It is a laid-back afternoon at the Paramaribo Waterfront as I meet with Rinaldo Klas to talk to him about his life and work, and his travels. Mr. Klas is a painter and a sculptor, and one of Suriname’s most highly regarded artists.
He was born in Moengo, in 1954, and has lived in the tranquil Commewijne district for many years now, at about a half hour drive from the city. Rinaldo Klas is married to Carmen, his wife of over 30 years. He is the father of three adult children – two daughters and a son.
Rinaldo Klas’ work is colorful, and is considered figurative art. He painted this work of a mother and child tapir against a background of a golden horizon, an abundance of fish in a clear river, and fertile forest soil for the animals to wander about. On her back, the mother carries a peaceful green landscape. The image consists of beautiful bright colors and as a whole, it looks prosperous and healthy.
The piece Tapir with Child as well as the one titled Gold Pays Off, are both part of the Gold Rush series, which Rinaldo Klas presented in a solo exhibition in 2012. Since gold has become an important economic asset for Suriname in recent years and legal as well as illegal gold mining is now daily practice, the downside of this development is also emerging. Mr. Klas has always been inspired by nature and the Gold Rush series expresses his concern for nature. He feels strongly about making a statement, since gold extraction seems to go hand in hand with deforestation, loss of biodiversity and mercury polluting the rivers and creeks – the natural habitat of fish and vital sources of water and food for local communities. If nothing is done to tackle these issues and only dollars count, then this beautiful scene of mother and child in their natural surroundings will soon be a thing of the past – a firm statement in the light of environmental protection.
I wonder what led him to becoming an artist? “As a child, I used to draw on sheets and pieces of paper, on notes, even on cloths – anything I could find. At the age of 10, I moved to the city of Paramaribo. I was staying with my uncle at the time and my inclination to make little drawings each and every waking moment urged him to sign me up for drawing class. In the end, I graduated from Nola Hatterman’s New School for Visual Arts in 1979 and I took a teaching job there in the 1980s, teaching drawing and painting.”
Nola Hatterman was an Amsterdam born Dutch artist, who settled in Suriname in 1953 at the age of 54. She started the New School for Visual Arts in Paramaribo, which closed in 1979 when Ms. Hatterman decided to move out of town and started a studio in Brokopondo. After her death in 1984, a group of her former students – Rinaldo Klas being one of them – established the current Nola Hatterman Art Academy, which is housed in the former commander’s home in the Fort Zeelandia complex.
In 1992, Rinaldo Klas became the director of the Nola Hatterman Art Academy, until he retired in 2014. Guess how he spends his spare time? Painting! “I enjoy having more time to myself. I did paint while I was director of the Art Academy, but I can spend more time now doing the things I like.”
He tells me that what he likes to do, is painting and spending time with his family. Also, once a week he works with abused children, teaching them how to make drawings, paintings and art crafts – and talking to them about the challenges they are facing in their young lives.
Just recently, he was invited to join the art movement in Moengo and so he travels to his birthplace every weekend during two months to spend time with local kids doing what he knows best: teaching art class. And, as all artists in residence of this project, he too will leave behind a work of art in the Moengo Art Park, as a token of appreciation and encouragement for the local community.
On the subject of why anyone should visit Suriname, he has this to say: “I think our multicultural society is quite interesting – the diversity is tremendous. The natural environment, the people, the sunshine – and the food in Suriname are all special! The diversity is also present in our food! Visitors will first connect to our food and then to our people – once they try a roti from our Hindustani, a pitjel or saoto soup from a Javanese warung, or a heri heri from our black cuisine, they will want to know more about the people of Suriname!”
And what should visitors see while in Suriname? “The city of Paramaribo, the Waterfront – since my retirement, I have spent a lot of time here. I enjoy observing people and getting in touch with visitors from abroad.”
Mr. Klas will start a conversation with a tourist by simply saying Hi! and asking if they are having a good time. He noticed something peculiar, though: “There are quite some visitors who do not really spend time in Paramaribo – they go straight to the interior on a trip and return to their country right after that or travel to neighboring Guyana or French Guiana. They come over for a two- or three-day trip to the interior and leave.”
