Standing (De Pie) in Loíza
By Lowell Fiet
The accomplished African-Puerto Rican artist Daniel Lind-Ramos paints on canvas with oil, brushes, and spatulas, meticulously blending colors, layering textures, and shaping images. He also works with common cardboard, wire screen, discarded appliances, car parts, the refuse of coconut palm trees, broken musical instruments and used articles of everyday domestic and agricultural labor. Local artisans in his hometown of Loíza, the seat of Puerto Rico’s African cultural heritage, use these materials as well to create the dynamic masks of the characters for the annual Fiestas of Santiago Apóstol.
Lind-Ramos’ mastery as a painter of large canvasses has been established over decades, but he also increasingly innovates through installation, video production and assemblage. He experiments with versions of the Viejo (foolish old man) mask of the Fiestas, which is crafted from cardboard and less defined than the better known coconut-husk Vejigante (trickster-devil) mask, the wire-screen face mask of the dandy-like Caballero (gentleman or knight), or the blackened and made-up face of the cross-dressed Loca (crazy woman). For Lind-Ramos, the Viejo permits broader interpretive possibilities. That practice results in a reconfiguration of his artistic media as a more direct reflection of the social and cultural environment of Loíza, located about 10 miles from San Juan on the island’s northeast coast.
“Majestic” is not a critical term nor does it fully express the design and reach of the assemblages of Daniel Lind-Ramos. Yet the word kept ringing in my head while I walked among the pieces and then after I left De Pie (Standing), an exhibit of newly assembled pieces by Lind-Ramos on the second floor of the Museum of the Americas in the colonial Ballajá Barracks in Old San Juan, from November 23, 2013, through February 2014. The exhibit displayed what I can only call a majestic dance or interplay of local specificities and abstract art, fixed objects and performance, and supposed ethnographic and universal aesthetic elements. It explored a kind of creative pointillism to fill a global map dot by dot, space by space, that counteracts the marginalization of art for reasons of geography, gender, race or belief system.
“Standing” could signify political or cultural resistance or maybe still “standing” after so many years; it could also be “stand” up as command or incentive for reclamation of rights or of what’s owed; or “standing” out, becoming visible against a backdrop of prior invisibility. But it perhaps better communicates the height and structural independence of a solid and firmly rooted base that allows the artist to erect polyvalent totemic forms forged from the natural vegetative refuse and recycled articles of the day-to-day domestic and work environment of the tropical coastal region of Loíza. De Pie reflects four decades of mature creativity, always innovative, experimental and capable of reinventing itself without losing touch with rootedness, as much in the artist’s skilled technical control of his medium as in the sandy earth, the foliage and the social, cultural, and domestic specificities of the African-Puerto Rican community. Lind-Ramos “stands” from Loíza with his shadow pointing toward San Juan, New York, and Paris, where he has studied and worked, and toward the University of Río Piedras-Humacao Campus, where now he teaches; also farther out, toward showings in Senegal, Buenos Aires, Trinidad, Jamaica and Barbados, among others, but always with his feet (pies) like rhizomes firmly planted in the stories of survival and sustenance of the Antilles.
In his written statement about the exhibit, Lind-Ramos refers to “luminosity” and the creation of a “utopia of light” through his art. His workshop in the Colobo sector of Loíza features a large skylight that provides the clarity required to comply with that creative vision. For over more than a decade I have had the privilege of visiting the artist’s workshop and studying his works in various stages of their development. I saw various fragments of the assemblages of De Pie, but I did not foresee the impact of the more massive pieces once they were finished and installed in the rooms and hallways of Ballajá. Assemblages such as the large Armario de la conciencia(Conscience’s Wardrobe) and the slightly smaller Centinelas (Sentries) illuminate the interior spaces they occupy. The two trunks made of palm branches topped by glass cases that frame the hallway in front of the exhibit rooms suggest an extraordinary polysemy that grasps observers’ senses and ignites their curiosity. These structures, composed of recycled and reused objects, demonstrate the plasticity, dimension, complexity, and enlightened flow of creative force seen in works by other internationally known artists such as mask makers Romuald Hazoumé and Calixte Dakpogan of the Republic of Benin, as well as the transformation of common objects into works of uncommon visual beauty demonstrated in the tapestries of El Anatsui of Ghana.
Four large canvasses with charcoal drawings represent more immediately readable imaginaries inside the socio-historical, political and cultural contexts of Loíza. Titled Tocones, Elegía, Costa Serena and Apoteosis, they relate the resistance of the Loíza community through more than three centuries of marginalization and political and economic domination. Here charcoal, without the shaded colors and textures of oil, imprints its raw images and immerses the observer’s imagination in multilayered mythologies: in these drawings indigenous Taínos, free and enslaved Africans, Spaniards, immigrant Irish landowners, Catholics saints, and African belief systems integrate with and transform current tensions created by unemployment, gang, drug, and police violence, and limited economic development to keep a community “standing” on the solid syncretic basis of its African-Hispanic cultural heritage.
I visited Lind-Ramos in his studio in late September 2014 to view an in-progress assemblage of even larger dimensions than those of De Pie. He requested that I not photograph the project in its entirety but did permit photos of clusters of objects. The story of the Fiestas of Santiago Apóstol, its saints, masked characters, music, processions, and their egungun function of calling the ancestors, resides inside its assembled objects and memories. A segment of a new unfinished piece contained a broken trombone slide given to Lind-Ramos by a friend, the Loízan-born jazz great William Cepeda; another part comes from a discarded high school instrument; and the broken horn itself was acquired as junk in Amsterdam. From Loíza the artist recycles the World.
Lowell Fiet teaches Caribbean Drama and Performance at the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras, and directs the Interdisciplinary Studies Program in College of Humanities. He is the author of El teatro puertorriqueño reimaginado: Notas críticas sobre la creación dramática y el performance (Ediciones Callejón, 2004) and Caballeros, Vejigantes, Locas y Viejos: Santiago Apóstol y los performeros afro-puertorriqueños (Terranova Editores, 2007).
Daniel Lind Ramos and the Visual Politics of Race in Puerto Rican Art
Fabienne Viala – University of Warwick
historical memory, national identity, racial identities, Puerto Rico, African cultural heritage, codes of representation
This article discusses the work of the painter and installation artist Daniel Lind-Ramos. The Puerto Rican artist explores the complex relationships that exist between historical memory, national identity and racial identities in Puerto Rico; more specifically, he shows the taboos that weigh on African cultural heritage in the Estado Asociado Libre, through a style of painting that is always symbolic, sometimes allegorical and containing “keys” that bring the political and the metaphysical into a dialogue on canvas and in space. For Lind-Ramos, art is the expression of an Afro-Puerto Rican hyper-consciousness that claims the right to redefine the codes of representation and visual perception of a Caribbean socio-political reality that addresses its colonial status.
This article was written in the context of Fabienne Viala’s participation in the RITA (Race in the Americas) research group and her collaboration with the Institute of Caribbean Studies at UPR (University of Puerto Rico).
1. Race, Memory and Cultural Nationalism in Puerto Rico
Since Puerto Rico became a Free Associated State in 1952, cultural nationalism has shaped the representation of Puerto Rican identity on the island. National and cultural identities have been praised, taught, commemorated and monumentalised since the 50s as elements of an idealised, homogeneous and miscegenated society, allegedly enriched by the influence of two colonial powers at different times in history: Spain and the USA. Language, historical heritage and race currently continue to play a major role in defining Puertoricanness in the mainstream cultural, educational and political institutions on the island. The result is an ongoing taboo on black Antillean heritage and the subtle exclusion of slave-related cultural legacy from the collective imagination.
The guardian of Puertoricanness in the Free Associated State is the Instituto de Cultura Puertoriqueña (Institute for Puerto Rican Culture), which promotes the mainstream and official culture on the island. Created in 1955 by Ricardo Alegría, the ICP resisted culturally to American acculturation mostly via the valorisation of Spanish culture.
