Interview with... Trinidadian visual artist Kriston Banfield
Born in the region of Santa Cruz, Trinidad, Kriston Banfield , is a self-taught multidisciplinary artist, today based in New York City, USA. His practice resides in sculpture, drawing and painting, and focused on questioning the sense of place and community. Holding a lens onto socio-economic disparities and power dynamics for people of colour, the artist's work is a powerful tool for self-exploration and representation. Banfield's style resides in the surreal and metaphorical, using elements of myths and spirituality. His colourful yet captivating paintings are reminiscent of the masters such as Windlow Homer, Chris Ofili or Peter Doig. Kriston Banfield has had numerous exhibitions with a collective of artists in Trinidad, and he participated in the 5th Ghetto Biennale in Haiti 2017. Most recently, he represented Trinidad and Tobago at the 19th Asian Biennale in Bangladesh, and currently has a show in Seattle with Wa Na Wari Arts Centre until the 16th April 2023.
Segolene Py: For those who do not know you, please present yourself in a few words.
Kriston Banfield: My name is Kriston Banfield, I am a painter from Trinidad and Tobago, today based in New York. It’s been a period of great change for me, after leaving my job at the height of the Covid 19 Pandemic I gained this new sense of freedom to focus on my practice. During this time different opportunities and choices began to present themselves to me. Now being here in the US, I need to make more adjustments and to navigate through all this change, to re-establish myself over here, and focus on my career as an artist. I found myself trying to find a community, a new home. Now more than ever I am very aware of my otherness with this new identity as an immigrant. Right now I see my practice as still in incubation, still processing this moment.
SP: How come did you move to New-York ?
KB: I needed a change, honestly. Where I worked back home in Trinidad brought me a lot of stress and I was struggling mentally. I couldn't focus on my work. And I was doing a lot of jobs that were not in line with my art. So, I needed a change of pace and space, and I thought New York was a good place for that matter. I wanted to move somewhere I had some form of security, a place where I knew some people.
SP: What inspires you and how would you describe your style ?
KB: I have always taken my expression from spirituality and religion. It is a way to express yourself and understand and explain the world around us. Though I think vodou became one of the strongest influences in my work.
In 2013, I visited Haiti with some friends. At that time my mom, being the (Christian) God fearing woman that she is, started warning me about “covering myself in blood” if I was going to a place like Haiti with all the vodou, it was very hyperbolic (laugh). There’s this misconception I think that still prevails about vodou being evil. As part of the trip we visited Saut d'Eau for a pilgrimage that celebrates the apparitions of the Virgin Mary, where 2 children were said to have seen her at the waterfall. I was impressed by the dedication people had to their lifestyle and religion. They look at how to help heal the earth and I really connected with that. Later that night we randomly found ourselves at a ceremony. It was pitch black but we could hear the drumming from a distance, we sort of just appeared at these people’s celebration and we definitely got funny looks. I mean who could blame them? they invited us in though, we spent most of the night there with them drumming, dancing and drinking. It was a very rich and special experience.
SP: How different did it feel in Haiti, compared to Trinidad ?
KB: Port au Prince is an intense city. I got overstimulated in one day. It is a very rich place, the people and even the chaos. Trinidad has this but there is definitely a bit more structure and not as raw. Haiti is unadulterated, very much itself, not trying to be anything else. It holds to itself so authentically.
At the end of this trip, when I went back home, I thought this was going to be my new base. I started to research vodou and to this point it was the foundation of my work. Today I am looking at how I can use all aspects of religions to explain what is going on with my community. On the other hand as a child, I’ve always felt somewhat different in the communities I’ve lived in. I had a crazy imagination and was a bit eccentric so I was definitely the “weird boy” of the village. In a sense it made it difficult to feel entirely at home within these spaces. Now this has translated back into my work, I am looking at a lot of themes about conflict and states of turmoil both within oneself as well as within one’s community.
All religions and a lot of myths are a big factor in the inspiration of my work (Christianity, Vodou, Hinduism...). I did a series of drawings based on the 12 trials of Hercules, called the Dreevay Series (dreevay is Trinbagonian patois word meaning to “knocking about '') one of the last works I did before my move here. I think it’s probably one of my most honest works as it looks at a lot of factors in my life; relationships, my job, me just trying to figure out and find myself, me battling the space I was in. The link between that and the myth of Hercules was because a lot of people see the heroics in the stories, but in reality, it was his journey of redemption and overcoming the trauma of the murdering of his family. And at the end of the atonement, he is seen as this shining hero and becomes the best version of himself. I am looking at the emotional work involved in overcoming trials in life. There is something similar in the Bible as well with the Parables.
SP: Does it make your art self-exploring?
