Bending Benchmarks is a series of photos that were taken in Moengo, a town in Suriname’s northeastern district Marowijne, close to the border to French Guiana. I first travelled to Moengo for a project in 2017, when I created the works featuring the golf course (a part of Bending Benchmarks). The trip fueled my fascination for Moengo, its residents and its curious history. In 2019, an opportunity arose to return to Suriname. I went back to Moengo for a three-month residency through the Mondriaan Fund, which allowed me to complete Bending Benchmarks.
Moengo, Alcoa and Suralco
Nothing in Moengo is as it seems at first glance. Moengo was founded in 1916, when American mining company Alcoa (Aluminium Company of America) discovered bauxite in the vicinity. The company did a thorough job establishing its local business; it created an entire town to facilitate its bauxite mining activities. To run its Suriname-based business, Alcoa established a subsidiary: the Suriname Bauxite Company.
In 1957, the Suriname Bauxite Company was renamed Suriname Aluminium Company, or Suralco in short. Suralco copied the segregation that the Dutch had implemented on their plantations. Moengo’s layout was based on segregation: there was a section for white staff, and separate quarters for Javanese and Creole workers. The different districts were not set apart by fences, but rather by invisible boundaries, that everyone seemed to adhere to naturally.
Bending Benchmarks is a photo series that was taken at various abandoned spots in Moengo: a motel, a tennis court, a tennis pool, Casa Blanca and the Beatrix Theatre. All of these places were built by Suralco, to provide some leasure for their employees. However, not all employees were welcome; access was merely granted to Suralco’s managerial staff.
These remnants of Suralco’s recreational facilities leave a clear mark on Moengo’s public space. They demonstrate the town’s wealthy past, but the decay is also emblematic of Suralco’s departure from Moengo. When the mining company left, a lot of employment opportunities and welfare disappeared with it. At the same time, it also ended segregated life in Moengo.
In the photos, these places are temporarily brought back to life.
In Motel 1234, three boys are having a pillow fight. They portray the struggle of trying to earn an income in a post-industrial town. The balls falling on the tennis court symbolize the transition that Moengo finds itself in now. The man fishing inside Casa Blanca shows us one of the beautiful things that Suralco left behind, which became useless and stripped of its meaning. Meanwhile, the three boys having fun in the theatre show us that life goes on, and that our surroundings do not always defined us.