The seal of the ICP (fig1) shows the Spanish conquistador Juan Ponce de Leon, who founded San Juan in 1509 after he travelled with Columbus in his second voyage, with a grammar book in his hands. He stands in between a taíno Indian holding a cemí (a religious statue) and a black slave holding a machete (used to cut sugar cane in the plantations). A caravel is in the background. On this seal representing the myth of a harmonious miscegenation, the three cultures – Spanish, Arawak and Black – are equally represented but with attributes that connote and denote, their different importance in the Puerto Rican imagination. The visual message of the seal is that Spain brought culture, language and civilisation; the indigenous Caribbean people encountered by the Spanish conquistadors are represented as possessing a religion, and therefore a soul, in the vein of Las Casas’s defence of the Indians as creatures of God. But the black slaves are remembered only as a working labour force for the plantation.
The status of Estado Asociado Libre (Free Associated State) is ambivalent, in the sense that it defines Puerto Rico as free and, at the same time, as integrated to the United State. This resulted in ambivalent representations of Puerto Rican identity, emphasized since the 1990s, at a time when the status of the island was debated through a referendum. Since 1992, and the grand scale celebration of the fifth centennial of Columbus’s arrival on the island, the Spanish heritage has been even more glorified, and Spanish became the official language on the island. But far from contesting the American belonging, praising Hispanic origins projected the image of Puerto Rico as an exceptional Spanish Speaking American colony. Another consequence of the 1992 anniversary is the overrepresentation of the Taíno heritage in the arts and education on the island, as opposed to the almost invisible representation of slavery and African heritage.
Indeed, the 1992 commemorations in Puerto Rico were on one hand meant to encourage a total erasure of the violence of the past, and on the other hand, to celebrate the modernity of Puerto Rico as an ongoing process, from Columbus, who hispanised the island of Borinquen, to the integration of Puerto Rico to the USA as a Estado Asociado Libre. In terms of cultural memory, this resulted in praising the indigenous heritage, in quite a folkloric manner (taíno craft fairs, taíno beauty prizes, taíno bedtime stories for children, and all sort of essentialist consumption products), as examined by Arlene Davila: « The taíno constitutes the most easily evoked symbol of a legendary past that is mystified and permeated with nationalist overtones » (Davila 1997, p71).
A good example to understand the racial narration of history on the island is the series of historical comics Historia Gráfica de Puerto Rico, which was published at the time of the 1992 commemorations. In the first fanzine, we can see Columbus being congratulated by the Kings of Spain after returning from his first voyage. His caravels then leave for the second trip, and land on the island of Borinquen: the native people encountered on the shore ask the Spaniards for protection against the cannibals, that they call Caribs. The vignettes eventually present the habitat and the way of life of the Indians identified as Taínos. Each object is named in Arawak language, accompanied by a definition in Spanish. Such a graphic and didactic narration simplified history for the young and average Puerto Rican readers. The historical past was manipulated to promote the illusion of a Taíno-Spanish marvellous encounter.
The second fanzine dealt in the same romanticised style with slavery and the African slave trade. Yet, the focus was mostly on the trade and not on the plantation, and nothing informed the reader of matters concerning slave habitat, cultural practices, religion, or even sufferings, as it was the case in the fanzine focused on the indigenous people. Furthermore, the second fanzine on savery was a limited edition that is now only available on the rare books collection of the University of Puerto Rico library, while the other one, dealing with the taíno culture, has been republished several times (Viala 2014).
The tale of miscegenation in Puerto Rico is mainly a Taíno/Hispanic one that excludes Blackness. The fact that the Black component was not integrated in the commemorative 1992 events had to do with the official definition of Puerto Rican cultural identity as the homogeneous result of a Spanish and Indian encounter. It goes without saying that such a limited representation of Puerto Rican identity does not suit all the Puerto Ricans. When it comes to cultural politics, many artists, journalists, historians and educators work towards a more complex representation of their society, acknowledging not only that racism exists in Puerto Rico, that racial discrimination remains a common practice, but also that race is a taboo with damaging consequences (Bonilla Silva 2010). The novelist, professor and activist Mayra Santos Febres analysed how the fear of « everything black » lead to the silencing of Black Puerto Rican history in the school curricula and in the cultural representations on the island. Santos Febres showed that blackness is associated to irrationality, located in a cultural liminal space, characterised as non-intelligible, sensual, and primitive, as opposed to the values of civilization provided first by Spain, eventually by the USA. Black Antillean identity, in literature and arts, is associated with other Caribbean people coming from countries considered underdeveloped, such as the Dominicans, the Cubans or even « worse », the Haitians (Santos Febres 2009).
This is when Daniel Lind Ramos’s visual imagination becomes really interesting to understand and question race in Puerto Rico. Performance and visual arts are the cultural fields where the consensual cultural perspective of the Free Associated State has been strongly invalidated in Puerto Rico. More specifically, I consider Lind Ramos’s art pieces, from paintings to installations, to be a laboratory for addressing issues of race in relationship to identity, memory and belonging in Puerto Rico. Merging the political, the mythical and the everyday life in the manner of chronicle of the unsaid, Lind Ramos unmasks the multiple components of Caribbean identities hidden behind the national delusions of his island, on the canvas but also thanks to daily objects transformed and displayed into symbolic art installations. The combination of painting, sculpture and religious altars contributes to unveil the taboos on colonial history that continue to produce anxiety and divide the Puerto Rican society according to skin colour and dependency complexes. Through his unconventional use of colours and figuration, Lind Ramos sheds light on the Afro-Antillean heritages that contributed to the transculturation of the Hispanic Caribbean societies, despite the fact that blackness was minimised and Caribbean identity deprived of its black component to fit in the standardised and racial definition of identity in the Free Associated State.
A black artist and an art teacher in Puerto Rico, Lind Ramos claims back his Antillean belonging without denying his Puerto Rican identity. He questions the limits of the political tales produced by competing cultural nationalisms on the island, with a view to recover the syncretic cultural identity of Puerto Rico through art. Constructed as political riddles and Afro-Caribbean religious altars, his paintings, installations, and sculptures invite the spectator to remember race in Puerto Rico so to let his fellow subalterns see, whatever is their skin colour and blood descend. Without any didactic intentions, Lind Ramos offers a visual re-signification of the relationship between memory and heritage in Puerto Rico.
2. The Carnival as a way of seeing
Born in Loíza, where he still lives and has his studio, Lind Ramos integrates some typical elements of his hometown as symbolic fragments of local Antillean identity on the canvas. They are not illustrations of the local folklore, but meaningful elements that participate in the creation of a deeper metaphysical, political and visual riddle for the spectator to decipher. For the sake of clarity, I will briefly explain the socio-historical context of Loíza before analysing the way in which Lind Ramos creatively transforms the local cultural environment into a visual and symbolic riddle.
The town of Loíza is the blackest area of Puerto Rico, considered as a black ghetto by the whiter and privileged Puerto Ricans of San Juan. The population is mostly of African, slave and Yoruba descent. Loíza celebrates carnival, a popular festival inherited from slavery as almost all Caribbean carnivals, which were the opportunity for slaves to practice their religion in disguise. In Loíza, the carnival starts each year in the last week of July, on the day of Santiago Apostol also called Santiago Matamoros (Saint James the moor slayer). Represented on his horse with a sword, St James comes from the Spanish catholic heritage, where he is a hero who protected Christianity against the moors. There are four major characters that perform the street procession: the caballeros (knights) who stand for the Spanish knights and dress in a colourful manner reminiscent of the Spanish hidalgos; the vejigantes, a name which combines the words vejiga (bladder) and gigante (giant); they represent the devils or evil spirits (the moors) and are dressed with colourful capes, and masks made of painted coconuts, on which long and sharp sticks are nailed; their role is to fly around and pretend to beat people with the inflated animal bladder they carry on a stick. The viejos (old men) represent the poorest and armless civilians, often performed by the local musicians who play music in the cortege; finally the locas (the queer) are men disguised in women, following the carnivalesque tradition of swapping around gender roles and appearances.
Santiago o la transformación de la memoria (fig2) is a free inspiration of the Loíza carnival in which Lind Ramos questions the meaning of historical memory in the Free Associated State. This art piece, mixing painting, sculpture and installation, invites to resist collective amnesia, and to claim back African and slave heritages into the collective imagination of the island. The main characters are displayed on the canvas following the tradition of divine apparitions and annunciations. In the middle, Santiago Apostol appears on a throne as a black slave, naked, muscular and holding a machete. He wears a white scarf on his head and a ring on his right ear. Around him, , two vejigantes (top left and bottom right corner) and a caballero (bottom left corner) are trying to handle him the traditional objects associated with the Spanish Saint Santiago Matamoros: the helmet, the horse, and the sword; while at the top right corner, a ghostly, evil and black cherub attempts to cover Santiago’s black face with a white mask, typical of the masks of the comedia dell’arte and of the Venice carnival. The mask is dazzling white, as the horse on the opposite left hand corner. The musicians representing the viejos are black; they play drums wearing bronze masks in the manner of Greek antique tragedy, as if they were performing a persona. Puerto Rican identity is about disguising blackness, either hiding it, either whitening it, with the varnish of Catholic, European and Spanish traditions.
