Curtis Talwst Santiago’s Sonic Sensibilities

At Martina Simeti, Milan, the artist’s free-form paintings speak to the musical and artistic traditions of Black communities

BY Saim Demircan in EU Reviews , Exhibition Reviews | 04 MAR 24

A sense of the improvisatorial filters through the paintings and drawings in Curtis Talwst Santiago’s ‘A man not in the mood for Salsa’, the artist’s second solo show at Martina Simeti, Milan. In contrast to the painstakingly crafted miniature dioramas of his ‘Infinity Series’ (2012–ongoing) that were my first introduction to the artist’s practice, this show sees Santiago freely deploy a combination of oil pastel, spray paint and charcoal as well as acrylic and watercolour on canvas. There is a lyricism to the artist’s freeform approach, a nod perhaps to his own past as a singer and musician in Canada and music’s continued presence within his artmaking. This influence is made explicit in one of several small canvases, Afro-Sonic Mapping (2024), titled after a 2022 book by the artist and musician Satch Hoyt. Within the painting, a melding of Black musicians forms a cartography, or continent, of interlocking figures with Miles Davis playing what appears to be a ballooned, oversized version of a jazz trumpet at the fore. Here, painting also allows for more exaggeration, caricature and oneiric compositions: alongside Afro-Sonic Mapping, Georgina don’t got no time for no dragon (2024) and Amapiano nights in the CBD (2019) are reminiscent of the way in which bodies amalgamate in the paintings of Robert Colescott.

Curtis Talwst Santiago, ‘A man not in the mood for Salsa’, 2024, exhibition view. Courtesy: the artist and Martina Simeti, Milan; photograph: Andrea Rossetti

Yet, an equivalence can be found between Santiago’s dioramas and his canvases in that both portray interpersonal relationships. Whereas in the former these might take place in barbershops or at fetes, in the latter the settings are more intimate. In Peacocking (2024), for instance, a man stands over a woman lying on a bed; both are naked. This scene, however, seemingly contradicts the act that is implied by its title, since ‘peacocking’ typically describes a sartorial display of masculinity. Stripped of his attire the man appears emasculated. Elsewhere, in the titular A man not in the mood for Salsa (2024), another (or perhaps the same) figure leans forlornly against a pillar while a woman dances to the sounds coming from a Gramophone, visualized as notes in the air. Music is cultural, connected to place – in this case, the Caribbean. Is there a trace of Santiago’s own life being alluded to here? The artist recently relocated from North America to Munich, a far cry from the Black communities that are often depicted in his work. Are the glimpses of self-awareness and melancholia in this painting related to uprooting or difference? Reciprocally, the artist includes wooden furniture and textiles that he collected on a recent journey through West Africa while on a residency in Senegal, within an installation of glass casts of his nose in the corner of a small, sunken room in the gallery.

Curtis Talwst Santiago, ‘A man not in the mood for Salsa’, 2024, exhibition view. Courtesy: the artist and Martina Simeti, Milan; photograph: Andrea Rossetti

While lived experience is suffused throughout the exhibition, Santiago also pulls subjects from the recent past into focus, such as in The Immolation of Darren Seals (2024). A prominent African American activist, Seals was shot dead and found in a burning car in Missouri in 2016. There is palpable anger in the artist’s frenetic use of oil pastel and charcoal to render Seals’ flaming vehicle on red paper. Its title has the tenor of history painting, which I suspect, is by design. Santiago confidently handles a breadth of references, from his use of luminous colour, which recalls that of Marc Chagall, to his inclusion of imagery found in Jean-Michel Basquiat’s work. In particular, the devilish figure that appears from a mess of sprayed, dripped and splattered paint on flattened cardboard in Waste Yute (2023), perhaps the loosest work on show, is a vivid reminder of Basquiat’s Untitled (1982). Much like the musical sensibility that’s prevalent in many of the works here, the call and response between Santiago’s own work and that of his artistic predecessors is refreshingly uninhibited and fervent with form.

Curtis Talwst Santiago’s ‘A man not in the mood for Salsa’ is on view at Martina Simeti, Rome, until 15 March

Main image: Curtis Talwst Santiago, A man not in the mood for Salsa (detail), 2024, charcoal and soft pastel, 64 × 84 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Martina Simeti, Milan; photograph: Andrea Rossetti

Saim Demircan is a curator and writer. He lives in Turin, Italy. He recently curated ‘Exhibition as Image’ at 80WSE, New York, USA.