This means that many a visitor is just passing through and does not bother to explore Paramaribo or other parts of the country, which is a crying shame. Particularly considering the price and time it takes to get here on the one hand, and all the good stuff that gets left untouched and unseen on the other hand. Click here to check out some ideas and a sample tour program, that can help you make good use of your time in Suriname.
Rinaldo Klas loves to travel and has been around. I ask him to tell us about the first time he ever traveled. He recalls his very first trip abroad, which he also considers his biggest accomplishment ever: “I was a young upcoming artist at the age of 26 when I met Carlos Andrés Pérez, then president of Venezuela. At the time, I was attending a Spanish language course at the Venezuela Cultural Center of Paramaribo and they spread the news that their president was coming over to discuss agriculture, among other things. When I heard about this, I made a painting based on rice fields and offered this to Mr. Pérez on behalf of Surinamese artists. He was so pleased with this that he invited me to Venezuela and I got to travel his country as a guest. That was an amazing experience.”
Even more spectacular – if possible – was his trip to China: “I was invited to attend a 3-week conference about Chinese culture and economy, in the city of Nanchang. During that trip, I also visited Beijing, Shanghai, several places – there was room for travel, plus I extended my stay by a week. It was a very special time, as I got to understand the Chinese better. Since I did not want to stay put in one place, one morning I got on a bus and just let it take me where it went. I did not know where it was going, I just sat and enjoyed the view. It appeared to be heading to the countryside and after about an hour, it reached it’s final stop and I got off. I started walking around and it looked like I found myself in a farming village – a small village, about just 100 inhabitants. I decided to look for the village chief and introduce myself. Fortunately, some of the locals knew English and I was invited to look around. There was an old couple and I walked up to them, started a conversation using hands and feet plus the few Chinese words that I knew. The male invited me to their farm and I was happy to accept. He started harvesting vegetables and I helped them to transport these using a yoke. I worked with them on the farm doing chores and all the while we were chatting away. We went fishing for dinner and this farmer caught three fish using a car battery that was hooked up to a fishing rod. In the end, it was already late and there was no way for me to transfer back to the city. We had a nice dinner of rice and fish and vegetables. The couple invited me to stay the night and offered me their only bed. I did stay but, of course, I refused to take their bed and slept on a tall bench that they had. The next morning, it seemed like there was a party going on – all the neighbors came over to check me out, since they had never seen a black man before. That afternoon, around 3 PM I returned to Nanchan. But before I left, they put up a show for me – dancing, martial arts and fireworks. It was a wonderful event! I do not remember the name of the village and have never been back nor have I been in touch with this lovely elderly couple. They were in tears when I left, because somehow probably they knew that we would never meet again. I was moved myself, because of the warm welcome and the heartfelt friendship that was offered to me – a complete stranger who happened to get off the bus one day. Even after so many years, I have never forgotten about these people. After I got home, I did many paintings featuring Chinese dragons.”
So far, Mr. Klas has always lived in Suriname – he did travel and spend time abroad studying and working, but he never felt the need to live abroad nor the urge to leave Suriname. The reason for this lies within his heart: “I never wanted to leave, because everything is here – I love my friends, and nature has always been an inspiration for my painting, I need Suriname’s nature to work. I have worked as an artist in residence in several places – such as Vermont (U.S.A.) and Amsterdam (Netherlands) – and I have even been away for two years when I attended Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts in Jamaica from 1986-1988. But I always come home”.
Rinaldo Klas has a few special recommendations for visitors: “The people of Suriname are nice people. They will embrace you, tell you where to go, what not to do, etcetera. Do not be shy to talk to them! And, the absolute best that Suriname has to offer is for you to sit in a boat and travel across the rapids in the interior!”
Here is a phrase in Sranan that Rinaldo Klas wants you to learn today: Switi Sranan – Sweet Suriname.
Should you stroll along the Paramaribo Waterfront, do not miss the opportunity to Meet & Greet with this free-spirited man. If you are lucky enough to spot him there, just walk up to him and let him know that you have read this interview on Suriname Travel Tips. This is what Rinaldo Klas looks like:
I really hope you have enjoyed this interview! Feel free to leave me a comment below. I would love to hear from you!