KB: Definitely. I question my place within my community quite often, and sometimes being reluctant to express some parts of myself (it’s still hard for me to dance in public). There are a lot of traumas that I am still navigating through. Before leaving Trinidad and with Covid going on I was fed up. Covid was my big break: although I was working from home, I was away from so much I started to feel better. I was focused on taking chances, getting out here. I have taken this big risk to come to New-York, but I was rewarded for all my efforts. I’m finding my way back into work.
SP: Would you say there is a specific artist that inspires you?
KB: The masters definitely, like Wifredo Lam and Windlow Homer. As I grew and started learning about and drawing inspiration from more artists that came into my sphere of knowledge such as Peter Doig and Chris Ofili out in the UK, Trinidadian artists like Eddie Bowen, Christopher Cozier as well as my contemporaries and friends. Someone whose work really influenced me early on was Wendell McShine, a Trini-American artist. Back then I was getting a lot of comparisons between my style and his, so I started to pull away from heading in that direction because I didn't want people to think I was trying to rip off his work. I wanted to have my own style, my own identity as a painter, instead of aspiring to have work “reminiscent of”. So, today I would say that my work is starting to get a bit more sophisticated and mature, and for a contemporary audience. I've been working on that, on a technical side as well as on a conceptual side. Although there is a lot of anxiety when I start creating something, I’m navigating at the moment and working on my creativity. Just allowing myself to not overthink the thing.
SP: You can't force creativity, it's a natural thing, maybe you need to find how to get inspired or like a place where it could trigger it.
KB: Space has been a problem to find. I had a studio to work in when I was in Trinidad and when I moved, I lost all of this space and control over flexibility of what I could create and work on, and as a painter there is often a limitation when I don't have a proper place to paint. Earlier this year I did my first residency at Governor's Island in New York. It’s on this small island in the New York Harbor, there’s a fort and a school located on site as well as a number of residency programs, it's a really beautiful space. The residency itself was pretty open, so much so that in the beginning I couldn't really decide on what I was going to do. In the end I started a small body of paintings that has really begun to inform how I've been working recently.
SP: It's difficult to move in such a big city and find your own space. Sometimes you just need a break to find back your creativity and not pressuring yourself into doing more work.
Is there any reason why you started to paint?
KB: I was always a creative child. In primary school we would always be drawing in the morning and at lunchtime and create characters. And I could draw pretty well but as a child I couldn't grasp the fact that I had the ability to draw more than cartoon characters. Fast forward to secondary school, in 6th form, I was 17 years old, drawing was the most fulfilling thing I could do, it was almost addictive. I was working on a big painting on canvas and although we had exams coming that's all I could think about. From there I was thinking, this is what I want to do with my life. And I have been pushing that way ever since.
SP: What is your process? How do you work and create?
KB: Initially I’d start thinking from the title, and I would work backwards. I would do some research about it and what it means. Some of my works come from dreams, I sometimes have very vivid dreams, especially with my anxiety dreams. There was a point in time when I was dreaming about a massive serpent being in my room, coming into my bed when I was sleeping, it sort of wrapped itself around me in a circle. In the dream though there wasn’t a sense of fear, but rather some kind of urgency, some kind of call to break a cycle. Since then serpents have begun to show up more and more in my work, a metaphor for a cycle of rebirth, Ouroboros, the snake that’s eating his own tail. I was making a great adjustment within myself at that time working on my mental health.
So it can start from the name, or from an idea that I would work in my head for a bit. I don’t do a lot of sketching or preliminary studies; I prefer to start directly on the canvas. I would get bored too easily. I do have a sketchbook, with little thumbnails and would come back to it from time to time, remembering old ones and thinking about it. There are some paintings I have been thinking about for years but yet to actually start bringing to life.
I’m looking into getting more maturity in my work without it being too rigid, I want a dimension of play to be still present. I am mainly doing painting and drawings; I have been trying sculpture which I did for the Ghetto Biennale in 2017 with found objects. It was totem poles I designed with one of my friends who is a set designer and artist, from Haiti. The focus was on the pillars for the society figures: religion, economics, politics and the social. We ended up building 4 of them, the most important was the political pole. It was made in a giant scale and below it was cutlasses cast into blocks of concrete. It was looking at the instability and how easily imbalanced the structure of Haiti's political history is. This was the biggest sculpture I have made to date. I'd like to revisit the idea though, or rather get a bit more into sculpture. Nyugen Smith, a Haitian-Trinidadian artist has been inspiring me a lot into my interest in that direction. His “Bundle house” sculptures look at themes making a place of security out of the things we have and linking it to refugee situations. I'd love to work with someone on a big scale sculpture in the future again.
SP: Did you notice any change in your practice since you started?
KB: Definitely, when I first started, my work was very stylised and illustration-like. I was relying quite heavily on my patternage. I’ve been focussing more on the control of the medium while working on stories. I am always pushing myself out of my comfort zone. I try to do things differently, whether it is a small thing or not with each work. I’ve been seeing a lot of growth; I’m pleased with myself as it is getting stronger. While I still have some insecurities on the aesthetics of the work, and what it should look like. Though now I'm seeing my work starting to mature and become more painterly. Today I believe my work is a bit too grounded in the real world still, like I haven't taken any real changes yet, so I am now pushing a kind of surreal style and experience.