Lind Ramos has also remarkably worked the light and colour effects in this painting to create a bluish dark background, as if the scene was taking place under water or surrounded by a purple mist as in a dream. At the bottom of the painting and carved inside the frame, there is an installation typical of the altars of santería (the afro-Caribbean religion inherited from the Yoruba slaves, mostly present in Cuba, but also to a lesser extent in Puerto Rico). In santería, the altar is the sacred place to display the objects attached to an orisha (a god). Here, the machete, the sugar canes and the chains clearly stand for slavery; the sword and the cross represent the Spanish heritage, while the cemi, a religious terracotta recipient that the taíno Indians used in their religious rituals, represents the indigenous people of the Caribbean. Instead of the dark and gloomy vejigantes that are taking control over memory in the painting, we see in the altar the colourful coconut masks that they were during the Loíza carnival. The top part (the painting) is in dialogue with the bottom part (the installation) in the manner of a complementary, reparatory and inverted photographic negative. While the painting tells the story of national amnesia, the objects below celebrate the transculturated Caribbean identity of Puerto Rico. While the protagonists of the carnival – vejigantes, caballeros, viejos – look like ghost figures attempting to manipulate memory, their attributes displayed in the altar, and carved by Lind Ramos himself, give a sense that transculturation is real while cultural nationalism is fake. The painting tells the story of a delusion, and makes it a visual illusion, while the altar performs the actual cultural reality of Puerto Rico as everyday life objects.
Besides, the altar is clearly associated with the orisha Oggun, the god of war, resistance and strength in santería. Oggun holds a machete, his metal is iron and his colours are black, red and purple. The bottom installation therefore invites the spectator to re-read visually Santiago Matamoros as the orisha Oggun, identitifed by the impassive and daring look of his eyes, the machete in his hands and the purple light all around him. While the painting narrates the ongoing exclusion of black heritage in Puerto Rico, the installation fosters resistance to amnesia, and invites to transform memory. This empowering effect culminates in the celebration of transculturation and of Caribbean belonging in Puerto Rico.
Lind Ramos neither claims his negritude nor does he preach black power in Puerto Rico. As a black Puerto Rican citizen and artist, he creates visual scenarios where black-Antilleanity is a way of seeing differently, in order to acknowledge the cultural and social reality of Puerto Rico. Blackness is not a topic represented on the canvas (that would be painting black people doing what white people think black people do); rather, blackness is part of a set of symbols that dialogue with each other to defolklorise the Loíza carnival and invalidate the stereotypes attached to black people in Puerto Rico. Lind Ramos’s creativity resonates with what the black feminist and art critic bell hooks identified as visual politics in Art on my mind (1995) : talking about black art does not mean talking about black representation in art, but rather, it must be a « revolution in the way we see, in the way we look » (Hooks 1995, p4).
Lind Ramos paints to investigate the reality (Rivera 2009, p99); he belongs to those « black folks who are interrogating essentialist assumptions about black identity, and engaged in an act of decolonization of the mind that empowers and liberates » (Hooks 1995, p11).
3) Racial and Political Allegories: Black Skin, White Masks
For Lind Ramos, the mythical, the political and the everyday life are one single thing, as he said: « I take from here and from there and I create an image where everything is in a way atomized, this is my way to interrogate who we are, where we come from and where we are going /yo cojo de aquí y de allá y hago una imagen donde todo este de cierta manera atomizado, es una manera de investigar lo que somos, hacia donde vamos » (Rivera 2009, p100, my translation).
The act of painting, and the choice of art as a life occupation, indicates an awareness of, and a reaction against the censorship on racial issues in the mainstream Puerto Rican cultural politics. Lind Ramos considers that « the majority chose not to be black. We decided to be white. Nobody wants to call himself black here ». El Elector (fig3) examines the types of racial, cultural and political pressures that each artist must face in Puerto Rico. In the middle of the painting, the black painter kneels down on the floor where three colours are available on the palette: blue, red and green. Each colour represents a political tendency in Puerto Rico: blue is the colour of the PNP (Partido Nacional de Puerto Rico), claiming statehood; red is the colour of the PPD (Partido Popular Democratico), supporting the status quo and the semi-autonomy of the Free Associated State; green is the colour of the independent Party on the island, the PIP (Partido Independista de Puertorriqueño). While kneeling down to choose his colours, the artist is also holding a white mask with his other hand, half covering his face. The interpretation is left open whereas he his putting on or taking off the mask. In either ways, the artist’s political choice seems to be conditioned by race and racial identity.
Lind Ramos invites the spectator to examine politics and race as the two sides of the same coin in Puerto Rico. The Puerto Rican artist is trapped in a socio-political situation where he is compelled to become a perpetual elector without being fully free to create, tied by the short-sighted and antagonistic choices given to Puerto Ricans in terms of identity and cultural belonging. Fanon’s views in Black Skin White Masks are here transferred to the Free Associated State where racial identity is not only judged according to the racist and moral criteria of the acculturated and colonised mind, but also made subservient to a political determinism responsible for tearing apart the Puerto Rican community. On the palette, a black mask recalling the mask of a vejigante stands for another cultural belonging, Afro-Caribbean, in resonance with the figure of a king in the background : it is Changó, the yoruba god of thunder. His burning spear is pointing to the right hand corner of the painting, in opposite direction to the one towards which the black character is kneeling at the bottom left corner of the canvas. The African heritage and religious syncretism remain in the background, as something that is not an obvious choice for the painter and that he cannot see because of the white mask that covers his eyes. But it is Changó in the background who represents strength and action, creating a hurricane represented by the red ball of winds coming from his spear. Changó is the orisha in charge of justice and he is celebrated in the background as a reparatory figure that could mend memory and cure the identity complexes of the acculturated Puerto Ricans. The need to accept one’s roots is urgent in Puerto Rico, as suggested by this painting.
Encrucijada de la Burundanga (fig4) is another variation of the same racial and polititcal dilemma. The main character this time is a black woman holding her head in her hand, something that could mean despair, doubt, worry or sleepiness. She is naked with a white scarf on her head, representing slavery. Here it is not historical slavery but mental slavery, and the limits of willpower in Puerto Rico, that is the main theme of the painting. To understand the emotional drama represented on the canvas we need to put together the many symbols displayed on the painting. The crossroad in the title is a strategic place in santería (as it is the case in other afro-Caribbean religions like voodoo in Haiti). The orisha associated with the crossroad is Elegua in Cuba and in Puerto Rico (and Eshu is Haiti). He is the god of destiny and destination and he holds in his power men’s ability to decide for themselves and make choices in their mortal life. The crossroad in this painting appears as a variation of the notion of election that was pressuring the artist in El Elector. The crossroad appears here in the shape of a black vejigante mask with arrows pointing at the four cardinal points. The political struggle between the three main parties on the island is represented with the house on the background, at the right hand corner, where we can see the three political colours, blue, red and green. The nation is a source of sorrows for the Puerto Rican subject, who cannot identify with any of them. Changó and his spear appear in this painting like in El elector, but this time he is a half-human/half-animal creature; a hurricane is also beginning to roar in the background. At the top of the painting, bottles and other objects are displayed as containers awaiting for offerings to the orishas, while at the bottom, the objects of an altar in trompe l’oeil are painted to represent the divine forces at stake in the painting and to question the power of illusion. The whole art piece is an invitation to see by ourselves and question the meaning of things. The name Burundanga in the title has also several meanings. In Caribbean Spanish, a burundanga is a mixture, often used to qualify a dish made of several ingredients and improvised on the spot. A burundanga also refers to something that is incoherent, and in contemporary Puerto Rican Spanish, it has taken the negative meaning of nonsense, cacophony and chaos. Lastly, the burundanga is the name of a drug used to annihilate the willpower and the consciousness of the victim (mostly used in rape crimes). In this painting, the crossroad of the burundanga symbolises the unconsciousness of the Puerto Ricans, whose aptitude to choose and think by themselves is numbed by the acculturated status of the Free Associated State. Lind Ramos is not giving answers, but assembling visually symbolic elements to trigger multiple questions. The painting aims at educating the spectator’s willingness to reflect on his own identity, instead of adopting the racial and political belonging that has been predefined by cultural nationalism on the island.
