Nov 01/2012
by Kris Samraj photography Ashley Champagne

The Artist formerly known as Curtis Santiago. Artists who change their moniker obviously recall the practice’s most famous example. Talwst is now the preferred name of the artist and musician Curtis Santiago. This is the only name change for Santiago while Prince went through multiple changes, so the comparison is premature. Nonetheless, it will be interesting to watch if Talwst becomes the first iteration of an ever evolving identify.


Talwst separates the artist and person, though in some ways the moniker is a better match for the person than his birth name. Santiago was born in Edmonton.

There were frequent trips to Trinidad growing up and the time spent in the Caribbean gave Santiago an early sense of a wide world. During one of these trips to Trinidad a young & unaccompanied Santiago went down to the local market. As he wandered through the stalls people he had never met began to call out to him. His bodily form recalled his father’s and grandfather’s so strongly that strangers immediately recognized his lineage. Talwst as in tall waist, high waist — long legs. It’s strikingly obviously if you’ve seen Curtis Santiago. The man’s legs go on forever. “My father’s exactly the same, my grandfather’s exactly the same. We often tuck our shirts in and our pants would always be a little bit shorter because we could never find pants that were long enough,” says Santiago.

Talwst connects the disparate chronological and geographical threads that run through Santiago’s life. All our familial histories are present in us, but perhaps not as obviously as Santiago’s. The name honors those implied histories by explicitly acknowledging them. Talwst explains his goal is “to combine ancient knowledge with what I’m learning of the contemporary world.”

The past and present, the far and near come together in his music and his art. His current show, ‘Death of Swag’, at the Fuse Gallery, New York, presents a collection of sculptured human heads. The sequel to ‘Swagged Out’, is inspired from the character wall masks designed by W. Ray Bosson in the mid 20th century. The cast of heads are international; from an Arab sheik to a Native American to a turbaned Sikh. Using Bosson’s heads, Talwst’s makes subtle differences that contemporize and subvert the original. A moustache on da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.

Each head sports either a pair of Ray-Bans or Shutter Shades. The “Talwst Ray-Ban Edition sunglasses”, as Santiago calls them, were created through computer modeling then brought to life by a 3-D resin printer. The Kanye West glasses are the most obvious reference to Swag culture, but look closer and you see Louis Vuitton scarfs and hand sculpted grills. The heads are brash, vulgar, and tacky. Expertly and realistically rendered, the human faces have slight exaggerations and become more grotesque the closer you get.

The titles reference swag rap; a genre characterized a brash attitude, by style rather than content. The delivery is what’s important. A meticulously crafted Sikh head wearing Kanye West glasses is great delivery. It looks cool, but what does it mean? Similar types have made me to wary of first impressions. Banksy’s stencil ‘Soldier frisked by a little girl’. It looks cool it must mean something. Banksy’s doesn’t, but does Talwst’s work have depth beyond the surface?

Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun first saw Santiago through his living room window staring at the numerous paintings within the condo. An admirer of Yuxweluptun’s work he did not realize the home belonged to the paintings’ creator. An initially skeptical Lawrence Paul let him in and warmed to Santiago, charmed by his enthusiasm and colourful Addidas Crazy 8 high-tops. Through sheer perseverance Santiago convinced Yuxweluptun to take him as an apprentice. “The biggest thing I liked about Lawrence’s work is his focus on spirit animals, something out of this realm. I identify with surrealist art the most and have always gravitated towards it. I love the idea of what couldn’t quite be explained in the spiritual world,” says Talwst.

The surrealist tendencies extend to Santiago’s music. In 2012, Santiago released his first album under Talwst — Alien Tentacle Sex. A childhood UFO experience began a lifelong fascination with the stars. The album, produced by Illangelo, is worth a listen. Santiago’s vocal range is on display moving from gravelly in ‘Peace Tonight’ to a smooth tenor in ‘No Stones.’ He sings over an eclectic and complex background of sounds.

Talwst sees music as performance art, another branch of the same creative impulse. Both are attempts to reconcile the material and mystical. In the material world, he is conscious of history, image, brand & presentation. The other mystical world is populated with aliens, animal spirits & UFOs. “When I’m in the zone creatively it’s like I leave this realm, I leave my body, I leave my mind. It’s just something higher. The vibrations and frequencies align,” says Santiago.

Santiago is very much an artist of the 21st Century, a product of our time. He is bi-coastal & geographically mobile with a complex personal heritage. He, like us, sees the totality of Earth like never before possible and yet finds room for the mystical and mysterious. His music and art weave interesting connections between his myriad experiences of modernity and the sublime.

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