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Essay, Susana Torruella Leval

DOMINICAN YORK: DISPLACEMENT AND IDENTITY

Essay by Susana Torruella Leval, Director Emerita of El Museo del Barrio, April 2018

“I live between worlds”. “I don’t belong anywhere”. 

“I belong in either place”. “I juggle both worlds.”

          Anyone who has left their country to live in the U.S. recognizes these thoughts.   Displacement, fragmentation, guilt, anxiety, an occasional sense of achievement and acceptance  — members of any diaspora community know these feelings, and the emotional toll they take. 

 

          The Latinx population is the largest, youngest, fastest-growing ethnic minority in the U.S. — 17.6% of the U.S. population. Puerto Rican artists, part of the largest Caribbean migration to the East Coast in the late ‘40s and  ‘50s, coined terms to express their identity within New York’s then Anglo-dominated world: “Nuyorican”, “Neorican”, “Boricuas”, “Amerícan”.  Since the 1950’s, artists like writer Miguel Algarín, poet Pedro Pietri, playwright Tato Laviera, musician/composer Tito Puente, painters Nitza Tufiño and Juan Sánchez, Taller Boricua: The Puerto Rican Workshop — among countless others — led the New York movement to celebrate and preserve Puerto Rican identity through their art. 

 

          In recent years, Dominican artists have developed cultural initiatives with similar aims.  In 2010, led by Pepe Coronado, a group of Dominican artists who live and work in New York City formed a printmaking collective, DOMINICAN YORK PROYECTO GRÁFICA. Curator Carmen Ramos has noted that Dominican artists, arriving individually in New York City throughout the ‘60s, lacked the collective support of a large migration, such as Puerto Rican artists enjoyed since the ‘40s, or the solidarity of a powerful political movement, such as Chicano artists generated on the West Coast during the ‘60s; nor did they have the cultural background of a strong graphic art movement, the legacy of both Puerto Ricans and Chicanos. 

 

          Yet the conscious objective of DOMINICAN YORK PROYECTO GRÁFICA was to forge the iconography of Dominicanidad, the identity of the Dominican diaspora, through graphic works of excellence. Twelve artists founded the collective.  Pepe Coronado, René de los Santos, Reynaldo García Pantaleón, Alex Guerrero, Luanda Lozano, Miguel Luciano, Moses Ros-Suárez and Rider Ureña are still active. Carlos Almonte, iliana emilia garcía, Scherezade García, and Chiqui Yunior Mendoza are emeriti. The collective has won distinguished grants and awards and, through initiatives like the Uptown Print Project led by Moses Ros-Suárez, brought art to underserved populations. Increasingly, its work forms part of notable public and private collections.

 

          The collective’s first major exhibition, Manifestaciones, shown at the CUNY Dominican Studies Institute Gallery in 2010, presented a portfolio of 12 prints. From this first showing, the group gave clear signs of how they would define their common identity, yet each member expressed a distinct artistic personality. A general sense of geographic and emotional displacement pervaded the work, evident in the split-screen strategies and surreal juxtapositions in most works. This ubiquitous psychophysical split was alluded to in the catalogue introduction: “Striking images reveal the continuing influence of the culture of their country of birth or ancestry…of a land that never seems that far away from their new urban/suburban experience in Nueva York.”

 

          Key visual symbols of the trans-culturalization process emerged in Manifestaciones and have remained powerful, enduring emblems in the group’s work since.  Carlos Almonte coined the image of a just-arrived Dominican campesino, standing on a city street in which a Dominican country casita and a New York City grocería jumble together against the City skyline. In Intrepid, Pepe Coronado (described by Ramos as a “peripatetic master printer whose life crossed paths with the Chicano movement”) characteristically fuses brilliant design with a hard-hitting political message. René De los Santos’ Cigüita Cibaeña, a tropical bird lost in an urban setting; iliana emilia garcía’s Dreambox, a humble shoeshine box that holds dreams of success in a strange land; Scherezade García’s palm tree rising in the middle of Manhattan island; Alex Guerrero’s casita de campo azul añil  (bright blue country house) sitting on a Manhattan rooftop; Miguel Luciano’s mestizo passport; Yunior Mendoza’s banana-shaped map of Manhattan; Moses Ros’ figure, literally split in two, atop the George Washington Bridge: each and all of these are avatars of the fragmented self in exile, carriers of the tensions between the aquí y allá, the internalized split between the “here and there” that immigrants experience every day. The expressionistic works of Rider Ureña, Luanda Lozano, and Reynaldo García Pantaleón explore the psychology of this cultural divide, with consequences ranging from romantic melancholy and sexual longing to claustrophobic violence. 