4) Motherland, Belonging and Popular Culture
El bautizo (the Christening) pushes further the questions of cultural origins and racial identity in Puerto Rico (fig 5). The figure on the left is the Puerto Rican singer Tego Calderon. He is painted in the manner of a street mural, with the texture typical of colour sprays used in graffiti art. Tego Calderon is a very important figure of Puerto Rican music and popular culture. He gained international recognition for his style of musical fusion, mixing reggaeton and African bomba. Born in Santurce, a popular neighbourhood of San Juan, Tego Calderon has dedicated many of his songs to criticise the hypocritical assumption about harmonious miscegenation in Puerto Rico. He has openly protested against racism and racial discrimination. More specifically, he showed solidarity with the black people of Loíza, and stood against the negative stereotypes attached to them.
Therefore, it is not surprising to find him in Lind Ramos’s imagination. Calderon, like himself, is an artist who believes in the richness and importance of popular culture in Puerto Rico, stemming from different racial and cultural origins, in which the African influence was essential. In the painting, Tego Calderon becomes the main protagonist of a christening, which is the ritual corresponding to the initiation in the santería religion. Interestingly, the initiators are here characters of the Loíza carnival but they are performing a role that is far more obscure than their usual role in the carnivalesque folklore. The vejigante on the top right corner, in red, the caballero kneeling at the bottom right corner, wearing dazzling golden colours, and the loca, a bluish naked character with both feminine and masculine traits, are reaching one hand towards the initiated. In the middle of the painting but in the background, two unidentified figures wearing black masks recall the ghost figures of vejigantes that were present in Santiago or the transformation of Memory. One is holding a sword, the other a white carnival mask. They stand in the background, without being much involved in the initiation and they seem to be powerless witnesses. The white horse of Santiago appears in the left hand corner, as a blurred fragment of the Spanish holy legend of Saint James.
The Bautizo celebrates the existence and the vivacity of Afro-Caribbean roots in Puerto Rican popular culture. Tego Calderon, with his left arm, is holding a newborn bathed in bright red light. The red and black mask in the altar below the painting indicates that the newborn is actually Oggun, the orisha of war and resistance. Tego Calderon, together with the character of the carnival, are performing the role of initiators in the ceremony. The christening of a newborn within a syncretic religious ceremony implies a voyage back to origins, mixing the politicial and the spiritual and therefore designing a new holy Puerto Rican family. Tego Calderon, as a figure of contemporary popular culture contextualises the relevance of Afro-Antillean beliefs in the present, while the visual representations of the traditional characters of the folklore of Loíza, representing the past, are transformed in the painting so they can participate in the celebration of the original and culturally mixed identity of the island.
The painting Viaje a la fertilidad (Voyage to fertility, fig 6) gives a sense that returning to their forgotten and repressed origins is a necessary path for the Puerto Ricans willing to acknowledge their extra-national cultural roots. The black woman seems to be looking at the moon and at the horizon, longing for a return to a native land, echoing the middle passage and the forced displacement of people attached to the history of slavery in the Caribbean. A turtle is symbolically carved with ceramic pieces in the manner. It is a taíno symbol of fertility and abundance. The turtle is also an animal that symbolises the island, and that is an endangered species: Lind Ramos wants to foster a sense of solidarity and unity among his fellow citizens. Voyage to fertility gives a sense that it is urgent to keep the cultural origins of Puerto Rico alive, and particularly the African roots of the Puerto Rican people. The jars and bottle on top are typical of the containers used to represent the essence of the orishas (copper, iron, clay, sand). At the same time, those painted glass bottles are touristic items that Lind Ramos transformed, from commodified tokens of folklore to religious symbol of a real altar.
Daniel Lind Ramos’s visual politics questions the peripheral and subaltern situation of African and Caribbean identity in Puerto Rican culture, arts and humanities. Not only is Puerto Rican blackness culturally silenced, as examined by Santos Febres, but it is also the case with Puerto Rican Art, which is not as visible as it could be, internationally as well as in the field of history of arts. The art critic Nelson Rivera showed that Puerto Rican artists are not included in the most recent anthologies of Latin American Arts, because they are considered as American; they do not participate easily in Caribbean art events since Puerto Rico is a Spanish speaking American territory, considered either Latin American or North American by the English Caribbean countries (Rivera 2009). For Nelson Rivera, Puerto Rican art nevertheless exists as a national art, « hyperconscious of his specific identity, critically conscious of its colonial status and claiming to be visible ». Lind Ramos’s visual imagination is representative of Rivera’s manifesto. Hyperconscious of the overwhelming political issue in Puerto Rico, Lind Ramos criticises official history to invite the spectator to decolonise his perspective on race, heritage and memory and to claim back syncretism and metaphysics as a cultural legacy.
12 Artists of the Caribbean and Its Diaspora Who Are Shaping Contemporary Art
Julián Sánchez González
July 25, 2019
Contemporary artists from the Caribbean are pursuing practices that are kaleidoscopic in range and diverse in scope. Their work reflects the multitude of experiences of the region’s 26 countries as well as its many diasporic cultures in metropolitan centers.
Over the past 15 years, numerous exhibitions have contributed distinct readings of the work of artists of the Caribbean. Highlights include “Infinite Islands” at the Brooklyn Museum in New York (2007–08); “Caribbean: Crossroads of the World” at the Museo del Barrio in New York (2012); and “Relational Undercurrents: Contemporary Art from the Caribbean Archipelago” at the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach, California (2018). In turn, discussions have grown around Caribbean artists and the relationship between the continent and the islands; the configurations of race and the rights to representation; the use of disposable materials; the persistence of colonialism; the recovery of ancestral knowledge and spiritualities; and the connection to the environment.
Most recently, a new exhibition at the Pérez Art Museum in Miami, “The Other Side of Now: Foresight in Contemporary Caribbean Art,” curated by María Elena Ortiz and Marsha Pearce, is showcasing the work of emerging artists from the Caribbean. On the occasion, we share below a selection of influential artists from the region at large. This list is by no means exhaustive, but rather, representative of a variety of artistic processes. It features both emerging and established artists, hailing from the islands, the continent, and the diaspora. They explore subjects as diverse as oil extraction, rural soundscapes, and the queering of history and the body.
Overall, Caribbean artists are gaining traction for their innovative, research-based, and culturally hybrid approaches. More broadly, the unearthing of new histories and denouncing of current power structures is contributing to amend the fraught effects of such artists’ underrepresentation.
María Magdalena Campos-Pons
B. 1959, Matanzas, Cuba. Lives and works in Nashville, Tennessee.
Over the course of her nearly four-decade artistic career, María Magdalena Campos-Pons has earned indisputable admiration for her work that seeks to empower marginalized peoples and women, and debate postcolonial issues, particularly relating to race and inequality.
Her distinctive hybrid style is a byproduct of her African, Chinese, and Hispanic cultural influences. Spanning performance, video, photography, installation, and painting, many of her pieces speak to diasporic experience as well as the reappraisal of non-Western ancestral knowledge and cultural practices.
At Documenta 14 in Kassel and Athens in 2017, she presented Matanzas Sound Map, a mixed media installation exploring the sonic landscape of Matanzas, Cuba, in collaboration with sound artist Neil Leonard. And in 2018, she appeared in the group exhibition “Relational Undercurrents: Contemporary Art of the Caribbean Archipelago” with Esa Palabra MAR and This Word WAITING (2018)—a polaroid diptych featuring the artist’s hair flowing against a blue background and transforming in calligraphic gestures.
Her work is held in major institutional collections—such as the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Victoria and Albert Museum—and she has been the recipient of numerous awards and honors such as the 2019 position of artist-curator at the Havana Biennial and the 2016 Robert Rauschenberg Foundation Fellowship, among many others.
