Diógenes Ballester
Rimer Cardillo
José Castillo
Marina Gutierrez
Miguel Luciano
Radhamés Mejía
Fernando Salicrup

by Jani Konstantinovski Puntos

by Diógenes Ballester

by Taína Caragol, Art Historian


By Taína Caragol, Art Historian, 2003

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Diversity and similarity are the poles for the axis around which the present exhibition is spinning. At first sight, the terms seem to be self-excluding concepts. Nonetheless, in the artwork of Marina Gutiérrez, Diógenes Ballester, Miguel Luciano, Fernando Salicrup, Rhadamés Mejía, Rimer Cardillo, and José Castillo, diversity and similarity are complementary tools for building bridges to reach the Other and see oneself in the mirror of humanity.

Coming from Puerto Rico, Uruguay, and the Dominican Republic, these artists have one thing in common. They share the experience of at once participating in and contributing to the cosmopolitan character of the cities they live in. Different biographical circumstances made them choose New York and Paris as their adopted homes: being born of immigrant Puerto Rican parents in the United States, for Salicrup and Gutiérrez; the desire to insert themselves in the artistic effervescence of international art centers, for Diógenes Ballester and the younger Miguel Luciano; and the self-imposed exile in the case of the Uruguayan-born Cardillo and the Dominicans Castillo and Mejía, due to the 1980s dictatorships in their respective countries. In being exiles and émigrés, they share a peculiar fate.

The artists and the artworks in this exhibition lead us to ask whether there is an essentially Latin American and Caribbean art. The issue has been of constant interest for a number of years. It has been and still is intricately linked to the twisted phenomena of colonialism, in history and in the global economic policies of today. It has brought about important ethno-linguistic, and historic-anthropological debates that have shed light on the questionable practice to subsume a whole continent and geographical region under the names ‘Latin America’ and ‘The Caribbean’. Like in Africa, 1 and other ex-colonial regions, critics have voiced concern and skepticism about this practice. They share the belief that the terms "Latin America" and "Caribbean" are colonial constructs invented by first-world actors like Europe and the United States, to bring the countries of this New-World region into common and subjugated existence. 2 All-embracing terms like "Latin America" and "Caribbean" are geographical and cultural reductions that do not account for the ethnic multiplicity of these countries, the complex processes of miscegenation or mestizaje, 3 and the diverse languages and mentalities—a cultural diversity which ironically resulted at least partly from the colonial enterprise directed by European actors such as Spain, Portugal, France, and England during the fifteenth century. During the twentieth century, the countries of the Latin American region have been further individuated by turbulent political histories, the impact of massive migrations, and strong nationalist movements that have accentuated the singularity of each culture and history.

Quite contrary to the historical and actual reality of South American countries, the policies of the globalization movement seem to intend to make us believe the opposite. Global economics tend to homogenize not merely the fragmented geography of Latin America and the Caribbean, but the entire world. Colonialism is alive and well, one might say, and cultural differences are becoming more blurry every day. The concept of an essentially Latin American and Caribbean art seems to be bound to a colonialist epistemology, which is not only ethically questionable, but also objectively misleading. Should we therefore abandon the hope for a Latin American and Caribbean artist identity altogether, or is there a way around this twisted situation?

It is certainly tempting to forget about the complex historic processes that have caused the current situation, much more so in this age of globalization that has rendered cultural identities visibly porous and subject to foreign influences. Believers of the democratic promises of globalization may argue that it is irrelevant trying to answer questions like these in an era of blurred geographical borders and global identities. On the other hand, for those who have been through an older form of globalization—colonization4 —this global era seems to promise the continuation of their peripheral status in relation to central actors such as the Unites Sates, Europe, and Japan, who control most of the economic activity and cultural exports of the world.5 But to say "Bad, bad globalization!" is only part of the story. Why not unite in the shared interest of a reasonable resistance to colonialism old and new within the larger frame of globalization?

