Brendan Fernandes visited by Peter Dykhuis

Hello Brendan,

I first saw your work at your solo show at Eyelevel Gallery in Halifax in 2007. I believe that it was titled “Wish You Were Here” and featured plastic decoys of deer in an inflatable kiddy’s pool of water, Masai spears supporting cardboard boxes plus vinyl decals of spears on the wall.

Yes, that was my first time to exhibit in Halifax and my show there did showcase those works. At the time I had recently completed my MFA and I was thinking about how ‘African’ culture is constructed through views of tourism. I am interested in authenticity as it relates to my own hybrid identity and the way(s) that I function in and outside my place(s) of belonging. I use the tourist souvenirs as a way to think about myself, since souvenirs are often used to represent a culture but they also reduce the specificity of the object to function as something else. These were some of the ideas that I was thinking about at the Eyelevel show.

I remember that you were wearing really interesting shoes at the ELG opening; remind me what were they? I had on my new Fluevogs, the grey suede boots that riffed on a low-cut cowboy silhouette but with a double seam up the toes.

Yes, I totally remember your Fluevogs! I was wearing a pair of ankle high Prada boots; black and somewhat aerodynamic. They were very minimal, but I think they made me walk faster! I bought them when I was in Venice for the Biennale. They were definitely on sale.

You do get around! You have had recent projects exhibited in China and have other gigs in the works but you are ‘based’ in both New York and Toronto. Do you spend equal time in each city and where is your main physical production studio, if you have one at all? It looks as though most of your projects are assembled at each exhibition site from disparate commercial products so perhaps you don’t need a studio space in the traditional sense of the word. Or is your entire practice migratory and generated from your laptop?

Ha ha, I guess I DO get around! It is true my practice is fragmented since I spend equal time between Toronto and NYC. This all began with my participation in the Whitney Independent Study Program in 2006; that’s what brought me to NYC in the first place. The city has been good to me and so I have stayed on, but I definitely call both places home. As for a studio, I have been lucky enough to have had a studio residency in NYC for the past three years and that is where I mainly work from, but my practice has become quite migratory between Toronto, other parts of Canada and beyond so I heavily rely on my laptop. I don’t go anywhere without it. As such my work has had to adapt itself. In the past I worked on larger sculptural installation but now I work a lot in video and new media. I have not abandoned my material practice; it has just developed in other conceptual ways to suit my needs. Many of my works do use commercial products (ready-mades), but I do fabricate objects, and so a studio is a necessity, but even if I am just editing I really like having a space to work out of, even if it is in my parent’s living room in Newmarket, Ontario. Being nomadic is not easy, I guess I’ve become used to it but I am not sure if I really like it.

So tell me more about your Kenyan and Indian heritage and how it relates to your practice from your North American First World point of view. I ‘get’ the hybrid material practice and your noodling around with issues of authenticity and representation. But you are using stereotypical images of Africa and safari/tourist spectacles (Masai warriors/dancers, lions, spears — all symbols of masculine power) but these are also very much part of a National Geographic world-view. How do you handle and manipulate these images and materials to a point where they still have personal and public interest and intrigue without becoming trite and simple? Your material play certainly does seem to take the represented images beyond irony.

And speaking of world travels, surely you must be wearing out lots of shoes. What is your latest fave foot ware?

Well, I was born in Nairobi, Kenya, as were my parents and grandparents. I have never been to India, but my parents raised us (my sisters and myself) to understand our Indianness through cultural traditions and religion, as were passed to them from their parents and so on. Our Indian heritage is linked to Goa, a state on the western coast of the country that was a Portuguese colony until 1961, hence the last name Fernandes. Goa is a mix of Indian and Portuguese culture. In 1989, my family immigrated to Canada. While living here I had to negotiate my identity in a different way than I did in Kenya. In Kenya I was seen as an Indian, but in Canada I was considered Kenyan first, since it was my place of birth. My whole cultural trajectory oscillates in a liminal space of being one thing or another and so the notion of authenticity and hybridity is not just something I question, it is something that I live. I always get asked, “What are you most authentic to (culturally)?” I don’t see myself as being one thing alone, I see myself as being informed by all the places that I am from and have experienced. As Stuart Hall suggests, identity is something that is constantly in flux.

With regards to now living in North America for the past twenty years, I think I have become nostalgic for my places of belonging, especially Kenya. I really want to go back, but I am not sure how I will function there now. My works uses many tropes from stereotypical ‘Africa’ informed through mediated views, as seen on TV documentaries and such. When I first moved to Canada, I was constantly asked questions such as, “did you have elephants in your backyard?” The idea of ‘Africa’ as a ‘Dark Continent’ still exists and so I use these images to create dialogue where I question my belonging and what I have become since leaving. The use of images of safari, the Masai and wild animals, all touch on ideas of the exotic, the primitive, the savage (masculine views), things that are unfamiliar to an everyday western audience and so they intrigue people because they are different. In my work I reduce the cultural specificity of these images so that they read as souvenirs of sorts, but I hope that by doing so I am creating a critical engagement and dialogue where I am reflecting on identity(s).

The same can be said for my favorite shoes, since you asked. They are the most perfect pair of black, pointy casuals. I wear them everywhere as they are very comfortable; they make me feel as though I am walking barefoot. They are definitely hybrids. Oh yeah, they are designed by Schmoove.