SP: Why tapping in the surreal?
KB: Today Black portraiture is in high demand, which is amazing, but I want to search for something new; I don’t want to lose the magic that feeds my work. I don't want to be grounded in the real world. I want to talk about my community and my experience from a spiritual and metaphorical sense. I want the change to be an elevation of where my work has started to where I am now. I saw Leonora Carrington’s works at the MET and I found it so charged and amazing, full of poignancy and I would love my work to be this way.
SP: Do you think it is not exactly where you want it to be because of your move to NY and you're trying to find stability?
KB: I totally agree with that. I started taking even more chances in my work after my residency. I am trying to place my work in the wider scope of the artworld and see how it is relevant there. But today I am trying to walk out of this, I shouldn't question the relevance of my work… I just need to paint.
SP: I guess it is more about knowing who you're talking to, your audience.
KB: Yeah, usually when I show my work people tend to tell me that it is very Caribbean. Something I question, like what does that mean really?
SP: I was about to get there. The myths and spiritual dimension is often linked to Caribbean culture.
KB: I remember as a child, where I grew up there was an estate that was owned by an Orishan church and once a year they’d have this festival and from where I like it looked like a sea of flickering lights. I was seeing all of these rituals, celebrations and signs of worship all the time around me from all faiths really, it’s such a normal thing in Trinidad and Tobago. When I do get comments on the “Caribbeanness” of my work though it is usually in the way that I use colour and foliage that appears in the work. On the other hand I have seen a lot of American-Caribbean with the same idea of bringing these types of worlds together. Talking about Black artists, when painting people of colour, there is automatically a political/social attachment to the work. When I paint these people I'm asking myself what I am seeing around me. Recently I’ve been thinking about the creation of the world and linking that to making one's own space. When I paint a Black character, people always try to understand whether it's coming from certain boxes, Black Lives Matter, slavery... based on some interactions I had at the residency but in reality, it's a bit more internal. I am thinking of putting a little bit more weight on this subject matter but, being inspired by that instead of it just being about that. I want to understand what I have to do to keep my ideas “pure” even within the light of all these boxes. Now I am in a new space. I want to explore a new audience, and I am interested to see what boxes they would put my work in.
SP: You wouldn’t say your work is about Trini culture?
KB: Of course it is, or at least my experience of it. I paint about disparities I see, my own experience and I am always looking at the person less seen. When I first started in high school I was mainly focusing on women subjects, I have two sisters and my family is predominantly composed of women. I have seen a lot of things they have had to experience and that didn’t sit right with me. So it started there, but I would also paint about poverty, access to power and other socio-political matters and power dynamics. The Young island Derelict series is a testament to this, which started as a commission for the art work of a book of Poetry, ”You Have You Father Hard Head”. They wanted a portrait of a young man, seated but in all my sketches there was always the request to make the character look more attractive, although I wanted to paint him for who he is. I questioned the need for keeping up appearances and how easily we can be fooled by looking at a person's surface. On the other hand I was thinking about how with small changes in one's appearance we suddenly gain more respect... I was thinking of people I know from my childhood, people I know now. Because of how they look or who they are or what communities they come from, they’re perceived in a certain way. So, how do you switch the perception of that person? Can I seat them in a way that elevates them? Dress them up?
SP: Do you paint about femininity ?
KB: Initially I did, but my view on these was not a sexual gaze like a lot of my cohort had been doing during that time in high school. To be an artist, you can also be an activist all at once and that is a very important thing to be for me at that age. Here in the US I am still learning the social dynamics of the space. Back home the disparities were more about class and here it is more about race. I am an immigrant, a Black person, and I feel like an alien here. I feel like this transition will influence my work greatly and I am excited to see what it is going to inspire me to do.
SP: Do you feel you have a role in your community and in which way ?
KB: In Trinidad I do feel like I am part of a community, a community of creators, new contemporary artists. I do think I have a part to play in that. As part of a collective we have done a few shows with artists there, trying to make art more accessible. I think this is the major part I want to play and that I am playing now. I want to make art more accessible and more human. I want people to be themselves, and not to feel they have to speak with a certain accent for example. I want to make sure the core idea of my work is standing, regardless of where I move forward. I come from a predominantly coloured community, but I want to represent the world, my work is all about people, so I want to have this ability to paint all people in general, paint about the community I really care about.
SP: Do you have any projects or exhibitions that are going on now or coming soon ?
KB: I have been representing Trinidad and Tobago at the 19th Asian Biennale in Bangladesh which opened in December, which I am very excited about. As well as showing at Wa Na Wari Arts Centre out in Seattle until the 16th April 2023. I am glad that my work is starting to find its way around and reaching more people within different art communities.