This artist creates amazing worlds inside antique ring boxes
Curtis Talwst Santiago has found huge fame creating tiny worlds. The Edmonton-born artist started his career in Toronto, creating intricate scenes in antique ring boxes. Since advising the AGO on its 2015 Jean-Michel Basquiat show, he’s taken his studio on the road to New York City, Johannesburg, Oakland and Geneva (and, right now, back to Toronto’s Cooper Cole Gallery). “I’ve just been riding this wave since the Basquiat exhibition,” he says.
Through it all, his method has stayed the same. “I use a lot of model-making materials—like straight-up hobby-shop, train-set-building materials,” he said. “I also use found objects from my travels—I collect sand, rocks, plants, pebbles, maybe hair from someone. They’re these little voodoo charms full of so many things.” Here, he explains the story behind five of his newest jewellery box sculptures, largely inspired by art history and his time in South Africa.
Christmas in Durban
“Tweezers definitely become my pencil,” Santiago says of his work. He found this jewellery in Johannesburg antique shop and users tweezers to place painted figures on sand he collected from Durban. “At Christmastime, people of colour gather in the South African city of Durban and it’s insane how packed the beaches are. With this piece, I wanted to comment on race without showing black bodies suffering or labouring. When I was staying in Johannesburg, I noticed that the black people were always represented in ‘work mode’ because the rest of their lives occurred behind walls, away from the affluent white communities. I wanted to show a moment of ease, celebration and relaxation.”
Empty Wagon Leaving Slave Market
“Again, I’m moving away from showing black bodies that are suffering,” says Santiago. “As the rapper Vince Staples says, ‘The black business is trauma.’ Black artists have been convinced that we make our living off of selling our trauma, including everything from gangster stories to the way hip-hop speaks about women. For this sculpture, I wanted to show the scene, and the history, without the people in it.” The casket-style jewellery box is a piece of history itself, dating back to the 1800s.
Santiago created this piece inside a simple black box using objects like dried plants and eBay finds, which he blackened with charcoal and spray paint. The work is from a series inspired by Kerry James Marshall‘s monochromatic narrative paintings. “It’s a ‘manifestation’ sculpture—I believe that through work and having conversations with myself, I can manifest things in my life. This is the studio I’d love to manifest into reality. It’s dilapidated on the outside but inside it’s a nice hermitage. The glow from inside is a sliver of a Caravaggio painting. This sculpture is full of nerdy art history references.”
“The bodies of the South African Zulu women made me think about Serena Williams and her pregnant photo shoot for Vanity Fair,” says Santiago. “There I was in Africa, the cradle of life, with pregnant women all around. For the composition, I took cues from Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus.” The figure was custom designed, while the jewellery box came from a Paris flea market.
Zulu Mother and Child
This striking figure is an altered train set miniature—Santiago pained everything from the facial features to the traditional Zulu clothing. “I loved seeing the Zulu women with their children. It was so different from babies in baby carriages—they just wrap a towel around their baby and strap them on. That connection was so beautiful and intimate and I wanted to show that.”