B. 1959, Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago. Lives and works in Port of Spain.
Christopher Cozier’s art reflects the history, race, culture, and politics of the Caribbean, specifically within the context of post-independence Trinidad and Tobago. He places a particular emphasis on the fictionality and flaws of canonical art historical narratives as well as the stereotypes surrounding popularized notions of his home region: paradisiacal, savage, or backward looking, for instance.
Together with architect Sean Leonard and writer Nicholas Laughlin, Cozier has also co-directed the experimental artistic space Alice Yard since 2006. The space is a hub for conversations between artists, curators, and researchers on topics related to Caribbean art.
Cozier’s prints, drawings, and installations have gained international recognition through exhibitions such as “Infinite Island: Contemporary Caribbean Art” at the Brooklyn Museum; “Relational Undercurrents: Contemporary Art of the Caribbean Archipelago”; and recently, the Sharjah Biennial 14 in the United Arab Emirates (2019). He was granted the Prince Claus Award for his contributions to the cultural field in 2013.
One of Cozier’s latest projects, Home/Portal (2017–ongoing) is made in collaboration with fellow artists Intelligent Mischief and the Design Studio for Social Intervention (ds4si). For this piece, the artists create a series of public interventions that question their sense of location and direction by placing a small red staircase in various spaces in Bogotá, Kingston, and Boston.
Aside from his popularized “Tropical Night” series (2005–2015)—400 watercolors depicting a plethora of dystopian worlds playing, among many other tropes, with stereotypes of Caribbeanness—Cozier has created other powerful projects deserving equal attention. For example, Gas Men / Globe (2014) and Development Blocks (2018) investigate the influence of capitalist extraction of oil reserves as it relates to notions of progress, politics, space, and body movement.
B. 1968, Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Lives and works in Port-au-Prince.
Video and installation artist Maksaens Denis is a leading figure of Caribbean new media art. His work is concerned with the intersection of performance, spirituality, queerness, and politics, and is influenced by classical and experimental music.
Denis’s work is also informed by Vodun veves, or religious symbols, and incorporates recycled materials—a common thread among artists from Haiti and the Caribbean more broadly. His compositions are often saturated with figurative and abstract motifs joined together by video distortions.
In his intricate layering of imagery, Denis investigates the long-standing historical processes that shape the identity of Black Atlantic diasporic subjects. These studies are at the core of the riveting video piece for the installation Marchons unis (2017). In it, the artist blends together a succession of images from everyday life in Haiti with patriotic symbols and evanescent male figures as they frantically change; the video is set to a musical piece combining electronic beats and the Haitian national anthem.
In the confluence of ritualistic and contemporary visual languages, Denis’s installations resort to totem-like formats which simultaneously reinforce sacredness and dislocation. Examples of this specific connection abound in his work, such as the series “Le chuchotement des étoiles” (2017) and “Does Resisting Make Us Men” (2018), which were shown, respectively, in Les Halles de Schaerbeek in Belgium in 2017, and as part of the exhibition Mammon at the Museum of Fine Arts of Split, Croatia in 2018.
Sofía Gallizá Muriente
B. 1986, San Juan, Puerto Rico. Lives and works in San Juan.
Sofía Gallisá Muriente explores the relationship between established historical narratives, popular culture, and political activism. Through her art, she seeks to expose contradictions in cultural constructs and human behaviors. At times, she does this through the poignant recourse of satire.
Gallisá’s recent work is focused primarily on Puerto Rican case studies, ranging from mid-20th century politics as in Lluvia con nieve (2014); popular mourning practices in Puerto Rico as in Presente, presente, presente(2017); and the impact of natural disasters on the preservation of political memory, as in El Bohío (2019).
In addition to her art practice, Gallisá is co-director—together with artists Pablo Guardiola and Michael Linares—of Beta-Local. The artist-run non-profit, founded in 2009, hosts a number of research, residency, and pedagogical programs. Beta-Local’s presence in San Juan has been pivotal for nurturing artistic communities and promoting initiatives of social intervention after Hurricane Maria tore through Puerto Rico in 2017.
Last year, Gallisá’s work Asimilar y destruir (2018) was featured in “Unidad mínima,” a regional collaborative show between the artistic organizations Espacio El Dorado (Bogotá), Sagrada Mercancía (Santiago), UV (Guatemala City), and Km. 0.2 (San Juan). In this work, the artist brings together photograms of an ice skating rink melting in Puerto Rico to discuss issues pertaining to the construction of memory, the impermanence of history, and power relations between the Island and the United States.
More recently, her works have been featured in the latest iteration of the Whitney Biennial, as well as the 2019 exhibition project “Mundos Alternos: Art and Science Fiction in the Americas” at the Queens Museum and “Relational Undercurrents: Contemporary Art of the Caribbean Archipelago.”
B. 1984, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. Lives and works in Santo Domingo.
Hulda Guzmán stands out as one of the most distinctive and strongest painters within the Caribbean region.
Her work is candid and challenging as it combines various styles and art historical references. A Little Innocence (2013) and Dynamic Relaxation (2015) exemplify her interest in Japanese woodblock prints from the Edoperiod and Persian Safavid illustrated manuscripts from the 16th century. Other works, such as Some Are Born to Sweet Delight (2010), They Do, We Celebrate (2011), and Untitled (2011), show the inspiration she gleans from early Netherlandish Renaissance paintings—namely the work of Hieronymus Bosch.
Guzmán’s work seeks to blur the lines between the private and public spheres, be that in her portraiture or her depictions of lush interior spaces; erotic and orgiastic scenes in tropical landscapes; and casual hang outs with inner demons. These thematic explorations not only confront the viewer, but also pose hyperbolic and satirical references to life in the Dominican Republic.
Guzmán’s work has been promoted and supported by the Lyle O. Reitzel Gallery and the Museo de Arte Moderno in Santo Domingo. Her paintings are currently featured in “The Other Side of Now: Foresight in Contemporary Caribbean Art.”
B. 1953, Loíza, Puerto Rico. Lives and works in Loíza.
Discarded materials are a common source of inspiration for many Caribbean artists and art collectives. The recent sculptural works of Daniel Lind-Ramos—assemblages of industrial and organic elements—are exemplary of this. The artist works to commemorate the presence and memory of the Black Atlantic Diaspora of the artist’s hometown of Loíza, Puerto Rico. Works like Centinelas (2013), a totemic installation made out of coconut palm trees and metalware, propose a retrieval of colonized peoples’ historical, political, and cultural narratives.
Also an established painter, Lind-Ramos has long investigated themes related to the carnivalesque, racial politics, and the diasporic experience. His early works, with altar-like formats and the use of mixed media, spoke to the artist’s cultural and spiritual hybridity and foreshadowed his later sculptural practice.
Lind-Ramos has been recognized for his work in France, the United States, and beyond. He won the Piña de oro at the 2016 Gran Bienal Tropical in Piñones, Puerto Rico; participated in the 2010 World Festival of Black Culture and Arts in Dakar; and was a resident of the Joan Mitchell Center of New Orleans in 2018. Notably, Lind-Ramos’s installation and sculptural pieces have been showcased with positive critical reception in this year’s Whitney Biennial.
B. 1985, Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Lives and works in Port-au-Prince.
Dedicated fully to her artistic career since 2013, Tessa Mars creates paintings that have earned attention due to their powerful visual language and thematic explorations. Conflating the distinctions between autobiographical and historical, Mars’s works are mostly concerned with issues related to gender, politics, and popular culture.
The artist’s alter ego Tessalines, a character that riffs on the figure of the Haitian Revolution leader Jean-Jacques Dessalines, is a recurring trope in her work. With scaled skin and wearing only a cocked hat with horns, Tessalines serves as a vessel for personal and collective healing. Simultaneously unapologetic, defiant, and welcoming, she refers to values of patriotic independence and Haitian Vodun practices.
Through recent residencies at the Rubenstein Art Center at Duke University and Residency Unlimited, Mars has been able to nurture her series “We Are Here” (2016–2019). In their bold color palette and flattened surfaces, works like Nou la ansanm (2019) and Elle et moi (2019) stand out as declarations of individual creative freedom, while connecting to the artist’s Haitian, Caribbean, and Diasporic roots.
Her work has been exhibited in various locations in 2018 and 2019 for the show “Visionary Aponte: Art and Black Freedom” curated by fellow Haitian artist Édouard Duval-Carrié.
