I’ve been working on finishing up Atabeira and beginning a new piece with a plátano hat. I’ve mentioned the two before in some detail but I wanted to talk a little bit about some readings I’ve been mulling over and how they relate. I’m really interested in how my identity is an intersection of many cultures. By nature contemporary Caribbean peoples recognize how our history is sort of pre-determined to be one that is both tragic and sort of comedic. Many of us are the product of a literal whitewashing. We were supposed to be bred out. Literally, weeded away leaving only our pretty warm island, exotic spices and the lilting sound of a borrowed tongue. I like that we are raised to be resilient and at the same time find fun and humor in the melancholy.
For my atabeira I wanted to address issues of primitivism in art. I think its frustrating that primitivism is even a ‘thing.’ I think there is a tendency to see poorly drawn lines or poorly crafted things and think; hmm maybe they’re trying to be primitive, as if primitivism is somehow naïve and infantile. I’m speaking purely in an artistic rather than pedantic sense. Sure the very nature of what is primitive is meant to reflect a sort of beginning stage, pre-modernity ideal but whose ruler are we using exactly when we talk about primitivism versus modernity?
I’ve been reading “Cave of the Jagua” and the scholar spends a lot of time almost apologizing for how screwed up Indigenous studies can be in Latin America and the Caribbean. It is a fairly new concept to want unbiased accounts of anthropology or sociology. In the past, colonists documented their gut reactions (often to the detriment of the people they were “studying”) and scholars took them at face value. Questioning the validity of a letter sent from Puerto Rico back to Spain documenting the Taino’s was relatively unheard of. Today, we question the hell out of those kinds of documents and rightly so! The scholar writes about how many accounts written about Indigenous peoples varied greatly from person to person. It all depended on the motive of the writer. He writes of two colonists that attended a wedding ceremony. One man, a priest, writes about how the bride sat in her tent as men entered, shut the door behind them and left ten minutes later. This went on until all of the elders and powerful men had entered and left. After the last man left her tent, she exited exclaiming that she was powerful. The priest writes that this is because she had refused each and every male in an act of chastity. Another man, a colonist looking to report his findings on the island and whether or not it was habitable, writes that each man went in, had sex with the woman and left. Her exclamation obviously meant that the women were easy and found power in semen. Therefore, he concludes it should be easy to ‘inhabit’ and populate the island. So what gives? Other than machismo was brought to us by the Spanish colonists (Joke), this simply reflects how unreliable a personal account can be. We didn’t need or want unbiased accounts in the past. People were literally trying to breed nationalities out of their nations for crying out loud. What the scholar is trying to point out is the futility and fragility of Carribean history. Our understanding of the Taino’s and their culture is gleaned from Venezuelan indigenous cultures, these unreliable documents and what artifacts exist on the islands. I’m fascinated that this idea of trying to understand Puerto Rican-ness always leads me back to trying to understand the early inhabitants. I think it provides a nice metaphor for how many Puerto Ricans feel today. Another book I’m reading “Latinos: A Biography of the People” by Earl Shorris talks about the Puerto Rican sense of defeat. He states, in a non-discriminatory way, that as a people Puerto Ricans tend to view our history with a sense of melancholy. We were conquered and somehow still are. We’re in limbo and everything down to our music is somehow a conglomerate of things. Nothing is really, truly, purely Puerto Rican. But then what culture can really say that anything is singularly there’s? I think with Puerto Rico it is much more obvious because of our being a US territory: Neither a state nor a nation.
With this piece I wanted to really start making multiple references and stitching them together on the bust. I wanted to reference the Taino goddess and a Catholic saint with the halo and little references to stained glass leading. I also wanted to directly reference my identity. I tried to put all of this on the same plane by using my fingerprint with the stylized face of Atabeira and the geometric shapes in the halo stitched in black. It’s not clear if it’s all one long thread or not and I like that.
As for my next piece, I wanted to address Afro-Carribean culture in Puerto Rico and especially Dominican Republic. I am making a headdress that looks like a traditional Bomba y Plena headdress and a Santera’s headdress. The important element was the platano. The mancha del platano is a saying that struck me as important. Especially in contemporary discussions of race, the mancha references the idea that one can be born in the highest class and still bear markings of his indigenous or African heritage. Whether its your hair, color of your skin or accent, you can have the mancha. Literally the phrase comes from campesino’s hands being stained brown from plantain juice. They worked in the fields so much; their hands could not be cleaned from brownish tint the platanos left. Bomba y Plena today is seen as fun, folkloric dances but they too have the mancha. The drumbeats, outfits and movements are all borrowed from African culture. There is still a tremendous amount of racism in the Carribean and Latin America. Much of Domincian Santeria is borrowed from Haitian voodoo and yet to be Haitian in the Dominican Republic is somehow blasphemous. Though they share an island, they can never truly live in peaceful terms.
I’m making the plantains out of wax right now and planning on stitching them on the head. Hopefully the process will hold up!
Well that’s all for now!
This blog functions as a space for me to articulate what goes into making my artwork.