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Dominican York Proyecto GRAFICA’s Critical Trajectories

Essay by Maja Horn, Assistant Professor, Department of Spanish and Latin American Cultures, Barnard College.

I. Trajectories

          “Here and There” showcases the second series of prints by the Dominican American collective Dominican York Proyecto GRAFICA (DYPG), composed of twelve artists of Dominican descent. The first series was presented at the group’s inaugural exhibit “Manifestaciones” in October 2010 at the Dominican Studies Institute at CUNY, and subsequently tra­ve­lled to a remarkable number of locations in the U.S. and abroad, including Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Dominican Republic, where the exhibit was shown at the Museo de Arte Moderno in Santo Domingo and the Palacio Consistorial in Santiago. The arrival of this Dominican American print collective in the Dominican art scene in the summer of 2011 was met with particular interest. Print, or “la gráfica,” has been an important artistic medium in the country since the 1960s, and in the past decade it has had an exciting resurgence under the name of “Gráfica Inde­pendiente,” with several art collectives (with names such as “La Vaina,” “La Sedería,” and “Modafoca”) forming around the medium. What unites DYPG with these collectives is a shared skepticism about dominant notions of Dominican identity. However, there are also important differences, especially as many of the Dominican collectives’ aesthetic strategies are informed by their members’ strong ties to the Dominican Republic’s burgeoning advertising industry. The work of DYPG, being less defined by a single professional and social context, can be argued to represent a greater diversity of experiences and aesthetic approaches. Indeed, alongside their collaborative efforts, each of the members of DYPG has followed an independent artistic trajectory as well. Many have lived and worked as artists both in the Dominican Republic and in the United States, and some have participated in the Dominican art biennials as well as in the “S-Files Biennials” at the Museo del Barrio, New York, whose permanent collection includes several of these artists’ works. Group members have also engaged in other collaborations, including with Chicano art groups and with renowned individual artists such as Keith Haring. And while some of the members are very experienced printmakers, others come to print from other media, including painting, drawing, photography, sculpture and installation. They bring thus a variety of backgrounds, styles and techniques to their print works and continue in “Here and There” the complex dialogue about notions of dominicanidad that they began with “Manifestaciones.”

II. Critical Intersections


          “Manifestaciones” brought light to, or “manifested,” issues that affect and shape the reality of the Dominican diaspora, though rarely addressed in the United States or in the Dominican Republic. Through the juxtaposition of Dominican realities and imaginaries with American ones, many of those works provided equally a critical perspective on Dominican notions of race, gender, migration as on the narratives and symbols of the “American dream.” With “Here and There,” DYPG broadens and deepens these reflections, looking further back into the historical roots of Dominican culture and questioning more insistently ingrained forms of Dominican identity at home and abroad.

          The works in this exhibit seek to capture the transformations that understandings of history and identity undergo in the critical diasporic imagination. Tellingly, the form that they have elected to dramatize the collisions of meanings that ensue from such reflections is the diptych.

