Caribbean Popular, Caribbean Contemporary: Current Artistic Practices of Santo Domingo, Dominican RepublicOctober 25, 2017
Current artistic production from the Caribbean region vividly reflects, perhaps with more intensity than in any other part of the Americas, the rooted relationship between modern art movements and popular art traditions. The historically fluid nature of so-called high and low art in the Caribbean serves today as a platform for contemporary artists to discuss the limits of the art object, the social responsiveness of their practice, and the state of their local art field. Influenced by these contextual elements, the potency of their visual language evidences a bourgeoning artistic impulse, which resists historicization through non-permeable and hierarchical analytical categories. Instead, it invites us to think of interstices, hybridization and liminal spaces—all concepts well-established in post-modern and post-colonial theories—to better understand an aesthetic ethos with a shared presence in a region that is both geographically and culturally fragmented. I encountered the artists and cultural agents from Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic included here during a summer 2017 sojourn in the Caribbean made possible by the support of the White-Levy Travel Grant from the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University.
My brief stay in the Dominican Republic raised a question about the current adaptations, purposefulness, and historical grounding of the dialogue between popular art traditions and contemporary art in the Caribbean region. The methodical and beautifully executed body of work of a selected group of three artists in Santo Domingo—Quisqueya Henríquez, Natalia Ortega, and Engel Leonardo—attest to a present, still-developing interest in building bridges between formally educated and self-taught artistic practices. Whether installation, public intervention, or sculptural pieces, these initiatives find their artistic drive in conversation with an ample social sphere. By positing the recuperation of the still unfulfilled (neo) avant-gardist quest for the integration of art and everyday life as a core value, these artists also represent a historical continuity of the intimate relationship built between modern and popular art in the Caribbean by the mid-twentieth century. This conversation calls special attention to a series of elements of a historical and political nature specific to the Dominican Republic, as they are intrinsically linked to the colonial eradication of the Taino indigenous presence on the island of La Hispaniola; a historically fraught relationship with neighboring Haiti; and, central for the purposes of this article, the interest of artists in problematizing the limits of Dominicanidad as an identitary category.
A natural starting point for this discussion is the career-long preoccupation of artist Quisqueya Henríquez (b. 1966) concerning the still-present and limiting distinctions between high and low in both the Dominican Republic and the international art sphere (Fig. 1). As an individual artist whose professional highlights include a 2007 retrospective show at the Bronx Museum of Art ,or as co-director of an artistic collective like El Sindicato, the backbone of the philosophical interests of Henríquez’s work seeks the legitimization and aesthetic appreciation of the vernacular. Her multifaceted work, though artistically serious, is highly playful and humorous, and resonates as a present-day embodiment of Italian and French neo-avant-garde artistic ventures. As it is, the physicality of most of her individual oeuvre reminisces arte povera artists working with low-cost, non-specialized materials, while its repurposing brings to mind the quintessential détournement practices of the Situationiste Internationale. Visiting her studio in the Piantini neighborhood of Santo Domingo offered a glimpse of this ongoing interest, as each room of the apartment showcased a different working project exploring enticing ideas of contrasting textures and color palettes. These “disobedient proposals,” as described by the artist, included but were not limited to sculptural objects made out of felt, mixed collages with pubic hair, and an in-progress installation project with disassembled perfume boxes.
Quisqueya Henríquez’s proposals become more poignant and present when situated at the aggregate level. Such transition to collaborative projects in the public space is framed under the tenets of El Sindicato ,a small artistic collective run in partnership with fellow Dominican artist Laura Castro since 2015. Created with the aim of rendering current art practices less cryptic and unintelligible, the Collective has taken public interventions and participatory art as the foundational basis of its work. Illustrative of this focus were the artistic actions undertaken for the collaborative piece High and Local Villa Consuelo (2015), situated in the eponymous popular neighborhood of Santo Domingo (Fig. 2). This series of highly aestheticized gestures, including tile work, color-block graffiti painting, and tinted fabrics, makes a compelling statement on the still-to-be-claimed value of poetic visual imagery in non-domestic, non-private spaces. Even more relevant is the fact that the presence of the artists, together with the promotion of the event through various communication channels and the attendance of the general public to the interventions, strategically used the platform of artistic spectacularity—highly problematic, for instance, to figures like Guy Debord—as a trigger for a dialogue with local communities. Thus, as opposed to their neo-avant-garde historical counterparts, these works respond directly to the needs of a specific context characterized by a much more reduced artistic field, where accessibility still remains the biggest obstacle for the democratization of the arts.
A further manifestation of the collective ethos of groups such as El Sindicato to “return ideas to their possible original sources,” was the installation work of woven sculptures by Natalia Ortega (b. 1980), an artist and entrepreneur working from her house/studio in the Zona Colonial of Santo Domingo (Fig. 3). One of her most recent proposals, Tejido exquisito (2016), was created after a residency in José Roca’s Flora Ars+Natura in Bogotá, and was selected to participate in a group exhibition at the 26th Concurso de Artes of the Centro Eduardo León Jiménez in Santiago de los Caballeros (Fig. 4). The artistic foundations of the work are symbolically charged as it deliberately aims to create an aestheticized interaction of totemic objects out of composite weaving and basketry techniques from various locations and across different media from the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and the Colombian Caribbean. This initiative critiques in a sensitive fashion the two-fold impact derived from the specific context of geographic insularity in which the Dominican Republic rests: the generalized racism and xenophobia towards its neighboring nation, Haiti, and its perceived disconnection from the greater Caribbean region. By freely arranging these elements together, Ortega makes a powerful statement against the fictitiousness of nationalism as a political driving force. Also conceptualized as Dominicanidad , these sentiments—institutionalized and exacerbated during Rafael Trujillo’s thirty-one-year dictatorship (1930 – 1961)—have defined the self-identification and everyday life of a vast majority of Dominicans in the country’s contemporary history.