Indeed, there are signs for the rise of a new Pan-Latinamerican identity. Marked by fragmentation as a legacy of the ancient European empires, and facing the menace of increasing homogenization as part of the new economic globalization, the citizens of Latin America and the Caribbean seem to embrace the project of building a common conscience and solidarity. It constitutes a mechanism to overcome dispersion, a sequel to the violent colonization process starred by the old European powers, in order to trustfully join the new negotiation trends with the current economic and political powers of the world, some of them ancient oppressors. As a result of the dialectical tensions of past and present, a new reconciliatory way of conceiving this region’s collective identity has emerged. It starts with the detail, in the fragment, the collage, the juxtaposition.6

In this context it is valid to say that there is a common subject-matter or aesthetic unity in the art produced in Latin America and the Caribbean. What matters to this Latin American art is indeed the context from where its content is perceived, dreamed up and created. Because in the age of globalization, this peculiar point of view transcends national boundaries, I would like to call it a transnational perspective. Let me explain.

Parallel to the homogenizing effort of globalization, the huge media and technological advances of the 20th century have increased the interaction between diverse cultures. The cosmopolitan landscape of today’s megalopolises is comprised of natives, immigrants, exiles, urban, rural and diasporic peoples, all coming from regions with different economic situations and "modernities" generating a fertile terrain for cultural negotiation. Territorially bounded definitions of national identities are becoming less significant, while transnational identities become more prominent as a result of the exchange between different cultures, traditions, and lifestyles. At the same time, the interaction of the "cosmo-polis" to borrow Walter Mignolo’s term, counters globalization’s claim of a politically, socially, and culturally homogenized world, by implying a global project of conviviality rather than assimilation.7 The inhabitants of the project of transnationalism are by definition global émigrés, but courtesy of their own choice, and not by brute force.

This is where the transnational artists of our exhibition enter the stage. Even if many of them live outside their country of origin (as is the case for Diógenes Ballester, Marina Gutiérrez, Fernando Salicrup, Miguel Luciano, Rimer Cardillo, Radhamés Mejía, and José Castillo) it is still appropriate to classify their artwork of Latin American and Caribbean artists. As émigrés in the capitals of the global village, they enjoy a larger frame of reference. In between questions of identity, they choose or have been forced to live abroad or in exile, and see it as a virtue. They are independently advocating their own status as curators of self-representation. Self-representation, though, is not selfish. It is a conscious choice to transgress the boundaries of one’s history, nation, race and social-economic status, and to constantly redefine and depict their position anew in the light of a transnational planet.

As for the present exhibition, the artists have made their choices and have found fascinating topics of Latin-American—and transnational—interest. Their common (post)colonial Latin America and the Caribbean backgrounds resurface in the iconographic references to the colonial legacy of indigenous genocide, Indian and African slavery, racial and cultural mestizaje, and religious syncretism.8 Other preoccupations such as the destruction of the environment, the political denounce against dictatorial and military regimes, and the critique to new systems of oppression and social injustices configure their imaginary.

The drawings of Diógenes Ballester and José Castillo, for instance, emphasize the Afro-Antillean root as a fundamental element in the cultural identity of the Caribbean. As part of the colonization process, blacks were uprooted from their native Africa and transported to America, turning them into slaves in the plantation system established by the European colonizers. Slavery not only condemned the Africans to subhuman living conditions, but it also imposed on them the language and religion of Western civilization. The Cimarron (escaping slaves) and the "detour strategy" used in communication and religion, were the mechanisms of resistance by the Negroes who faced oppression and the menace of assimilation to White culture.

Traces of this can be found up to today. They materialize in the critical distance of the transnational artist. Diógenes Ballester has explored the many religious sources that nurture the spiritual traditions of Puerto Rico. As a transnational matter of fact, his stay in Paris in 1999 and 2000 reaffirmed Ballester’s fascination with the powerful African element in the Caribbean religion of Espiritismo practiced by his family in Ponce. The colorfully dressed Angolese, Senegalese, Congolese, Malian madams strolling the streets of Barbés, Clignancourt, and Montreuil reminded the artist of the black fabric madams of his grandmother’s home altar. This constituted a turning point in his iconography. Since then, the madamas (a Spanish-Caribbean version of the French world "madame," but which always connotes a black woman) have become a primordial presence in his artwork, infusing it with their ancient spiritual wisdom. In that evocation of the culture and religion of his ancestors, Ballester turns his works into encounters with the sacred. Such is the case in the drawing Saludos de la Madama or "Salutations from the Madam," where the ritual of setting the white table and the glass of water to invoke the spiritual entities, a practice common in Afro-Caribbean Espiritismo, is accomplished through the presence of the madama herself. The luminescence of the yellow background suggests the enlightened nature of the sacred being. Through the frequent use of charcoal—an element strongly associated with Afro-Caribbean religious rituals—in his drawings and installations, as well as by his meticulous but energetic carving on wood panels, Ballester provokes the convergence between the ritual and the creative process.

