Pikin Slee by Viviane Sassen
Stephen Shore has often said, “[w]hen I see that I’m repeating myself, or acting habitually, I ask new questions.”* This seems to be what Viviane Sassen has done with her most recent publication, Pikin Slee. Often lauded for her distinctive approach to the human form and dynamic use of color, Pikin Slee signifies a bold venture into largely untried territory. Sassen acknowledges this transition, explaining how she “longed for a simpler kind of photography” that would “re-set the eye: back to basics.” The result: a book largely comprised of black and white photographs of the everyday — vignettes of the landscape and commonplace objects – with an occasional portrait and flash of color.
Deep in the jungle of Suriname — the second smallest country in South America — is Pikin Slee, a village of inhabitants descended from Maroons who escaped slavery on Dutch plantations in the 18th century. As a Dutch woman raised in Kenya, Sassen felt an unmistakable connection to “the strange lines of faith that tied together [her] own history and theirs.” And while resonances such as this one have informed a number of Sassen’s previous projects, this idea is not the foundation of Pikin Slee. She turns her gaze to focus on this environment — less so its people — nodding to the unusual ways the modern world intersects with their traditional way of life.
Although Sassen is producing work in a remote location — and could easily fall prey to making an exoticized portrait of this place — she instead highlights the compelling beauty in the everyday. From detritus to laundry lines, she identifies traces of the sculptural in the inanimate. The images are often highly abstracted, reveling in an ambiguity of form that requires a deliberate kind of looking. Even the few photographs of people are considerably abstracted, at times blending with their surroundings to become almost indistinguishable. Many images evince a certain timelessness — tin roofs, clapboard siding and enormous plumes of vegetation; they could easily be mistaken for photographs by Aaron Siskind or Paul Strand.
Pikin Slee takes more time to reveal itself than other projects. But the more time you spend with these images, the more apparent their connection to Sassen’s unique visual language becomes. Her characteristic interests — the interplay of textures; light and shadow; blur and focus; weight and weightlessness — continue to define her approach to these still lifes. The stunning use of black and white accentuates these features, drawing attention to the subtle shifts present throughout each image. The predominant use of this dual palette also serves to highlight the sporadic glimpses of color, and the difference in tenor triggered by this contrast.
The book’s design echoes Sassen’s reductive approach in this body of work. The layout is uncomplicated; images either appear centered on a single page or across a double-page spread. This simple presentation focuses the eye on the images themselves, how they resonate when viewed individually, as opposed to the relationship between paired images.
One of Sassen’s great gifts is her ability to challenge what we think we know and understand, whether it be the human body, fashion or the “Other.” In Pikin Slee, we are not only encouraged to recalibrate how we experience our surroundings – to turn a more discerning eye to what can easily be overlooked — but are also compelled to rethink how we conceive of the artist and her practice.