always been my muse—she was my first “subject.” She wanted to model and, more importantly, she understood the craziness of it all. I never took “normal” portraits of her. I always had to add some paint or glitter, or some other extravagant element to the image. She took it very seriously, just like I did. We both understood that we needed to push through to get that one shot. I think that helped me become confident in my abilities, and helped me become a better photographer.
RM: So your shoots were always grand productions, which isn’t surprising, because I feel like you always take your work extremely seriously. Where do you think you got that work ethic from?
KO: I think a lot of it comes from my mother. She’s a perfectionist, and she taught me that you really need to put your back into it if you want to create something that you’re proud of. I also used to compare the shows that were produced and shown in Curaçao to international (American) shows, movies and artists. I remember feeling very disappointed that there wasn’t really anybody taking creative risks on the island — and that pushed me to become a more hard-working person. At the time, I was very inspired by people like Steven Klein, and pretty much anyone who directed a Lady Gaga music video. I was blown away by her visuals, and really respected the people that took that genre to another level.
RM: It sounds like you always felt confident while photographing…
KO: Looking back, I think I was more confident then than I am now. After having gone through art school and working in the “art world” for the past little while, I feel like I’ve become very critical and self-aware. There’s a power to being critical about your own work— it keeps you sharp. But the process can make you feel a bit uneasy, and constantly reflecting on things causes you to start second-guessing yourself and overthinking things too quickly. Sometimes I catch myself wondering if creating a certain work is “worth it” or if it “makes sense,” but I’ve learned that the best thing to do is apply that critique to create even better work.
RM: I remember you had a lot of that second-guessing and insecurity when you first started working on Mester Blousé. Why was that?
KO: At the end of my first semester of art school, one of my teachers came up to me after I presented some new work and told me something I’ll never forget. He said, “You’re from Curaçao, we get it. It’s time to move on.” I don’t think he meant it in a bad way; he just wanted me to pursue other stories. But those words made me never want to make work about that part of me again. For three years, I created work that had a “mystical” air to it, but it was all situated within a European context. I created a project about UFOs in Belgium, and another about Dutch fairytales— the kind of magic that’s accepted in the Netherlands. I guess I was insecure about starting a project like this because I was scared of people thinking that I was creating work that was too personal.
RM: So what changed your mind?
KO: I had people around me that truly understood me and my project on a deeper level, and that helped. One tutor in particular understood the work in the cultural context, and you, coming from Curaçao and having known me for years, really knew what it was about at its core. That support gave me a push, and I discovered so much about spirituality and rituals, or as we call it in Curaçao: brua. At some point, the research became so overwhelming to me that it was impossible to not make work about this part of me. I was obsessed, and I knew I had to do something with all this rich information that I had found.
RM: To be honest, you still are obsessed. You have “Mester Blousé” tattooed on your ankles and, looking at your studio, there are so many links to the rituals in your images, from the blocks of blous spread out over the room to the altars with different saints on them.
KO: Definitely. Brua has become a part of my life, even though it was an intense process in the beginning. I feel like I regained my confidence in that.
RM: In what exactly?
KO: In trusting myself, doing what I want to do and exploring my identity. Once I realized that other people could also relate to my examination of my own identity, my whole outlook on this project—and creating personal work in general—changed. In other words, I realized that my identity isn’t just my own. It represents something bigger than myself. Mester Blousé is about my identity, but it focuses on the hidden aspects of everyday life. Brua is hidden behind the faces of Christian saints, homosexuality is pushed into the closet, and colonialism takes on new, modern forms in colorism and racism.
RM: Can you tell me about some of the things you encountered when you first started researching these topics in depth?
KO: When I realized that I wanted to go for this topic—for brua—I would have never imagined that there were so many things already written about it. I never saw or heard anything about it outside of the walls of my own home in Curaçao. It’s hidden in plain sight. I talked to people who were approaching the theme in a more anthropological, research-based way, so that I could back up my own theories and images. I also talked to my family a lot. We were always making jokes about blous and the saints, and that gave me a kind of gateway to talk about what’s at the root of it all.
For example, Reckitt’s Crown Blue Squares, or blous as it’s known in Curaçao, was initially produced to whiten laundry, but its vibrant blue pigment has seen it adopted into several Afro-Caribbean rituals — including brua. I grew up listening to stories of my mother and grandmother bathing and covering me in blous to protect me from the evil eye, which perhaps helps explain my special connection to it and why it’s taken on such a central role throughout the work. It shows that as soon as somebody starts talking to you about brua, all these personal anecdotes start to coming out of the woodwork.
RM: I feel like the title of the work, Mester Blousé, has become some sort of mantra for you.
KO: It has. I chose Mester Blousé as the title for my project because it has a duality to it. It has heavy and serious connotations because it’s said to protect somebody who is considered to be beautiful from the evil eye, but it’s also usually said by family members about their children. It’s meant so lovingly that most people think it’s just a funny saying. That duality is something that I played with throughout this whole project.
