Words by Chaédria LaBouvier
Photography by Aundre Larrow

Curtis Santiago, known to some in the culture sphere as “Talwst,” is currently one of the Bright Young Things setting the art world on fire. Yet his source of inspiration could come as a surprise to some folks: Dioramas.

You heard that right. The old science project stalwart has undergone a complete upgrade by the artist. In his hands, the intricate designs are reimagined as a canvas, exemplifying contemporary conversations relating to politics, identity and pop-culture. Sampling from artists like Goya and Botticelli, the pieces are pretty stunning, considering the Canadian artist got his start with the medium on a whim.

Piece of Talwst Art

Less than three years after being tossed his antique ring box, Santiago has created some seismic work: Por Qué?, 2014, a depiction of Eric Garner’s death and his soul’s ascension which The New Yorker described as, “an uncommonly delicate elegy,” and Uh-Huh Honey, a meditation on the metaphysical art-as-life worlds of Kim Kardashian and Kanye West.

In the meantime, the artist has managed to catch the eager eyes of some of the world’s most savvy collectors, and most recently, a short stint at the Studio Museum of Harlem’s star-turning – and aptly named – exhibition, “A Constellation.”

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Lucky enough to catch-up with Santiago over a cup of coffee, I chopped it up with the artist before he retreated into the studio for the day. A current fellow at the New York Studio School, the conversation was refreshingly candid, touching on politics, art history, Black identity and his style inspirations. All fitting, considering that at 10am on a rainy morning, Santiago came dressed as the most elegant and unassuming protagonist from an imaginary movie that’s one part Chinatown, one part Studio 54 (listening to him talk about his collection of vintage of Yves Saint Laurent, you know his closet is straight fire). We ended up covering everything from politics, Black identity, fashion, masters of Western art and Kendrick Lamar.

I do feel exactly as Basquiat felt; I’m a Black man who makes art. I don’t make Black art, I don’t make White art,

Bevel Code: First things first: grooming. The beard and your hair. Tell me about and how you maintain it and your aesthetic philosophy.

Talwst: I’m not into the super shaved, lined-up cut. If it gets too long, I’ll trim it, but I don’t shave weekly because I don’t want razor bumps and part of it is adapting some European idea about aesthetics. Once it gets too long or too scruffy, then I’ll go to my barber. But even then, I’ll tell him, “make it look like I didn’t get a shave.”

Bevel Code: You’ve mentioned Basquiat as a tremendous influence in your work, but your work is so different. How is he an influence?

Talwst: He [Basquiat] is also influenced by Picasso, Twombly, and Da Vinci. I became interested in those drawings as well. He found something unique in his voice, and I was able to connect with some of his collectors, family, etc. and take that essence. His work was a gateway into exploring art history and developing my own voice.

BC: I read that you got your start [making dioramas] in Paris, through a vendor

Talwst: No, it was a Parisian dude living in Vancouver

BC: Ahhh…

Talwst: I buy my collage material from [him] and so overtime I passed him on the corner, he’d have old magazines, posters, different things that I chopped up. And one day he just threw me a black ring box with the rest of the purchases and said, “I want to see what you can do with this”.

It led me to working at my house one evening, then combining some elements in my box. And it looked like a beach scene, like a Venus coming out of the water. For some reason, the Venus theme, Botticelli’s Venus, seems to be a reoccurring theme in the work that I do. I created the first box with the scene of my girlfriend coming out of the water at Third Beach where we used to hang out in Vancouver.

Artist Talwst holds a figurine
BC: Where do you buy your materials and the figurines? I was looking at your dioramas and I was like, ‘where would you even know to go to find this stuff?’ All of the artists back in the day went to Pearl Paint, but I don’t think that’s where you’re getting this stuff.

Talwst: (laughs) Booths, it’s the best spot in North America. I just Googled it and they’re in Manhattan. They’ve been there, for like, 20 something years. I showed them some of my work and a bond was forged. You need to connect with them because they were everything. They can order you things you can’t get.

BC: Speaking of your work, when we were talking earlier, you mentioned Ferguson and classical art and using that to make a contemporary statement. I thought it was a very powerful thing of combining a very classical painting and combining it with something very contemporary and with something very raw and making a political statement.

Talwst: It was a breakthrough piece. That got me on the whole idea that I could timestamp art history, like famous paintings and read it in an authentic way. In that moment, I remember being in my studio watching what was going down. I’d already been stopped and frisked in Brooklyn. I was here years back when they just instituted it. So I could identify. Sometimes when I leave my studio, I don’t look like this. I’ve got a big black hoodie on and oversized sweats.

You know, I grew up in the suburbs of Sherwood Park, Alberta, Canada. When I came to the States, there was some difference between me and the young man here that I see. But the minute I put on that big black hoodie, my black sweatpants, and I’m standing outside having a smoke outside of my studio, I’m immediately viewed as ‘nobody,’ and they know nothing about me. I realized that could happen to anyone, at any time. How many young men, that are loved by their families and are good people, were being killed? That resonated with me. It was the start of looking at Black identity in America because it’s significantly different than Canada.

Portrait of Artist Talwst

BC: Well, it’s funny that you say that, because we’re having this [national] conversation about the value of Black life; America loves Black culture, but Black people, not so much.

Talwst: I had a conversation with my sculpting teacher, and she had the idea for a 1980s male British sculpture that was very conceptual. She asked, ‘why are you so obsessed with the figure?’ And I was trying to express that, I’m at a time where I’m watching bodies be removed that have no value in America. And I’m aware that at any time, my life could be taken or seen as having no value.

