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Santiago calls the project a work of “genetic imagination.”Martin Parsekian/The Globe and Mail

History is funny in that it doesn’t have a beginning, it has many beginnings. For multimedia artist Curtis Santiago, in his exhibition Can’t I Alter at the Drawing Center in New York, the story might start with the first time he travelled from Alberta to Trinidad as a child. It was during Carnival. And he remembers the J’ouvert celebration vividly, when his relatives painted their faces with red clay and danced in the streets while the sun came up. “As a kid from Sherwood Park,” he says, “seeing this freedom, this expression, this art form, it really resonated with me.” Or maybe the story begins with a Renaissance painting Santiago found online by an unknown artist. What caught his attention was the distinguished black knight riding through bustling Lisbon on horseback. Some research revealed that his insignia represented the Order of Santiago – a connection the artist would travel to Portugal to investigate.

In the exhibition, Santiago explores his ancestry through the time-travelling alter-ego Sir Dingolay, the J’ouvert knight. (“Dingolay,” the artist says, is a Trinidadian expression to “loosen up.”) Visitors enter the knight’s estate to explore the ruins and artifacts assembled there (sculpture, film, painting, drawing, works of mixed media), which evidence his appearance – or at least his likeness appearing – in ancient Ethiopia or 15th-century Iberia or present-day New York. The images resemble Medieval and Renaissance scenes, but the characters, marked by the red-painted faces of the artist’s memory, are engaged in the revelry of J’ouvert. The history Sir Dingolay has collected – like all histories, to some extent – are both factual and fictional.

Santiago calls the project a work of “genetic imagination.” “If we have ‘genetic trauma,’” he says, “why can’t we also harness the other memories, creativity and joy?”

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