For example, the “Disiclin” image— it’s a very iconic symbol, but there’s also something funny about presenting soap in such a serious way. You also have that in “Ofrenda,” where I have these oranges discarded on the ground. Some people see that image and think that it’s just a “nice” photo of garbage, but other people see it as an offering.
RM: Papiamentu is a language that’s only spoken by people in the Dutch Caribbean, yet all your works are communicated in that language. Why is that?
KO: That’s true. Everything I’ve written, from my thesis to my most recent film Con Los Santos No Se Juega, has been in Papiamentu. The works are about Curaçao—about me—and it wouldn’t feel right to talk about these identities in a different language. It’s the only language that it can be described in—the only language in which it can be expressed in its purest form. Our language has a kind of texture to it that can’t be replicated in another dialect — especially if it’s about my experiences in Curaçao.
RM: I’ve experienced firsthand how you take your self-portraits. It’s as if a switch goes off — or on — and you become a completely different person. Could you talk to me about that process?
KO: Ha! I forgot that you helped me with most of those. I view those self-portraits and those moments in front of the camera as me trying to present the most organic side of myself.
RM: Organic? Do you mean authentic?
KO: More like “earthy.” For example, in the portrait “FL 1,32,” I am a “Yu di Korsou” — a child of Curaçao. The person in this image isn’t the person that’s in front of you right now wearing a watch, logo tee and glasses. In this image, I’m stripped down to the basics. My hair is styled back, the jacket I’m wearing has a rough texture and my chest is out. I feel like I channel a timeless, more natural side of me that’s almost completely stripped down and can even be described as “pure”.
I genuinely see myself as a character in my work. In the new project that I’m working on now, about homosexuality in the Caribbean, I refer to myself as “Deido.” It’s a name that I gave myself when I was a child because, for some reason, I couldn’t pronounce my own name. My father still calls me that to this day, and so I want to take that name and reclaim it for myself again.
RM: There’s one self-portrait in particular that I want to talk about called “Yunan di Skuridat”. It’s a portrait of your sister and yourself, completely covered in black paint. It’s an important one to highlight.
KO: My sister is a part of every work that I create, because that’s how I started and, in a way, she is me —we are the same person. When I photograph her, it’s her photographing herself; it’s me photographing her; it’s her photographing me. That’s what it feels like.
It’s also a critique of Curaçao. I don’t see my island as this perfect, untouchable paradise. There’s this part of our history, which links back to our colonial past, in which Catholicism was forced on our people, which made us reject many things from our history — like brua. Because both my sister and I were born out of wedlock, we had to be baptized outside of the church — a Catholic method meant to shame people. The image also speaks to skin color, and how in Curaçao most people consider darker skin to be a negative trait. I believe in standing together, in all of our shades, so in this photograph both me and my sister are standing together in our “blackness.” I wanted to create an image where we were one, and where we looked like each other. I wanted people to see that we were strong as the “Yunan di Skuridat”—the “Children of Darkness”—that were baptized outside of the church. I guess it’s a bit scandalous, but I felt like it was a necessary point to make. We’re here, we stand together, and we’re not going anywhere.
RM: At Unseen Amsterdam, you presented three new images alongside your images of Mester Blousé. How do they relate to each other?
KO: Do you know that transition effect on PowerPoint called “cross-dissolve”? It kind of feels like those images are the cross-dissolve effect between Mester Blousé and that new project about homosexuality that I mentioned earlier. It’s working title is Riku, which means “rich” in Papiamentu, but it’s also an abbreviation of the word Mariku, which is a homophobic slur. Two of the pictures show a broken wrist, or “pols kibra” in Papiamentu, and the other is an image of an altar made out of peanuts (“Altá di Pinda”).
RM: The titles of these images are very intense and implicit for those who understand Papiamentu. Both you and I know what those words mean. In the context of homosexuality, they’re homophobic slurs yelled on the street, posted on social media, or used to bully people at school.
When I came out of the closet in the Netherlands, it was a non-event. Because thankfully everybody is so free here, it was just a thing you would say and never talk about again. Now, I’m realizing that it’s not only a part of me, but makes me who I am. Because of this project, I feel like I’m starting to genuinely “come out” to everybody.
RM: You’ve had a whirlwind of a year. Since you graduated, it feels like so much success has come your way. What’s next?
KO: That’s true. I went from our graduation show, where I had control over everything — from where my work is presented to where it was printed — to large museum spaces where there are curators telling me what to do and people hanging up my work in spaces that I don’t know very well. I found myself wondering what I could and should say yes or no to, or if I could even say “no” at all as a young artist. What are my rights? How much agency do I have over my own work? I’m still figuring it all out.
I also haven’t had much time to fully appreciate what’s going on, and to take in all the amazing opportunities that have been presented to me. I’m so grateful that people see something in me and my work. The intense period I’ve had after graduation confirmed for me that I really want to be a full-time artist. I’m constantly thinking in images, writing down ideas at all hours of the night and thinking about the next thing I can work on. This new project I’m working on feels like a natural next step after working on Mester Blousé for so long — now all I need to do is push through and get to work.