Monday, November 16, 2015

Quisqueya Henriquez: Bending Cultural Assumptions in Santo Domingo

I recently had the very good fortune to visit an old friend who lives in the Zona Colonial in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. The cathedral there is the first built in the New World;  It houses Christopher Columbus' bones, recovered from Spain at the insistence of his wife (whose remains lie outside the cathedral walls). Heroic statues testify to the uninterrupted luster of the Colon family reputation, for two of Christopher's brothers prospered there. Maintenance of the 15th century Spanish architectural heritage is clearly a point of pride. It is impressive in its dignity, scale, and austere beauty.

One of these ancient buildings is now in use as the Centro Cultural de Espana Santo Domingo. Like most businesses in that muggy city, its doors stand open to passers-by. From the street it is a delicious contrast, for the interior has been altered only by the addition of modern, minimalist glass walls and doors whose sleek transparency highlight the spectacular volumes of the enormous brick rooms with wood-spannned ceilings.
Quisqueya Henriquez, paint on woven blankets. Author photo.

This was a terrific venue for a show by Quisqueya Henriquez, a Cuban-born Domincan artist. She has shown extensively in the Americas, South (Brazil, Ecuador and all around the Caribbean) and North, particularly in Miami and New York City (El Museo del Barrio, and a mid-career retrospective at the Bronx Museum.) . Seeing her at home, however, is special, for this show is deep in Dominican culture: machismo and decorative motifs from Native Taino culture—what little has survived since the Spanish invasion of 1492.

Quisqueya Henriquez, artist
book. Author photo
Maleza is the show's title, Spanish for thicket or underbrush. It's a title I had to ruminate over as I looked, for it had at first no obvious connection to the abstract paintings nor to the stunning collages in books. All of the work refers to the body either literally or by suggestion. It's a show with huge impact, a one-two punch. The big abstract paintings are loud and direct; the altered and collaged photographs in the books require close inspection, then reward the viewer an assault of altered reality both precious and alarming.

Quisqueya Henriquez, artist book. Author
Henriquez's books are very large, and even though one looks at the pages through protecting vitrines, it's clear that the paper is of luxurious weight. She gives her images plenty of space on the pages, so that the viewer is indeed struck by the quality of the materials and craft, which subliminally highlight her radical suggestions about gender. From a masculine, blue-jeaned figure cut off below the waist, gold leaf menses flow. From the crotch of another truncated male, an exuberant thatch of pubic hair explodes, suggestive of the way an exposer unzips to reveal his goods.

Quisqueya Henriquez, artist book. Author
Quisqueya Henriquez, artist book.
Author photo.
Surely her expressions about baseball are almost as shocking for a Dominican audience. The passion for that sport is hardly to be appreciated in the United States. We introduced it during an occupation early in the twentieth century and now it represents the best way out of poverty for Dominican boys. Representing a woman with a batter's helmet is radical; representing native rock as divisions with faceless outcrops topped in helmets of American teams is absurd, satirical, and terribly sad. 

The gallery's walls are lined with painting that are stunning for their sheer visual drama and for the passion that surely created them. Against vivid geometrical patterns that I assume are taken from or mimic Taino art, are painted massive, symmetrical figures that must have been achieved by folding large amounts of paint. The results are organic shapes with sticky, raised, vein-like surfaces that bring the shapes to life.

Quisqeya Henriquez, mixed media. Author photo

It's just barely a metaphor to say that the surfaces "bring the shapes to life." It must take phenomenal control to produce the shapes that she does for a series this consistent, with all the paintings suggesting human organs—hearts, brains, or lungs. There is the notion of Rorschach tests in any random shape that's vertically symmetrical, but Henriquez's are hardly random. They are not two-dimensional ink-blots, but are sticky forms articulated with systems of raised blood vessels and delicate capillaries that reach between strong central arteries and the edges of the forms.

Quisqueya Henriquez, mixed media. Author photo.

Whose body parts are these, so vividly laid open on backgrounds of ancient geometries? Are these the martyred Natives of Hispaniola, the population that fell to the Old World conquerers? Do they represent the ironically and profoundly absorbed Catholic legacy of Dominicans, the living, beating heart of Christ, so often displayed in Catholic churches?  

I don't believe that Henriquez made these with a single, polemic intention. I think that their power is first in their tremendous visual impact and the marvel of the artist's brilliance in fabrication. Then comes the fact that they can be interpreted truly in so many complementary ways that all add up to observations uniquely about her place: the Dominican Republic. This is where Columbus met the Natives, where the Natives were virtually exterminated; but where Columbus and his religion are still venerated. This is where intense tropical color vibrates on the local, one-story wood houses that line the streets in neighborhoods near the severe 15th century city, canon-bristling walls and the monumental, white-washed brick palaces of the Spaniards. These are about life and living in a particular place, where history is always lived. 

The thicket? Perhaps it is the Dominican Republic itself with its cultural of mixtures and overlooked contradictions; a place, nevertheless, where rules about gender, skin color, and consequent behavior are strict. 

It was exceptionally good luck to see Henriquez's work in the country she lives and works in. This body of work made sense to me as it probably would nowhere else after spending a week experiencing the sights and mores of her own idiosyncratic place in the world.
Early 15th century civic building built by the Spanish in Santo Domingo.