by Jani Konstantinovski Puntos
by Diógenes Ballester
by Taína Caragol, Art Historian
INTERSECTING CIRCLES: PRINTS AND DRAWINGS OF
TRANSNATIONAL LATIN AMERICA AND THE CARIBBEAN
Caragol, Art Historian, 2003
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
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 mentalitiesa
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.
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 globalizationcolonization
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 regions collective identity has emerged. It starts
with the detail, in the fragment, the collage, the juxtaposition.
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 todays 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 Mignolos term, counters globalizations claim
of a politically, socially, and culturally homogenized world, by implying
a global project of conviviality rather than assimilation.
The inhabitants of the project of transnationalism are by definition global
émigrés, but courtesy of their own choice, and not by brute
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 ones
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-Americanand transnationalinterest.
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
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
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 Ballesters 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 grandmothers
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 charcoalan element strongly associated
with Afro-Caribbean religious ritualsin 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.
drawing Collective Memory manifests the artists preoccupation with
the preservation of spiritual traditions and oral histories that are part
of every persons 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 artists vocabulary for dramatizing the precarious conditions
of vernacular traditions and of culturally grounded communities in the
José Castillos 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 Castillos dotted
In his series Magical Characters, the fantastical nature is the natural
fantasy and a projection of mans psyche where his Caribbean identity
is rooted. Abolishing the hierarchy of human versus naturea binary
opposition of Western modernity and European landscape paintingCastillos
drawings evoke a time when nature, spirituality, and the human race were
intimately related. Like a pictorial equivalent to Alejo Carpentiers
novel The Kingdom of this World based on the slaves uprising during
the reign of Henry Christophe in Haiti,
Castillos 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 Carpentiers
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 Castillos 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 drawinga medium
strongly associated with modernity as well as with realism and objectivitysuggests
the truthfulness and prevailing of this symbiotic concept of mankind and
nature into todays 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
Cardillos 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 humankinds 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 politicospeople that had disappeared
during the military regime in Uruguaywere being found. Although
the subjects in Cardillos 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 Mejías
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.
Mejías 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
islands 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.
Salicrups use of Taíno iconography is related to his participation
in the Nuyorrican artistic and cultural movement of the 1970s, which reclaimed
the islands cultural heritage as an essential element in the identity
of the Puerto Rican diaspora.
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 womans 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 Gutiérrezs 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 peoples 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
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 colonizers 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.
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 worlds
population, has only 0.8% of the world exports of cultural goods, whereas
the European Union, with 7% of the worlds population, exports 37,5%
and imports 43,6% of all commercial cultural goods. Canclini, La Globalización
Imaginada, 2nd ed. (Paidós: Buenos Aires, Barcelona, México),
7. Walter D. Mignolo, "The Many Faces
of Cosmo-polis: Border Thinking and Critical Cosmopolitanism" in
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 Christopheor
King Henry I, for that matterwas one of the first in the long line
of Haitis 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 Ricos 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.