BC: And I’m sure that’s a shift, coming from Canada, where you don’t have to worry about that.

Talwst: At all. Who has to worry about that are the indigenous communities. It’s a huge thing.

BC: When I went to the Studio Museum a few weeks ago and I saw your piece, I was totally excited for you. What was that like to see your work? Was that your first museum show?

Talwst: It was my first American museum show. My first museum show, I had a performance piece in the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Art Gallery of Mississauga. I did another thing at the AGO and now this, the Studio Museum. It was definitely validation. Being told for a while by commercial galleries that they [the dioramas] were too small, while people continue to obsess over Jeff Koons’ style. But I knew different, because I understood the history of small art. I was filled with excitement and the road is so long. There’s so much farther to go.

Working on the Eric Garner piece was so sad for me. I felt so much sorrow for his family. You hear him beg for his life. With Ferguson, I’m left with imagining and I don’t understand how it goes from ‘bam bam to bam.’

BC: What’s the history behind small art?

Talwst: Pretty much every culture, Chinese, Indian, there’s some history of small paintings. In Britain, there’s a history of small paintings, carvings, amulets. The Dutch have Dutch boxes, prayer beads, the wooden prayer boxes. In Egypt they’d make the tiny little gold figures. The Aztecs gave us the Faberge egg, and actually, most people associate [the dioramas] with the idea of a Faberge egg.

BC: I want to pivot the conversation, because we’ll come back to that. Who are some of your style inspirations?

Talwst: First and foremost, my father. He dresses well for his body: long legs, high waist, and he was comfortable wearing tight fitting clothing. He wasn’t worried about the idea of masculinity, so he didn’t worry about wearing a color that someone might think to be feminine. Andre 3000, Yves Saint Laurent and every now and then, ‘Ye will wear something and I’m like, ‘that’s amazing.’

BC: Tell me about your outfit today and your style influences, because you look very Serge Gainsbourg.

Talwst: Paris. The Parisians, they know how to dress. When I was in Venice, I met a woman and we ended up living right across from each other in Paris. She worked in fashion and I told her I had this vision in mind. She started showing me images of old YSL designs, and that look of the 70s, with the wider leg. I’m really into that vibe.

Miniature soldiers

BC: Tell me about the Eric Garner piece, the process of creating that, because there’s a video and that affects a lot.

Talwst: Well, with Michael Brown, it’s almost like a Goya painting [The Third of May]. Where we have images of this person beforehand and then we have images of him dead.

It’s a plethora of feelings. It’s frustration, it’s feeling thankful that I’m standing in a position where I’m able to observe and look at it, and not feel lost, locked in it, trapped by it. With the Eric Garner tape, you watch the whole thing happen in front of you. Working on that piece was so sad for me. I felt so much sorrow for his family. You hear him beg for his life. With Ferguson, I’m left with imagining, and I don’t understand how it goes from ‘bam bam to bam.’

BC: Well, because there is this video, how does that affect the process of creating it?

Talwst: It was an inspired piece. The message and visual came from the Universe. It was freakish how things lined up and I was able to meet with a collector and his Goya etchings from Disasters of War and I saw Por Qué? and it’s this guy being choked against a tree by three soldiers. A few days later, it’s 4 AM in the morning and I’m watching the YouTube video, and it draws to mind the etchings. I started crying, working and crying and feeling so sad and hurt. But I learned so much from that. I learned that I had the ability to channel my emotions into the work, if it’s honest work. But I held in the back of mind, this is not a monument to death. This is the spark to thinking and looking differently for a lot of people that are going to view this and see the video. It had to be a catalyst, mainly for his family. They’ve seen the moment of his death so much, but they never saw a moment of his ascension, his soul moving. And that’s what I wanted to create.

BC: Your Eric Garner piece reminds me of Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright.”

Talwst: I was listening to Kendrick the entire time working, on repeat.

Talwst sitting outdoors

BC: Are you serious?! I didn’t know that.

Talwst: On repeat. That song is James Brown in the truest way. To finally have an artist come through that is an actual conduit of James Brown’s “Black and Proud” moment…it’s the truest essence. It’s the Negus [Amharic for “king”].

BC: So to close, I want to take it back to the beginning and ask you about Basquiat again; he said that 80% of his work came from anger and you’ve said he’s a big influence. But anger is not a defining feature of you. We’re also in this time of unfiltered, unapologetic Blackness – from the music, the politics. How do you as a Black man and as an artist working in these times, how do you explore that?

Talwst: But I do feel exactly as Basquiat felt; I’m a Black man who makes art. I don’t make Black art, I don’t make White art. Sometimes I reference African traditions, sometimes I reference European traditions, Western traditions. I’m looking at issues in conversation right now. Because he took it so far and paved some of the way and did a lot of the heavy lifting — it requires me to lift a little less. My work is not based out of anger. My work is about opening, revealing, showing. I’m a Black man, so I’m going to make work that reflects the moments and the things that I experience, but I’m focused on the world and how I view the entire world.

I love what I do and I’m fortunate to do what I do. I have to remain light. There are generations that’ve had it much worse, like my parents when they moved from Trinidad to Fort McMurray in 1969. The isolation, the things that were said and done to my dad at the worksites — they remain light (smiles.) If I’m angry, then the piece should be angry. That’s where I draw from, for my creations. I want to be able to look at everything and dive into every emotion and look at things authentically.