Great response, Brendan! I am always curious about how artists locate themselves within identity politics. But what about issues of class? I was born in Canada from highly religious Dutch immigrant parents who were sponsored to Ontario as farms labourers after WW II. We didn’t have much money and, due to social circumstances, very little exposure to ‘culture,’ so I am sensitive how identity is controlled and shaped by class and access to cultural trade routes. Did you have much exposure to museum/art culture growing up or have you been ‘making it up as you go?’ Where did your eye for art and design come from? What about your sense of the politics of materials? That is, the humorous use of plastic deer and other cheesy-cultural objects in your very serious ‘high-art’ projects?

BTW, my fave new boots describe cultural trade routes perfectly. Fluevogs again, bought on-line from their Vancouver store and shipped to Halifax. They are a mix of red leather and suede with lime-green interiors. When I got them, though, the right boot was faded. It ended up that they were the last pair of size 9 in Canada and had been a display set, resulting in sun damage on the one boot. Rather than return them, I took them with me to New York on a subsequent trip and traded them in for a replacement pair that happened to be the last pair of size 9 in the US! Made in Portugal for sale from the Vancouver Fluevog shop, my boots were shipped to Halifax, taken to New York, exchanged and replaced with another pair and then returned to Halifax. World traveling boots that I take on the road with me!

Wow, you and your shoes have done some walking! I find your next questions really interesting, especially the linking of class with migration and the role of access to cultural outlets. My ancestors arrived in Kenya through British colonial rule as worker on the railroad. My parents worked as professionals and I guess you would say we were a middleclass family. At a young age I was taken to the cinema and the theatre, was enrolled in dance and music lessons and travelled abroad and in Kenya in the form of safari. My dad worked in the industry and so our family was privileged enough to go on safari quite frequently. Many Kenyans have never had this opportunity; it is something that I deeply appreciate and of course it has influenced my art practice. When we immigrated to Canada it was a lot different and not as easy, but my parents sacrificed first and gave to us. Being an immigrant you want to work hard and achieve a better life; I understood what privileges I had. I knew these were things that my parents worked hard to give me, and so I did not take them for granted. I have also seen and experienced first hand the many who are less fortunate, which makes me further appreciate what I have.

I am not sure where my eye for design came from but my grandmother on my mother’s side was a dress designer; she definitely gave me an understanding for fashion and shoes! I have always been attracted to art and design and recall many a day drawing and painting. As I began to further pursue art in my formal academic training, I began to explore materials, but also the conceptual side of them. I love the way that David Hammons for example would juxtapose African objects with ready-mades; they really struck a cord with me! This has been where some of my inspiration comes from. As for my use of humour, I think it is a very powerful way to get meaning across, especially when dealing with heavy-handed issues. It allows ideas to become more accessible,

So what is your next project? Where do you expect to exhibit it? Any big travel plans? And, just to mix it up, what are your top-10 fave CDs in your itunes/ipod files right now? After art, heck, its music and shoes that tells the rest of the story about a person! I’ll list my top ten if you list yours…

Of course, my list is what is in current rotation and doesn’t include my long-term love of American Analog Set, Stereolab, Sonic Youth, Beta Band, Boards of Canada and even early ‘70s Roxy Music.

In alphabetical order:

• Akron/Family: “Meek Warrior”

• Beck: “Modern Guilt”

• Caribou: “Andorra”

• Clinic: “Do It!”

• The Dandy Warhols: “Earth to The Dandy Warhol”

• Fuck Buttons: “Street Horrrsing”

• Kinski: “Alpine Static”

• Low: “Drums and Guns”

• Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks: “Real Emotional Trash”

• Syntax: “Meccano Mind”

My next project is a video, where I am going to interview African mask vendors in New York, Canal Street to be exact, questioning them about the goods they sell and the way that they function as cultural objects and souvenirs away from their place of origin. This project is being commissioned by Harvestworks, a digital media facility in NYC through their new works residency. I am also completing a new video installation about hegemony that is influenced by African hyena societies that will be shown at Diaz Contemporary in Toronto this April. As for travel, I sort of really want to stay put, but I really want to go back to Kenya and begin to explore art making and my identity there. India as well is a place that I want to go to and so I think the future looks exciting for me!!! I will be heading to Calgary this February for my solo show at Truck.

As for my top ten albums on my ipod, this is hard. I love music and I think my list is going to be a little bit scattered, but here goes…

The Smiths: “The Singles”

M.I.A.: “Arular”

Joy Division: “Substance”

The Knife: “Silent Shout”

Hercules and Love Affair: “Hercules and Love Affair”

Björk: “Homogenic”

Bikini Kill: “Pussy Whipped”

Minor Threat: “Out of Step”

Deltron 30 30: “Deltron 30 30”

The Roots: “Do you want more ?!!!??!”

Weezer: “Weezer”

Yeah Yeah Yeahs: “Fever to Tell”

OMG this was harder than I thought, so here’s my top 12! I could so go on.

Thanks, Brendan, great list! I’ve got almost the entire Joy Division discography as original LPs and 12” 45s. Peter Saville’s design is so fab on the large format album covers. I’ve got a few of the CDs listed above but let’s swap music files as a souvenir of this blog. And happy US Presidential Inauguration Day, you know, that other guy with roots in Kenya!