 

          In November of 2017, DOMINICAN YORK PROYECTO GRÁFICA shared an exhibition with Consejo Gráfico, a coalition of independent printmaking workshops, at Taller Boricua, the oldest Latinx artist-run space in New York City.  Collectively, the eight works by Dominican York members showed great power, high technical finesse, and an assured economy of means in transmitting their message. In this divisive age, Miguel Luciano brilliantly transformed the image of the U.S. Social Security card into a threatening message of “SOCIAL INSECURITY”. With subversive humor, Moses Ros created an official-looking insignia to assert Dominicans’ increasing power in the U.S., converting New York City into PROVINCIA 32 of the Dominican Republic. Pepe Coronado’s striking geographic emblem expressed the opposite fate: the Dominican Republic cannot escape the crosshairs of the U.S. circle of power. Reynaldo García Pantaleón’s mysterious image of a building in flames alluded to urban danger, social injustice, and broken dreams, while René de los Santos’ work reminded us that a great urban metropolis was built on the backs of working class minorities. Rider Ureña and Alex Guerrero created grisaille nocturnes of extraordinary technical delicacy and surprising message: Guerrero’s beating heart seems strained to the breaking point from the stress of urban life; Ureña’s enigmatic nocturnal butterfly refers to the courageous Mirabal sisters, feminist symbols of resistance to tyrant dictator Rafael Trujillo. Luanda Lozano’s lyrical Memories of my Childhood references kite flying, a favorite children’s pastime in Caribbean countries. 

 

          In DOMINICAN YORK PROYECTO GRÁFICA’s recent exhibition this year, at New York City’s Manhattan Graphics Center, a foreboding, tense mood pervaded the work, reflecting the darkness and chaos of current political times in this country. Luanda Lozano’s lyrical childhood memory of kite flying, seen at Taller Boricua, darkened. The print’s paper is scratched and torn, signaling pain and disillusionment; one piece of paper escapes and takes off from the page --- a note of hope and freedom? Moses Ros created another insignia of power, the official seal of the United States, yet titles it Opaca (Opaque), an allusion to the eclipse of democratic values in the U.S. An earlier version of the work, Penumbra, presaged the darkening mood; yet Opaca goes further: the image, dark but unnaturally luminous, is composed of diamond dust. Great wealth has corrupted “American” values further, rendering them invisible. Rider Ureña’s linoleum print, related to his previous butterfly form, is decorative, yet menacing; it emits a dramatic feeling of curtains about to open, of daily chaos about to unfold. Miguel Luciano’s and Pepe Coronado’s monoprint abstractions are lush, exciting, shadowy; there are no words, only structured darkness, with fitful flashes of light.  García Pantaleón’s Markets: The Abstraction of Being Human shows two figures, male and female, dehumanized,  overlaid by stock market symbols and the material possessions which enslave them.  Alex Guerrero’s apocalyptic silkscreen synthesizes the mood of the exhibition: a maelstrom of suitcases, people, books, houses, palm trees, which, under the blinding sun, blend New York and the Dominican Republic into a giant vortex. 

 

          The trans-culturalization of each individual to a new country is unique, yet shares impulses with compatriots. There occurs an intense rediscovery of the native culture against the grain of a different culture. Then, a confusing period of self-analysis, even resistance, develops as the internal identity imprinted in the homeland confronts the emerging one forged within the new culture.  Finally, at this “intricate cultural and linguistic juncture”, in Puerto Rican sociologist Juan Flores’ words, new, hybrid cultural languages emerge that “stand at the forefront of contemporary expressive possibilities”. 

 

          Thus, the significance of artistic movements such as those led by Puerto Ricans and Chicanos to protect and redefine their cultural identity cannot be overstated. Within New York City’s vital cultural continuum, each immigrant group’s artistic expression is unique and important to sustaining the diversity of the whole. Artist collectives like DOMINICAN YORK PROYECTO GRÁFICA are essential to revitalize the fragile ecology of the arts.

 

          Artist collectives like DOMINICAN YORK PROYECTO GRÁFICA provide an indispensable antidote to the anonymity and ruthlessness of the market-driven art world. They are vessels of cultural memory, keepers of a sense of place, and safe spaces where strong communities of shared values and histories can grow. 

SALUD, DOMINICAN YORK PROYECTO GRÁFICA!

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