Furthermore, the direct association of this installation piece with Surrealism’s well-known cadavre exquis highlights the historical artistic imprint left in the region by the travels of André Breton and André Masson in the Caribbean, specifically Martinique and Haiti, by the mid-1940s. Such a reference is coherent with the piece’s resistance to nineteenth-century nation-state identitary affiliations, for it also calls upon a larger modern intellectual feud against positivist rationality, and the search for the acceptance of alternative models of thought privileging the irrational, the sensuous, and the fantastic. It is not gratuitous, then, that this work also features sexualized formal elements of phallocentric evocation, alongside knitted fabrics resembling mythological creatures, either fallen or suspended in mid-air. With this in mind and keeping due political proportions, it is possible to say that the special praise placed by Surrealism on the popular arts of Haiti, particularly on the work of painter Hector Hyppolite ,finds today a refashioned, perhaps unconscious, continuity in the work of Natalia Ortega. More than establishing artistic genealogies, however, this parallel serves to illustrate, on a geographically located instance, the recurrent resurgence of the failed visions of human liberation posed by twentieth-century avant-garde movements. In virtue of this project’s increasing relevance and pertinence today, it comes as no surprise that it makes its reappearance in the contemporary art production of the Caribbean, a region historically linked to its development.
The recovery of popular art traditions and their dialogue with contemporary visual languages takes on more nuanced undertones in Engel Leonardo’s (b. 1977) latest series of four works named collectively as Jimayaco (2017) and exhibited this August at the Galería Lucy García. One of these pieces, Cabirmota, is representative of three out of four sculptural works shown, and can be understood as the organic result of a significant number of previous modular and geometric explorations of the artist, including smaller and larger structures (Fig. 5). In composition, they resemble Brazilian neo-concrete artist Lygia Pape’s Web installations featuring an angular interplay of threads, lights, and shadow, or the minimalist and rhythmical cube-based compositions by American artist Sol Lewitt. However, by also combining traditional Dominican weaving techniques in guano—palm leaves—and brightly colored accents deriving from the architectural decorative styles of the Caribbean, these works also bring to the fore a discussion of the hierarchies of aesthetic taste. In this vein, the placement of panned gold, gravel, and water in the concave spaces of two of the nine small sculptures giving the show its name reflects a generalized preoccupation among certain artists for recovering surviving elements of Taino cultural traits and practices in Dominican culture (Fig. 6). These pieces, made out of clay and crafted in collaboration with skillful ceramicists, find their inspirational foundation in the Muñecas sin rostro of El Cibao northern region of the country. Under this light, reclaiming and revitalizing indigenous practices seems to provide artistic creativity with a powerful discursive tool for integration vis-à-vis the racially-based, Manichean divide separating La Hispaniola today.
Once a member of previous artistic collectives, including El Sindicato, Leonardo develops his work today in both the local and international spheres with no formal collaborative affiliations. Albeit invested in artistic projects similar in argumentative and theoretical foundations to those of Henríquez and Ortega, it remains paradoxical that his work, once part of a joint venture striving for communal conversations and participatory actions, is no longer associated with theirs. While legitimate in its own right, this schism calls upon further considerations of the roots of the specific line of work these three artists are engaged in, as it also resonates with issues pertaining to the documented failure of the historical avant-garde movements in the twentieth century. If we consider the adaptability of the art market to critical artistic proposals as one of the core variables at stake, then it is also worth questioning the creative possibilities of an artistic field growing and strengthening to find its own categories of interpretation and critique. While no direct answers can be found in historically and geographically distinct realms, it is perhaps worthwhile to keep track of these when pushing for local and radical collaborative explorations. After all, a school of thought that is able to locate attuned yet distinct voices not only finds coherence, but also the potency to foster change. Disintegration in such a localized context deprives, at least at the present historical juncture, these artistic proposals of the agency and cohesiveness needed to thrive.
 Ken Johnson, “Minding the Gap between Rarefied and Local Art Culture”, New York Times, October 26, 2007. URL: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/26/arts/design/26henr.html?mcubz=3
 Alongside the work of its creators, the Collective also represents artists Natalia Ortega, Mencía Zagarella, Elisa Bergel Melo, and Ernesto Paredano.
 More specifically, the installation includes site-specific commissioned works from the Wayuu Indigenous communities from the Guajira Region of Colombia, so as other works made in coconut fibers, bamboo, sugar cane, and plantain leaves, among others, by artists from various locations in La Hispaniola.
 García-Peña, L. (2016). The Borders of Dominicanidad: Race, Nation, and Archives of Contradiction. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
 Breton, A. & Masson, A. (1941; 1972). Martinique, charmeuse de serpents. Paris: Sagittaire.
 Castañeda, L. (2014). Island Culture Wars. Art Journal, 79 (3), 56 – 69.
 Engel Leonardo’s 2014 intervention Rejas, sillas, vestidos, muñecas, y plátano at the Museo del Hombre Dominicano in Santo Domingo reveals the previous stages of this artistic exploration. URL: https://www.guggenheim.org/blogs/map/dispatch-dominican-republic