As a Tai-Chi practitioner in Central Park, and an Afro-Caribbean artist in the United States, Ballester reproduces the syncretic character of the Caribbean religions by occasionally incorporating in his artwork sacred elements belonging to different religious traditions, such as Native American icons, Taíno stone gods or cemís, and Ying-yang symbols. Like his grandmother, he constructs his own multicultural pantheon without privileging any of the elements in it. This practice is a statement of cultural resistance in relation to the religions imposed in Puerto Rico, first, by the Spanish Catholics during the 16th century, and much later by the U.S. Protestans during the twentieth century.

Ballester’s drawing Collective Memory manifests the artist’s preoccupation with the preservation of spiritual traditions and oral histories that are part of every person’s history. The artist honors Paula Wiscowitch, his grandmother for her life experience and spiritual wisdom, in a work that references the stories she told him before dying. In his third drawing entitled Gentrification, Ballester expresses his concern with the urban displacement of the Puerto Rican community of El Barrio in N.Y. by affluent white Americans. The inclusion of international danger codes like barricades and stop traffic sings in Collective Memory and Gentrification are already part of the artist’s vocabulary for dramatizing the precarious conditions of vernacular traditions and of culturally grounded communities in the globalized world.

José Castillo’s artwork draws on a tradition of magical realism that is linked to the cosmological vision of the Afro-Caribbean religions. In his series of supernatural Personajes Mágicos or "Magical Characters I, II and III" a purplish sunset opens the door to a fantastic world of animals never seen before and creatures in constant metamorphose. Fully present but light as the air, blue dogs, bi-headed animals, horned insects, and fish with human faces float across Castillo’s dotted landscapes.

In his series Magical Characters, the fantastical nature is the natural fantasy and a projection of man’s psyche where his Caribbean identity is rooted. Abolishing the hierarchy of human versus nature—a binary opposition of Western modernity and European landscape painting—Castillo’s drawings evoke a time when nature, spirituality, and the human race were intimately related. Like a pictorial equivalent to Alejo Carpentier’s novel The Kingdom of this World based on the slaves’ uprising during the reign of Henry Christophe in Haiti,9 Castillo’s drawings give us access to a world where humans and nature are equal actors in the cosmos. This mythic idea is founded on the principle that every living creature shares the same energy and that when acknowledged, it can serve any purpose, even that of overturning the worst political tyrannies. This allowed Mackandal, the protagonist of Carpentier’s novel, to turn into a green iguana, a nocturnal butterfly, or a ferocious dog, in order to organize the slaves’ uprising against the military government and escape death.
In Castillo’s iconography, a similar figure frequently appears: the Bacá, a mythic character in the Dominican and Haitian imaginary who is capable of transforming itself into any creature, human, animal or hybrid to achieve a particular objective. As the artist himself asserts: "the Bacá is so important in our culture that sometimes you might find a whole village whose inhabitants attest to have seen it." The photographed silhouette of a man with a power staff at the center of each drawing further emphasizes the union between nature and mankind.

Simultaneously, the insertion of photography in the drawing—a medium strongly associated with modernity as well as with realism and objectivity—suggests the truthfulness and prevailing of this symbiotic concept of mankind and nature into today’s Caribbean. Castillo is working on a harmonic alternative to the incessant attempt from Western potencies or native speculators to introduce their concept of exploitation of nature, first through the violence of the plantation system, and in this global era, through the massive deforestation of green, Third-world-areas, to establish tourist resorts or playgrounds for global corporations.

The artwork of Uruguayan artist Rimer Cardillo deals with environmental issues and with the disappearance of indigenous cultures. His extensive trips through the Amazon during the 1990s allowed him to appreciate the richness of these cultures and to see first-hand the aggressive deforestation of the area. Coming from one of the few South American countries whose indigenous people were exterminated long before the 20th century, Cardillo incorporates both subjects to his iconography, favoring a harmonic, interdependent relationship between animal, human, and nature.