Ebony G. Patterson
B. 1981, Kingston, Jamaica. Lives and works Chicago and Kingston.
In the past decade, painter, mixed media, and installation artist Ebony G. Patterson has built a body of work characterized by a unique, lavish, and daring layering of patterns and materials. Her art deals largely with constructions of identity, the body, black youth culture, violence, and social disenfranchisement. In her 2018 solo show at the Pérez Art Museum in Miami, “while the dew is still on the roses…” the artist addressed gardens as sites of beauty and burial in her work.
Patterson’s elaborate works are often described as neo-baroque. Using various materials—such as lace, beads, paper collage, and fabrics, among many others—she tells complex stories of identity-building that collapse the traditional boundaries of time and space, while addressing intergenerational legacies of, for instance, racial tropes.
Recent larger installations and dynamic three-dimensional hanging pieces—such as the “…for those who bear/bare witness…” series (2018)—signal a deeper intersectional direction in the nature of her art.
María Isabel Rueda
B. 1972, Cartagena, Colombia. Lives and works in Puerto Colombia, Colombia.
Often described as obscure, cryptic, and supernatural, the work of María Isabel Rueda has become a staple of discourse around continental Caribbean art. Her various projects are made through video, photography, and drawing, and generally deal with colonialism, the preservation of memory, and human relationships with the landscape.
These interests led Rueda to create the 2003 series “Vampiros en la Sabana”—a photographic project portraying female Goth youths in Bogotá. The series’s title plays on the Cuban animated movie Vampiros en la Habana. Between 2004 and 2013, Rueda also created “The Real. Retrato de Norman Mejía,” a double portrait of video studies and frottages capturing the late Colombian neo-expressionist painter’s abandoned dwelling. Rueda’s recent projects, such as the video installation pieces Lágrimas de Isis (2016) and Acquatopía (2018) are investigations into the symbols and meanings associated with bodies of water and fertility—and how those symbols and meanings are commonly construed.
In addition to her individual art practice, Rueda co-directs, with Mario Llanos, the independent artistic and curatorial collective La Usurpadora. In the past few years, they’ve run a dynamic artist residency program in Puerto Colombia, and curated significant exhibition projects such as the 16th Regional Arts Salon of Artists of the Colombian Caribbean in 2018. In 2019, they joined the curatorial team for the 45th Colombian National Salon of Artists.
B. 1976, Jersey City, New Jersey. Lives and works in Jersey City.
Nyugen Smith explores the lingering effects of colonialism on the African Diaspora in his work, particularly in terms of intergenerational trauma, oppression, and violence. His mixed-media works are assemblages of found objects and drawings. Smith is inspired by his Caribbean ancestry—he is both Trinidadian and Haitian—as it highlights notions of fluidity, identity construction, and the sociopolitical history of the region.
Smith’s work Isle de Tribamartica (2017), part of the series “Bundlehouse Borderlines,” satirizes previous imperial impulses to label and organize the Caribbean. The work draws from the visual aesthetics of colonial cartography in order to offer a representation of a fictional island. The piece was recently included in the show “Relational Undercurrents: Contemporary Art of the Caribbean Archipelago” and is now exhibited in “The Other Side of Now: Foresight in Contemporary Caribbean Art.” From a Diasporic vantage point, the piece addresses cultural continuities and forced impositions that are still shaping the Caribbean.
Smith’s art is also informed by Caribbean carnivalesque practices, an influence he explores through the inclusion of ritualistic elements into performance works, and his participation, during carnival time in Port of Spain, of Trinidadian designer Robert Young’s mas band. The piece While You Sleep (2019), a performance presented at the Nordic Black Theater in Oslo, calls on the importance of ritual practices for preserving the uprooted heritage of millions of Africans after being forced to cross the Middle Passage.
B. 1963, St. Andrew, Jamaica. Lives and works in New York.
Jamaica-born, New York–based artist Nari Ward is a leading figure of contemporary installation, sculpture, and mixed media art. His body of work is largely made from found materials, and is characterized by its monumentality in scale and exquisite execution. Social and political in nature, Ward’s work connects experiences of local disenfranchisement with larger discussions on the inequality of power, resource distribution, and political leverage on a global scale.
Ward came to prominence internationally after his first solo show at the New Museum in New York in 1993, which notoriously showcased his work Carpet Angel (1992), a majestic installation piece that used recycled rugs and plastic bottles as prime materials. Later projects, such as Savior (1996) and T.P. Reign Bow (2012), deal with issues of homelessness and surveillance, and evidence the artist’s long-standing reflections around the well-kept dynamics of engrained containment and racism in contemporary societies.
The Jamaican artist’s work from the past 25 years in New York City was featured at the New Museum in early 2019 in a solo show. Works such as We the People (2011) and Breathing Panel: Oriented Right (2015) signal Ward’s interest in criticizing the inherent flaws of representation of dominant political systems as well as connecting with his African Diasporic roots. The show also stressed his increasing concerns with the racial tensions and gentrification processes experienced in Harlem, where he lives.
B. 1983, Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Lives and works in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
The complexly layered art of Didier William offers a challenge to the viewer by resisting categorizations from a technical, material, or thematic standpoint. At the intersection of painting and printmaking, his body of work interrogates the relationship between the body, sexuality, and history. The artist stresses the tension between these variables through a queering aesthetic, which allows William to engage in personal discussions about his own Caribbean background and diasporic experience.
William’s work often uses the representation of the gaze as a means of transforming and negating the human body. This trope started appearing in his work around 2015. His latest series “Curtains, Stages, and Shadows” (2018), involves the painstaking process of carving these eyes out of wood panels to question the spectacularization and performativity of identity.
Inspired by artists such as the late Cuban printmaker Belkis Ayón and the German painter and photographer Sigmar Polke, William creates work that is challenging, spiritual, and intensely rooted in painterly explorations. His series “Gravity”combines textures and colors, dark spiritual motifs, and bodily fragmentation. Pieces like I Remember When I Was a Little Girl (2013) express the artist’s long-standing inconformity with entrenched tropes of masculinity associated with black bodies.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the name of one of the curators of the exhibition “The Other Side of Now: Foresight in Contemporary Caribbean Art” as Masha Pierce. The curator’s name is Marsha Pearce.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Ebony Patterson lives and works in Kingston, Jamaica, and Lexington, Kentucky. Patterson lives and works in Kingston, Jamaica, and Chicago.
Julián Sánchez González is a New York-based, Colombia-born, Art History PhD student at Columbia University. He researches modern and contemporary art with a focus on non-hegemonic spiritualities.
MAGAZINE Mar 1, 2019
Atlas San Juan: Afro-Caribbean Connection
FOR ANYONE who then lived in Puerto Rico, or had even visited the US territory, the results of the 2000 census likely came as a surprise. That year, in response to a question about race—the first such query in more than forty years—more than 80 percent of the island’s 3.8 million people identified themselves as white, while only 8 percent identified as black or African American. These figures, which seemed to dramatically understate the number of Puerto Ricans with African heritage, were met with incredulity, confusion, and mockery, as well as genuine intellectual curiosity about the status of Afro–Puerto Rican identity.
For many years prior to 2000, relatively little accurate information had been compiled about race in Puerto Rico. During the first half of the twentieth century, the census questionnaire offered a stark choice: white or nonwhite. Following the establishment of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico in 1952, the local government requested that the question about race be eliminated. Puerto Rico’s leaders argued that the racial categories that divided US society did not translate to the territory. The authors of a recent study of the history of the census observed that Puerto Rican officials imagined a “‘Great Family,’ made up of various racial mixtures, whose racial tolerance made it distinct from the US. Accordingly, the issue of race was not considered to be a matter of public policy that needed to be documented or addressed.”1 The myth of racial harmony through the unique mix of three “roots”—Spanish, African, and Indigenous Taíno—was central to the concept of a modern Puerto Rican identity at the heart of Commonwealth ideology.
The 2000 census was the first since 1960 that asked Puerto Rican people about their race, and the results speak to the complex status of Afro–Puerto Ricans within this supposedly harmonious society.2 The fact that the 2010 census showed a significant increase in the black population exemplifies how racial self-identification can be quite fluid in Puerto Rico. Over the past decade, activists and scholars have revisited questions regarding the validity of American racial constructs in Puerto Rico while also advocating more recognition for citizens of African descent.