          This return to the past with an eye to its impact on the present is evident, for example, in Rider Ureña’s “Off Target,” a diptych juxtaposing a representation of the Dominican dictator Rafael L. Trujillo’s car, in which he was shot in 1961, with his assassins’ car. The title and the off-center target placed on both works seems to encourage the viewer to consider ways in which the assassination may have missed its target and aspects of the notorious dictatorship remain well alive. The lasting effects of the Trujillo dictatorship as well as the unequal power relations that have structured U.S.-Dominican relations since the nineteenth century are effectively brought to the fore in Yunior Chiqui Mendoza’s diptych, which features a U.S. penny with the iconic green and red houses from the game Monopoly and a Dominican centavo (the palm tree on which was one of the Trujillato’s principal symbols) below bingo game pieces. One image evokes the monopolizing economic power of the U.S.; the other dramatizes Dominican economic survival as rather more of a gamble. Given the stakes of these games, these two images insinuate a complex set of insights into luck, power, and cultural perspective.
These longstanding, complicated and often unequal linkages between the Dominican Republic and the United States are brought forth in Pepe Coronado’s piece “U.S./D.R. A Love-Hate Relationship.” By insisting on a much more long-ranging and intertwined history of these two countries, this diptych challenges the predominant story that Dominicans are simply one of the more recent additions to the waves of immigrants to the American “promised land.” This notion is also strongly challenged by Miguel Luciano’s piece “400 Años,” which provocatively insists that the roots of Dominican migration reach much further back, pointing to presumably the first Dominican immigrant, “Juan Rodrigues,” who arrived in what is now Manhattan in 1612. With a similar critical aim in mind, Reynaldo García Pantaleón’s work “Migrants/Settlers” interrogates the differentiation that tends to be made between so-called American “settlers” and “migrants.”
Many of the other works explore complex and layered notions of Dominican identity and its transformations. René de los Santos suggestively speaks of the multiple and at times contradictory facets of Dominican identity with his carnival mask wearers, whose rather somber faces contrast with the revelry, playfulness, and carelessness that is associated with the carnival. The instability of any singular notion of Dominican identity is humorously critiqued in Moses Ros-Súarez’s work, which posits that there is no one Dominican “gene,” and thus no essential Dominican identity, but instead there are certain shared customs related to food, fashion, music and tastes. These customary tastes, such as the traditional “habichuelas con dulce” that are eaten during the Catholic holy week, Carlos Almonte suggests in his piece, are placed in “indigenous” U.S. forms, here the ubiquitous New York City coffee cup, with its classical Greek design and its slogan “We are happy to serve you.” Such encounters of often incommensurate cultural values and practices in the context of the diaspora both leads to insistent transformations—portrayed poetically in Alex Guerrero’s work—but also to a melancholic remembrance of the past, as in Luanda Lozano’s “Memorias de mi Niñez,” and at times to a pervasive sense of loss, as in iliana emilia garcía’s “me&me/yo y yo.”
In turn, Scherezade García represents some of the very tangible “gains” that the Dominican diaspora brings for those left behind. She portrays the boxes full of goods that migrants send back en masse to the Dominican Republic, where they have improved, sustained, and “sweetened” countless lives. These forms of “returns,” the massive financial remittances that immigrants, and especially Dominicans, send back home have become a much-noted phenomenon in scholarship on migration. While “remittances” first referred to financial remittances, scholars, often by looking to the Dominican case, expanded this concept to consider the “social remittances,” and more recently, the “cultural remittances” or “returns,” that the diaspora sends back to the island. Without doubt, the collective Dominican York Proyecto GRAFICA, whose future projects will continue to contribute to the Dominican artistic landscape, must be considered such a “cultural remittance,” whose impact “at home” and the dialogues it produces will be fascinating to follow.

III. Collective Practices and Futures

          For some of its upcoming projects the Dominican York Proyecto GRAFICA collective has decided to move towards new artistic terrain by beginning to work with other media, such as sculpture. Their expansion beyond print will instigate new conversations about and new methods for their collaborative practice. Print is often considered a particularly “democratic” art form because of its serial rather than just singular production of works, and until now the focus on print has greatly facilitated, because of size and cost, the exhibition of their work in multiple locations both locally and internationally. Indeed, the very process of printing produces forms of collaboration and sociality that the production of singular, individual works often precludes. While some of the print forms, such as inkjet printing, are easily produced individually, the screen printing through which most of the works in “Here and There” were produced is a laborious process that generally requires more than one set of hands to achieve the needed precision. Moreover, each color is printed separately, so that for example Carlos Almonte’s print required the image to be printed in twelve separate layers. The coordination of work schedules, the limited space available, and the many hours spent printing together gives the notion of “collective” a very real and lived meaning, one that will provide a crucial model for future non-print work. This meaning of “collective” is also much in evidence at the regular meetings, where a great effort is made to carry out decisions democratically, often through anonymous voting, giving the less outspoken members an equal voice in important decisions. Yet, what constrains democratic ideals in real political settings also is part of this group’s reality, where differing time availability, resources and experiences invariably influence the group’s decisions and trajectory. Nonetheless, the experience and success of the Dominican York Proyecto GRAFICA strongly suggests how the form of the collective, which can sound anachronistic, evocative of past times and of failed social experiments, can be relevant today, effectively allowing these Dominican artists to reach beyond the limits that they often encounter in the contemporary art world.


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