The prints Mink and Bones, Duck and Skull, and Armadillo and Skull, express Cardillo’s concern with the environment and the disappearance of indigenous populations, by presenting in their diptych composition photographs of dead animals and human bones. Cardillo casually came across the dead animals during his walks through his native Uruguay and the Hudson Valley in upstate New York where he resides. The photographs of human bones are from an archaeological excavation in the coast of Rocha, Uruguay, where skeletons of Indians that lived between 4,000 and 5,000 years ago were found. By using the photo silkscreen technique in these prints, Castillo imparts to the black and white images the coldness and crispiness of documentary photography. The repulsive and sad dead bodies of the mink and the duck with its open wings suggest humankind’s responsibility in the destruction of the environment, as opposed to the resistance of nature, represented by the compact and prehistoric armadillo. Nevertheless, the images of human skeletons and skulls are not only references to ancient indigenous cultures, but also the actual danger of extinction current communities face in South America. The year 1983 on the tag identifying the archaeological excavation hints to a political reading, as it was around that same year that the skeletons of desaparecidos politicos—people that had disappeared during the military regime in Uruguay—were being found. Although the subjects in Cardillo’s artwork emerge from his own experiences as a visitor in the Amazon and as a political exile, the gravity of the issues he exposes resonate at a global level.

Radhamés Mejía, a Dominican artist, has devoted an important part of his work to explore Taíno culture that called his island home. Mejía explores ancient representation systems like pictograms and hieroglyphs from the Taíno and other so-called "primitive cultures," synthesizing in his drawings schematic depictions of anthropomorphic and zoomorphic figures, disconnected human limbs, geometric figures, vessels, and amphoras. The convergence of all these iconographic elements on Mejía’s two-dimensional grid denies any preeminence taking us back to a time when sacred and profane mingled, when every object and living being were infused with a ritualistic and magical property.

Mejía’s drawing Unititled 1 and Untitled 2 break with the traditional hieroglyphic drawings of the artist. The flat space still prevails, yet, a profile face surfaces on each picture plane. Their agitated hair, echoed by an aura of multiple colored outlines, and the arrows entering and exiting the ears and the mouth, both essential to the act of communication and the exchange with other beings, transform the figures into beings full of a primal energy that is mostly absent in modern life.
The embedding of Taíno iconography makes for a significant part in the artwork of the New York-born Puerto Ricans Fernando Salicrup and Marina Gutiérrez. They both allude to the negative effects of the Spanish and the American colonization of Puerto Rico and criticize the island’s status as part of the U.S. commonwealth to this day. Their different backgrounds, Salicrup as community activist, and Gutiérrez as a feminist art educator, inform their artistic expressions with particular notions about their cultural identity.

Salicrup’s use of Taíno iconography is related to his participation in the Nuyorrican artistic and cultural movement of the 1970s, which reclaimed the island’s cultural heritage as an essential element in the identity of the Puerto Rican diaspora.10 Due to the anti-colonial stance of the Nuyorrican movement, artists reclaimed Taíno and African culture as primordial to the cultural and racial identity of the island, and opposed the official hispanophilic definition of Puerto Rican culture that the government maintained.

Salicrup created Una vez más Columbus, "Once again Columbus" in his aim to break out with the colonized mentality. The print in the exhibition is a digital version of an acrylic painting with the same title painted by the artist in 1976. In this work, Salicrup depicts dozens of eyes of Taíno Indians suspiciously staring through the wild flora of the island at a unseen "other": the colonizer. By omitting the visible presence of the conquistador, Salicrup questions the protagonist role of Columbus in his discovery of the island. Inverting the traditional scheme that situates the colonized as "the other," Salicrup situates Taínos as subjects instead of objects of history who seem to discover the real intentions of exploitation and extermination of the colonizers. The reiteration implied in the title "Once again Colombus," expresses the reinvention of the official history of colonization, and the ongoing oppression and marginalization of Puerto Rican culture. This can be interpreted as a comment on the social and cultural displacement of Puerto Rican émigrés in the US, as well as a suggestion of the never-ending domination of the island by foreign political powers.