Last October, the University of Puerto Rico hosted the Second Congress on Afro-descendants in Puerto Rico. Founded by María Elba Torres Muñoz in 2015, the conference is an attempt to confront the challenges facing Afro–Puerto Ricans directly, including the fact that the host university does not offer an Afro–Puerto Rican studies degree. In addition to talks about how best to revise racial terminology for the census, the symposium included panel discussions on topics ranging from racism in health care to community displacement and gentrification to Afro–Puerto Ricans’ contributions to art history.
Indeed, black Puerto Rican artists are becoming increasingly visible locally and internationally, and they are connecting with the aesthetic and spiritual traditions of the broader African diaspora. Yet the history of Afro–Puerto Rican art is not widely known. A galvanizing moment for some black artists in the territory came in 1992, amid official commemorations of the five-hundredth anniversary of Columbus’s landfall in the Caribbean. While myriad exhibitions celebrated Puerto Rican art past and present, the culture of black Puerto Ricans was broadly represented by traditional craft practices divorced from contemporary art. Seeking to redress this cultural split, curator Edwin Velázquez Collazo organized the 1996 exhibition “Paréntesis: ocho artistas negros contemporáneos” (Parenthesis: Eight Black Contemporary Artists). The show, at the Institute for Puerto Rican Culture in San Juan, featured work by Daniel Lind Ramos, Awilda Sterling-Duprey, Ramón Bulerín, Arleen Casanova, Eneid Routte Gómez, Gadiel Rivera, Jesús Cardona, Liz D. Amable, and Velázquez Collazo. In pointed statements offered along with their work, the participating artists asserted their identity as black Puerto Ricans and contemporary artists who rejected an inherent link between blackness, folklore, and craft.
By including the word “negros” in the Spanish title, Velázquez Collazo was indeed challenging “the absurdity of black invisibility in a mestizo society,” as one observer wrote about the show.3 Most critics, however, reacted negatively to the premise and attacked the exhibition’s title as well as the artists’ statements about race. José Antonio Torres Martinó, a prominent critic and artist, published a column refuting the artists’ claims of systemic racism. Torres Martinó accused the eight artists of being divisive and trying to import conflicts endemic to American society to Puerto Rico—a common defense against accusations of homegrown racism.4
Since 2000, only a handful of Afrocentric exhibitions have been organized in Puerto Rico, with Torres Muñoz as the common driving force behind the projects. Museo Casa Escuté in Carolina presented “Afro Caribbean Traditions: Spirituality, Art, and Resistance” (2007) and “No Permission Asked: The Afro Descendant Experience” (2015), in conjunction with related symposia. The largest and most influential show was “Afrolatinos” (2012), at the Museo de Arte de Caguas, which featured Puerto Rican, Caribbean, and African diaspora artists from outside the region, as well as other artists who identify with aspects of African spirituality and aesthetics.
MANY AFRO–PUERTO RICAN artists working today find inspiration in African and Afro-Caribbean spiritual practices. Among the most prominent is Awilda Sterling-Duprey, whose work was included in “Parenthesis” in 1996. Sterling-Duprey began her career as a painter, but became increasingly interested in movement, performance, and dance. In 1979 she became a founding member of Pisotón, the first experimental dance collective in Puerto Rico. “If they wouldn’t show my paintings, then I would work with my body,” Sterling-Duprey recalled in a recent interview. “It has been very pleasurable.”5 Informed by her study of African dance, Yoruba traditions, and Santeria, Sterling-Duprey’s work became an expression of her commitment to celebrating blackness. Through her religious practice, she aimed to pay homage to African ancestral knowledge. “It was also out of rebellion,” she said. “I was tired of Christian precepts, and I didn’t want to keep validating histories that only highlight exclusion and marginalization.”
Sterling-Duprey’s 2014 piece “Transparente desnudez” (Transparent Nudity) is representative of her attempts to be “close to tradition but not inside of it.” Curator Abdiel D. Segarra-Ríos invited the artist to intervene in “Cosas: apuntes sobre el objeto tridimensional en el arte contemporáneo puertorriqueño” (Things: Notes on the Three-Dimensional Object in Contemporary Puerto Rican Art), an exhibition of sculpture at the Museo del Arsenal de La Puntilla in San Juan. Sterling-Duprey moved through the galleries, responding to some of the works on view through dance while speaking about herself, her body, and the aging process. She was accompanied by Ivette Román, a singer who improvised vocalizations.
In one of the most powerful parts of the performance, Sterling-Duprey confronted a sculpture by artist Aaron Salabarrías. The work comprises a series of wooden slats carved to resemble “Zulu Lulu” swizzle sticks: cocktail stirrers in the form of a caricatured body of a black woman. The racist novelties, popular in the 1950s, came in sets of six, with each stick representing a woman at a different age from fifteen to forty years old. As Sterling-Duprey recalled life experiences from the different ages supposedly depicted in the sculptures, Román assisted by unwrapping the transparent garments the artist wore, revealing her naked body in a slow, ritualistic way. Sterling-Duprey concluded her engagement with the sculpture by bringing the ceremonial aspects of her performance back down to earth, saying “and now I’m 65 and on Social Security.”
Links between African spirituality and contemporary material culture are key to Michael Linares’s conceptual practice. The focal point of his multifaceted project “El Museo del Palo” (Museum of the Stick), 2013–17, is an installation of, well, lots of sticks: scores of them carefully arranged on plinths or hanging from walls in a manner evocative of an anthropology museum display. Authentic ritual implements on loan from such museums are among the sticks included in some versions of the project, which have been on view at the Bienal de São Paulo in 2016 and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2017. Mixed in with traditional staffs and divination rods are more worldly items such as a store-bought cane, a backyard tiki torch, and a hat stand. (The piece also includes a video titled An Aleatory History of the Stick, 2014, as well as a related publication.) Informed by Linares’s graduate studies in anthropology, the project also sparked his interest in Afro-Caribbean religion and magic. “The history of the stick is a search for the history of humanity and the human mind beyond the remains of material culture,” he told me. “I was interested in what happened in the mind of the people who made all these things.”6
Over the past few years Linares has delved deeply into the Ifá religious practices that have survived in Puerto Rico despite the overwhelming dominance of the Catholic Church. “As a Puerto Rican, Caribbean, Antillean . . . what made the most sense was an African religion. It is the bravest, the one that hid in plain sight to preserve itself, that syncretized to survive.” In the 2017 solo “Future Exhibition” at Galería Agustina Ferreyra in San Juan, Linares created a devotional vignette. Four pillars carved from tree stumps supported stones sourced from a river he used to frequent with his family. A wall painting depicted a triskele (three contiguous Archimedean spirals), and a spindly tree root suspended from the ceiling by wires alluded to the Ouroboros symbol, usually represented by a snake swallowing its own tail.
Linares intended the stones to be oracles with specific symbolic functions: to heal heartbreak, provide sustenance, or ensure the permanence of pleasure. One particularly beautiful piece is Clitoris (2017), a stone in a woven palm-frond covering that sits on a palm wood pedestal. It looks like an exaggerated representation of a woman’s anatomical pleasure center, but also like a swaddled creature. In addition, Linares has created a series of his own shamanic instruments. These pieces range from a set of maracas covered in guinea feathers to a branch topped by a carved snake’s head to a beautifully decorated sensory deprivation hood. For Linares, any object can be a dwelling space for spirits.
Such an overt engagement with religious symbolism is not immediately apparent in Tony Cruz Pabón’s work. Instead, he focuses on how markers of Afro-Caribbean identity and religious iconography have permeated contemporary culture in subtle ways. For the installation titled Nube (Cloud), 2013–14, at the Centre for Contemporary Arts in Glasgow, Cruz Pabón created an array of conceptually linked abstract drawings, many echoing the forms of a cloud, a treetop, and an afro. A lifelong salsa music fan, he also included drawings that feature the titles of songs that refer to rain. All the drawings hung in a cloudlike arrangement on the wall, while on the floor he placed an upside-down glass of water—a reference to a popular ritual designed to impede rain from falling.
