We visited Taganyahu Swao (Taagen) at his apartment on Eastern Parkway, a cheerful apartment filled with sunlight where he lives with his wife and son. A bedroom doubles as his art studio, where he works on a variety projects using woodcuts, paintings, and stop animation using a Super 8 camera. His woodcuts, which combine imagery of chaotic urban scenes clashing with humanity and the natural world, are never completed until he’s worked a car, truck, or another form transportation in the composition.  He works from memories and snapshots from trips to Brazil, Jamaica, and Europe. Taagen is also deeply involved in creating music videos, from animating a Tom Waits video to directing and producing a series of videos from independent reggae musicians in the city where he grew up, Kingston, Jamaica.

: Describe your experience moving to the United States.

Taagen: I was born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica. My mother had to go to the states for work. She would leave us with my father. My grandparents and an uncle all lived with us at time. My mother eventually called my brother and my sister and I to come up and stay with her in the states. My parents were no longer really together and my Dad didn’t want to go. So I went to the states to live when I was 12. It wasn’t my first time being in the states as I had visited and spent time there with my family growing up. I had no idea though that this was where I would be spending the majority of my life. My father moved up to Brooklyn two years later.  I went to high school and then college in New York. My first apartment out of college was in Brooklyn. My first son was conceived of and born in Brooklyn.  I have been back to Jamaica and spent a long time living in Brazil. However I always return to Brooklyn New York.

NNNY: What was the evolution of you becoming an artist?

Taagen: My father is a Rastafarian painter, illustrator, has his own comic book and is an all around life artist. He played the flute, did back flips, a lot of martial arts, loved films, Julio Iglesias, Ralph Tamar and lots of obscure music. This was quite eccentric for a man who lived in conservative Kingston, Jamaica. And even for the Rastafarian community. So growing up with him I knew that I was different from the day I stepped in school and saw I was the only one with long dreadlocks! I did everything my dad did. There was no start to becoming an artist cause the way we lived was always creative. I only became conscious of this when I left my house and saw that other people didn't live eat or even talk the way we did. So I was always different and it was my destiny to be an artist from birth.

NNNY: Describe your studio practice.

Taagen: My studio is in my home. For the time being I don't have finances to have a space exclusively to create artwork. So my living room sometimes serves as the space but mostly I work in my bedroom, which has 2 large windows, a table with my computer on it, my dresser with my wife and I's clothes and two cabinets that holds everything from art supplies to musical instruments. I try to get it in during the afternoon hours while my children are at school but I usually work at night when they are asleep. It's a very peaceful time.

NNNY: What successes and difficulties have you had as a foreign–born artist in New York?

Taagen: I feel if I had grown up in the states I maybe a little more conditioned to the system here. However since I grow up in Jamaica, came here when I was 12 then travelled to Europe during college, and lived in Brazil for two years after school. I experience a feeling of constantly contrasting and comparing things. A feeling as if everywhere being foreign to me and also myself being a foreigner. Going back to Jamaica is the most jarring of all, as I am now a foreigner in my own home as the people treat me like that and I have yet to stay long enough for myself to feel re-acclimated there. So this is my difficulty as a foreign born artist in New York. As I do claim New York and I feel I represent New York. One success is that there are many foreigners and foreign-born artists here in New York. There is an immediate connection and feeling of understanding when meeting friends and other artists who've had a similar experience as a foreign born artist in New York. We all unite and claim our New York-ness in that regard. As mostly everyone in New York is a transplant. So connecting with this larger community of foreign-born artists for me is a great success.


NNNY: How has moving to the United States influenced your art?

Taagen: Moving to New York was a great influence as there was a huge exposure to many different mediums and forms of art that I hadn't seen in Jamaica. Growing up in Jamaica, there is art yet art doesn't have as strong a presence as it does here. Music is the main antidote for the masses and art comes second if not third or fourth. This great exposure has made me question, change and dig deeper into my ideologies of what is art. And the creation of it especially. Process is very important to me. Without having learned the processes that I was exposed to and learned here, I would be a different artist.

: What are your upcoming shows, projects, etc?

Taagen: I have my first solo exhibition at a small gallery which just recently opened up called Lotus Temple of Visions in Red Hook, Brooklyn June 21st. I'm very excited about this show. I'm also finishing my first feature film this year. I'm beginning to work on a very large woodcut for the Non-Native York Show!

For more information on Taganyahu Swao please visit his website: www.taagswao.com


© 2010 Non-Native New York

Selected Artists