If Taíno culture is the point of departure from where Salicrup defines his Nuyorrican identity, Marina Gutiérrez defines hers from her being a woman. In her monotype print Artifacts, for instance, the monumental torso of a woman occupies the center of the composition surrounded by small icons associated with a pre-industrial and paradisiacal Puerto Rico, such as tropical fruits, plantains, bohíos or Taíno huts, palm trees, a loving couple and Taíno as well as Catholic religious icons. The floating icons are part of an identity constructed by Puerto Rican immigrants while growing up in New York, formed by images of tropical fruits at the Bodega or market. Some elements such as the house inside the woman’s body, the indigenous huts and the clothesline allude to the domestic confinement of women in Puerto Rican culture. A hand on her inside seems to mutilate her reproductive system, a common element in Gutiérrez’s iconography that refers to the sterilization campaign and the testing of contraceptive pills directed by the US in Puerto Rico during the 1940s. By dealing with cultural and political issues that affect women directly, Gutiérrez makes the viewer aware of the machista (meaning male-centered) Puerto Rican society. At the same time, through the combination of objects that Gutiérrez includes on this monotype print, she achieves the same nostalgic atmosphere than in her installations of precarious casitas or tropical houses, evoking the role of past memories in the construction of one own self.

As a Puerto Rican raised in the United States, Miguel Luciano has tried to observe and to decipher with great interest two widespread and intertwined phenomena among Puerto Ricans of the island: U.S.-consumer culture and the strong sense of a national identity. Departing from these, he explores the intersections between them, the way they interact and influence one another, one becoming diluted or reinforced over the other. Luciano, a young artist whose works include paintings, digital prints, and installations, investigates how commercial culture in Puerto Rico serves as a globalizing device to fulfill people’s material needs and perpetuate colonialism. At the same time he deals with the way Puerto Ricans subvert this paradigm of "new colonization" by inserting the flag or some national symbol in almost any kind of commercial item, in order to turn them into national emblems.

The digital print Cracker Juan belongs to the oldest part of his work, where Luciano is concerned with the way commercial icons refer to the political status of the island and its inherent stereotypes. By digitally altering the original label of the product (in this case the sweet popcorn Cracker Jack) Luciano unmasks the oppressive tactics of colonial rule and racism that pervade the colonizer’s imaginary. In this print the artist "Puerto-Ricanizes" the white marine on the original label by turning him into a rather dark, "caramelized" Cracker Jack. The original character is thus transformed into Juan, a representation of the jíbaro or Puerto Rican folk, considered among islanders as the quintessential element of Puerto Rican identity. Using irony as his best weapon, the artist subverts the original commercial message giving it a new connotation. The prize in the box, for example, usually a hologram, is replaced by free American citizenship in order to denounce the colonial status of the island. With mordant cynicism Luciano reveals the prize paid for the so-called "privilege" of citizenship and the economic benefits of colonial status: higher mortality rates in U.S.-led wars, and the threat of cultural assimilation.

By blurring the line between colonial dependency, cultural identity and consumerism, Luciano raises essential questions in the debate over Puerto Rican, Latin American and Caribbean identity, right in the face of a pullulating globalization. Nevertheless, far from being prescriptive, normative or pedagogic, his work does not give a single answer to what it means to be Puerto Rican. Instead, it portrays the push-and-pull process of negotiation and resistance of culture and identity in their permanent construction.

This brings us back to the questions raised at the beginning of this essay. Is there effectively an art specific to Latin America and the Caribbean? Furthermore, is it possible to qualify the artistic expression of émigré and exiled artists from this region as Latin American and/or Caribbean art? It would not be appropriate to give a categorical answer to the first question, not only because of the restricted character of the present exhibition, but also because despite the common history of colonialism shared by the Latin America and the Caribbean, there are also political and historical singularities that fall upon their artwork. A colonial category of Latin American and/or Caribbean art defies diversity in its vein of assimilation.