Cruz Pabón’s curiosity about the metaphors and symbols in salsa and Afro-Caribbean music in general brought him to investigate the cult-like following of late salsa legend Ismael Rivera, who was revered as the Black Christ in the Panamanian town of Portobelo. Cruz Pabón noticed that the album covers for ostensibly secular popular recordings often featured allusions to Santeria and other traditional religious practices. “Those covers helped me understand the construction of images,” he said in an interview, “they are part of my upbringing. Even when my work is mostly drawing lines, my understanding of images was shaped by those record covers.”7 So far, the results of his research have included an installation of salsa and Afro-Caribbean music LPs, a public conference on the subject, a playlist, a video, and an as yet unpublished book that explores the visual culture around salsa and Santeria, linking it to art history.
WHILE AFRICAN spirituality is a major source of inspiration for many Afro–Puerto Rican artists, others directly address the history of radicalism spurred by dispossession and struggle in the Caribbean. One of the eight artists who participated in “Parenthesis,” Daniel Lind Ramos understands the pervasiveness of racism in Puerto Rico, even if it is obscured by official appeals to Hispanic history. “El que no tiene dinga, tiene mandinga,” he told me.8 The colloquialism implies that everyone has at least some black in them—a slogan often used to invalidate claims of racism. Lind Ramos was raised in Loíza, a center of Afro–Puerto Rican culture. “Surrounded by black people,” he recounted in an interview, “my primary education was full of joy, with traditions, culinary and artistic expressions stemming from an economy based on the coconut palm tree.”
In his work, Lind Ramos often explores the links between Loíza and the African diaspora throughout the Antilles as experienced through carnival characters. Trained as a painter and draughtsman, he began incorporating three-dimensional objects into his canvases in the late 1990s and now creates mostly large-scale installations, assemblages, and videos. The materials he uses, including dried coconuts and palm tree refuse, can be found in the area around his studio in Loíza. His assemblage sculptures often honor construction workers, musicians, cooks, and artisans through the inclusion of their tools, some of which also happen to be important symbols in Afro-Caribbean religions and traditions.
The artist’s 2014 solo exhibition “De Pie”(Standing) at the Museo de las Americas in San Juan featured assemblages that evoke proud and defiant figures from throughout Afro–Puerto Rican history. The imposing piece 1797 features a version of the carnival character El Viejo (Old Man), signified by a metal mask and hat. The abstract figure is surrounded by other masks made of palm tree refuse that are positioned on the wall above an array of knives. Coconut husks are piled on the floor below, some painted with crude versions of the Union Jack. The work is an allusion to militia of Afro–Puerto Ricans who defended the island from a British invasion led by lieutenant-general Ralph Abercromby. The piece also manifests a fierce desire to live in and protect ancestral land.
Land, community, sustainability, and food independence are concepts central to the work and life of sisters Lydela and Michel Nonó, who go by Las Nietas de Nonó. Encompassing theater, performance, dance, activism, and education, their practice is grounded in their experiences growing up in the Manuel A. Pérez public housing project in Río Piedras and the San Antón neighborhood in Carolina during the “mano dura” regime of the 1990s, a period in which tough-on-crime policies resulted in high rates of incarceration. The sisters are vocal in their criticism of institutions like jails and schools, as well as the medical and food industries, which they view as power centers in an oppressive system that perpetuates poverty. “The analysis is Foucauldian,” Michel explained, “but from a really personal perspective. We focus on microstories and insert them into the broader history of the country, of black people, of expropriation.”9
Manual del Bestiario Doméstico (Manual of the Domestic Bestiary), 2014, is a theater piece based on their memories of weekly trips to visit incarcerated uncles, cousins, and neighbors. “We were trying to outline a story from a place of our own voices that would reference how institutions have limited the possibilities of those Puerto Ricans who live at the margins of society,” Michel said. Around the time they were developing that piece, the sisters established Patio Taller, a workshop and community education center in San Antón where they present performances, host resident artists, raise animals, and grow food on a plot of land that belonged to their paternal grandparents, Don Nonó (a farmer) and Doña Manuela (a curandera, or healer).
Las Nietas’s work often emphasizes the efficient use of resources and the role of domestic labor in economic development. For the sisters, kombucha, a low-alcohol fermented tea-like beverage, is a symbol of these concerns. In addition to incorporating kombucha into their diet, they have experimented with the bacteria and yeast “mother” that is both a driver of the fermentation process and a byproduct. The material, which they equate with “vegetable leather,” featured in their installation Ilustraciones de la mecánica (Illustrations of the Mechanical), 2016–18, at the Berlin Biennale, where they used it to create curtains, masks, and various slimy female body parts. “Behind the use of kombucha is a philosophy,” Michel told me, describing how bacteria can be understood as a metaphorical foil to colonization. “The colony of bacteria self-organizes, whereas in the geopolitical colony the exact opposite happens.”
A more literal expression of the sisters’ desire for independence is Foodtopia: Manifestaciones en período de caza (Foodtopia: Demonstrations During Hunting Season), an ongoing project for which the artists hunt and trap green iguanas in the wild. This invasive species was introduced to the island in the 1970s, and with no natural predator it has become a scourge. “The only viable way of controlling the plague is hunting them and getting involved in the food chain,” Michel said, “while also getting a material (the skins) that can be used aesthetically.” The hunts, which the sisters document with photos and video, are performative and ritualistic events. The green iguana is not a traditional component of the Puerto Rican diet, but the sisters argue that perhaps it should be now. The iguana ribs they cook with honey mustard sauce in one video could be a locally sourced delicacy and a step toward correcting Puerto Rico’s dependency on food imports.
WHILE THESE ARTISTS are addressing blackness in the content of their works, there remains the challenge of creating inclusive spaces within the art world. Cruz Pabón, who cofounded the nonprofit Beta-Local in 2009, is aware of the “whiteness” that permeates many art spaces in Puerto Rico—most people who attend them are not evidently black. The phrase “evidently black” is being increasingly used to distinguish a life lived while black from a more general Afro-descendant heritage. As Michel Nonó described, “it’s very important to create the work in the place where we live. There is a lot of prejudice against people who come from the projects. There is a latent class war.” She views her art and community outreach initiatives as part of a struggle against those prejudiced perceptions. For Sterling-Duprey, the conversation about being black in Puerto Rico is evolving as a byproduct of the mass migration to the US mainland, where our local definition of whiteness doesn’t apply. As Puerto Ricans enter the US as migrants, they are deemed “people of color,” presenting them with the challenge of experiencing life in a new, marginalized way, but also influencing how they look back at the country they left.
The ties between Afro descendent communities in Puerto Rico, US-based Puerto Ricans, and the greater African diaspora are the focus of the Afro Corridor, a new project based in Loíza. Founders Marta Moreno Vega, director of the Creative Justice Initiative, and Maricruz Rivera Clemente, director of Corporación Piñones Se Integra, aim to create a network of cultural spaces across the country to help build a more viable and equitable local economy. Casa Afro, the Corridor’s cultural center, is located in a two-story house in Loíza and had a preliminary opening last February with an exhibition, talks, art workshops, and storytelling for kids. In the words of Moreno Vega, the “displacement of black people is happening everywhere around the world. So, the idea of this Corridor is to establish the places of historical importance in Loíza from an Afro-centered point of view, to determine our own narrative and imagery.”10 Many of the people involved in making the Corridor a reality have been working for decades to make space for other black Puerto Ricans. Whether it’s art, life, or the next census, it’s about time people are represented on their own terms. https://www.artinamericamagazine.com/news-features/magazines/san-juan-afro-caribbean/
“My practice is like an exercise of memory, so the objects bring me the opportunity to connect with that memory.” — Daniel Lind-Ramos
One of the breakout stars of this year’s Whitney Biennial (and certainly one of our favorites) is 66-year-old Afro-Puerto Rican artist Daniel Lind-Ramos (b. 1953, Loiza, PR). Using found materials scavenged around his coastal town in Puerto Rico – ranging from plants to religious icons to FEMA tarps – Lind-Ramos creates assemblages that “reassert the power of spirituality,” as described by Holland Cotter in the New York Times.
From the Whitney, here is the third of four studio visits produced by Sandenwolff Productions in the lead-up to the Biennial. Lind-Ramos speaks about the power of memory in the objects that he creates in his studio, and he takes us on a tour of friends and places in his community, where “we celebrate and we suffer together – and we resolve things together! Which is more important.”
Daniel Lind-Ramos © 2019. All Rights Reserved.