Self Portrait (1968) Felix de Rooy, Photomontage by René Wissink (Atelier Argos)
Felix de Rooy, the Caribbean Cocteau
When I look at Felix de Rooy’s creative work- the visual art, the theatrical and cinematographic productions, the curatorial projects- I consider the work of a multi-faceted Caribbean artist who works in a wide range of different media. The boundaries between the different art forms are fluid and not as strict as they often have become in the art world. From an art critical perspective this fluidity is problematic because there is a tendency to put artists in neatly labelled categories defined by medium and method. Apparently it is forgotten that artists like the Frenchman Jean Cocteau, the Austrian Arnold Schoenberg or the Chilean Alejandro Jodorowsky embraced different art forms to express themselves. In De Rooy’s case an evaluation of his artistic achievements is not complete without taking his whole oeuvre into account including the films, theatre productions and curatorial projects. In that sense he has to be regarded in the same way as Jean Cocteau, who was as multi-talented and himself a great example for De Rooy.
De Rooy does not hesitate to quote or use the imagery of the great names in European art history and incorporate this boldly into his work reflecting the heritage of the former colonising European mother country, in this case the Netherlands. But being a mixed race child of Surinam and the Netherlands Antilles other elements play an equal role: the pre-colonial and indigenous cultures of those countries, the racial and cultural mix of today and the vibrancy of folk art and craft are important elements in his work. The formal process of making art is not an aim in itself, it is the story or message that is more important than the means to achieve this, which perhaps explains why De Rooy is not afraid to explore different art forms.
De Rooy’s earlier paintings, drawings and other two-dimensional work are influenced by late 19th-early 20th century artists like Aubrey Beardsley, Toulouse-Lautrec and Jan Toorop, who were all re-discovered in the Swinging Sixties. Their work or style found its way into design, fashion and youth culture and the young De Rooy not only lived through that now mythical and hedonistic time but also adapted these artists’ style into his own work. Also, the similarities with Cocteau’s style clearly show the Frenchman’s influence on De Rooy, who has continued to work in this linear, symbolistic approach.
In De Rooy’s subject matter the European traditions in art are apparent: Greek myths, the Madonna and Child and other Roman Catholic subjects, and direct quotations from Leonardo are all feature in his oeuvre. They are proof of De Rooy’s highly intellectual upbringing and European education.
But that is just one side of the story. De Rooy is rooted in the complex history of different races and cultures in the former Dutch slave trading colonies in the
Caribbean and he refers back to the pre-colonial cultures and religions, the brutal conquest by the colonisers and consequent introduction of new religions and a new class
system dominated by white Europeans and slavery. The heritage of three centuries of colonial rule is evident all over the Caribbean today. When one combines within oneself traces of the white European ruler, the black African slave, perhaps the indigenous Surinam Indian, the indentured South Indian or Javanese labourer, the range of subject matter, stories and emotions is limitless. In De Rooy’s case his open homosexuality from an early age on has added even more to the many different aspects to the man and the art itself.
However brutal or poignant the subject of a work may be, it is mainly expressed in colourful, dreamlike, sensual imagery in which the human or mythological figure often takes centre stage. In his paintings and drawings De Rooy reveals himself as a dreamer and a creator of his own mythological world, perhaps surprisingly less militant than in his cinematographic, theatre and curatorial projects.
Stefan van Raay
Director of Pallant House Gallery,
Chichester, United Kingdom