As for the second question, we would like to propose a careful confirmation. Granted, there are certainly differences in the way the artists of this exhibition link their shared transnational experience to their common history of coming from European ex-colonies that are still marginal actors in world history. Their singular approaches and statements defy a reductive or exotic definition what Latin American or Caribbean art is or should be. But this might well be their strength. Having left their countries of origin or been born outside them, these artists are often displaced at various levels: in their host countries they are considered foreigners, while in their homelands they are seen as the ones who left. As most of them affirm, living abroad has helped them develop a more acute sense of their own cultural identity.

Even if it remains to be seen whether the mainstream art market they break in is prepared to include such artistic expressions, chances are that the specific message will not go unheard. After all, the different conditions in New York, Paris and beyond in which each artist had to settle have affected their experience of living in the global diaspora, away from their homelands, in a similar way. Despite the individuality of their expressions, some aesthetic, ideological, and thematic connections in their artwork point to the existence of a common, shared center. As Latin Americans and Caribbeans/caribeños living and working in globalized cities, these artists gyrate in the circle of their private and artistic selves, in search of who they are, on a journey through multiple fabrics of the past and of the present in a lived culture. In journeys along their private circle line, they intersect with other circles and discover a potentially rich world of common sense and conviviality. They are inserted in a give-and-take process of negotiation and resistance which involves multiple cultures, dominant and peripheral. Despite this never-ending process of cultural negotiation and its result of a transnational identity, these artists remain loyal to their Caribbean and Latin American roots. Their art is thus a new expression of mestizaje and syncretism in a globalized world, and an incessant redefinition of what art from Latin America and the Caribbean is.

1. In his book The Wretched from the Earth (1961), Franz Fanon was already pointing to the colonizing strategies implied in the name Africa, which homogenized the multiple cultures of the African continent denying their specificities. More recently, in his book The Invention of Africa, V.J. Mudimbe questions what is Africa. V.J. Mudimbe, The Invention of Africa (Indiana University Press: Bloomington and Indianapolis), 1988. Quoted in Gerardo Mosquera, "From Latin American Art to Art from Latin America" in Art Nexus, (Arte en Colombia: Miami), No. 48, Vol. 2, Year 2003, 70-74

2. Mosquera, 70.

3. Mestizaje: The racial and cultural mix of European, Indian and African descendants typical of Latin American society. It is this concept I generally have in mind when speaking of "Latin America and the Caribbean."

4. I am borrowing this expression from the Introduction to Cosmopolitanism, Carol A. Breckendridge, Sheldon Pollock, Homi K. Bhabha, and Dipesh Chadrabarty eds. (Duke University Press: Durham and London), 2002, 5.

5. According to the statistics provided by Nestor García Canclini, Latin America, which has 9% of the world’s population, has only 0.8% of the world exports of cultural goods, whereas the European Union, with 7% of the world’s population, exports 37,5% and imports 43,6% of all commercial cultural goods. Canclini, La Globalización Imaginada, 2nd ed. (Paidós: Buenos Aires, Barcelona, México), 2000, 24.

6. Ibid.

7. Walter D. Mignolo, "The Many Faces of Cosmo-polis: Border Thinking and Critical Cosmopolitanism" in Cosmopolitanism, 157-187.

8. The parenthesis in (post)colonial is justified by the fact that Puerto Rico is still a US colony.

9. Alejo Carpentier. El Reino De Este Mundo (Editorial Seix Barral, S.A.: Barcelona), 1972. Henry Christophe—or King Henry I, for that matter—was one of the first in the long line of Haiti’s tyrants. He worked his way up from slave to monarchist and crowned himself 1811. He committed suicide in 1820.

10. The Puerto Rican diaspora occurred as a consequence of Puerto Rico’s transition from an agrarian to an industrial economy in the 1940s and 50s. The sudden unemployment among the rural workers of the island, combined with the demands for cheap labor from the crescent U.S. economy caused the emigration of approximately 41,200 Puerto Ricans who left for the mainland every year from 1940 to 1950. As a result of the migration and as an expression of self-esteem against slurs like "spics", New York Puerto Ricans started to call themselves ‘Nuyorricans’. Adalberto López, The Puerto Ricans : Their Culture, history, and Society (Schenmak : Cambridge, Massachussets), 1980, 317-320. The numbers are based on US census data.


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-- Copyright © Taina Caragol, 2003


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