‘There are artists whose work I’ve loved since I was 12 or 13 and, every once in a while, I go back to them to renew my spirit’
An interview with Beatriz Santiago Muñoz for Frieze.
What was the first work of art you loved?
There are artists whose work I’ve loved since I was 12 or 13 and, every once in a while, I go back to them to renew my spirit. One of these is Alice Neel – especially her portraits of friends and neighbours in Harlem from the 1950s and ’60s. If I had to choose a single artwork, it would be one I saw when I was about 19 years old: an anthropomorphic inhaler made by indigenous people of the Caribbean. Used for inhaling the hallucinogen cohoba, the pipe is carved from manatee bone in the shape of a smiling man who holds his legs open, all the way to his ears. It would be hard to overstate the inhaler’s imaginative possibilities and the time-travelling thrill of connection I felt with the person who carved it. I have never wanted to steal anything more than when I first saw it exhibited at the Petit Palais in Paris, as part of the travelling exhibition ‘L’Art Taïno’ in 1994.
What is underrated?
With about 12 million speakers, Haitian kreyòl is underrated as a possible lingua franca for the entire Caribbean. In grammar and semantics, it builds on several African and Romance languages as well as indigenous Caribbean tongues. I’ve begun to learn kreyòl by reading Haitian proverbs and listening to the music of Boukman Eksperyans, a legendary Haitian mizik rasin band that was both musically and politically influential in the 1980s and ’90s. Pitit tig se tigwas a popular proverb during the despotic presidency of Jean-Claude ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier, who succeeded his father as ruler of Haiti in 1971, at the age of just 19, until he was ousted by a coup
in 1986. It means: ‘A tiger cub is still a tiger.’
What is the most important book you’ve read lately?
Pedro Cabiya’s Tercer mundo (Third World, 2019): a fantasy-genre novel that expands a few blocks of San Juan’s Santurce neighbourhood into three different planets and cosmic space – featuring secret agents in the form of Orisha spirit guides, bureaucratic monsters, pregnant (and hungry) spaceships – all filtered through vernacular music as both premonition and prophecy. It’s like nothing I’ve ever read, but somehow painfully, hilariously, familiar.
What surprises people about you?
I am a mother.
What do you like to do when you’re alone?
I am almost never alone except when I am editing and, even then, only sporadically. The only way I can really be alone is to take a walk. So, I suppose I like to walk when I’m alone.
Who do you miss?
During lockdown, so many people it hurts. I am happiest when I make breakfast for a dozen people and see them all lying on my living-room floor: kids eavesdropping on conversations, everyone drinking and eating the whole day long until the last bit of food is gone. Of all the people in my life, I miss my brother, Pablo, most of all. I am two decades older than him. Despite the age difference, we are a lot alike and I miss talking about everything and nothing with him.