The culture of the archipelagos is not terrestrial—as are almost all cultures—; its fluvial and marine. It’s a culture of directions not routes; of approximations, not exact results. Here, the world of straight lines and angles (the corner, the inclined plane, the crossroads) doesn’t dominate; what dominates is the fluid world of curves.
(Antonio Benítez-Rojo, The Repeating Island: The Caribbean and the Postmodern Perspective)
The Caribbean is not a determinate territory. It is not a region on a map with a set of geographic coordinates that clearly delineate its limits. It is a geographic and historical fact… a meta-archipelago, without frontiers and devoid of a center, that is comprised of differences. The ongoing historical processes of conquest, colonization, and migration that constitute the Caribbean as a space produce artistic practices that flow freely between senses, knowledge systems, and forms. A Fact of Differences is an exhibition that gathers works by four artists from the Caribbean whose artistic practices are situated in this indeterminate space: between the formal and the informal, Western art history and Afro-Caribbean and indigenous knowledge, the imagined and the real. Unmoored from categories and hierarchies between cultural manifestations—and circumventing cultural signifiers that might point to strictly regional understandings—the artworks in the exhibition negotiate forms, influences, and histories to articulate syncretic processes and objects.
Artists Quisqueya Henríquez and Engel Leonardo, both living and working in the city of Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, combine the language of vernacular culture with art history and aesthetics, making works that reflect the syncretic and dialogic processes of the region. The artworks by Henríquez featured in the exhibition are a part of the series Formal/Informal (2007-ongoing), where the artist collaborates with Federico “Fico” Gómez Polonia, an urban artisan who works on the streets of Santo Domingo. Fico uses long and thin plastic strips of different colors to weave and cover furniture, steering wheels, mirrors, and other domestic and functional items. In 2007, Henríquez asked Fico to cover simple geometric shapes with this material, and since then has produced a series of collaborative works that speak to the similarities and differences between the informal economy of the street and the formal economy of the field of aesthetics. For this exhibition, Henríquez asked Fico to cover a butterfly chair, one of the most copied and replicated chairs in the history of modern design. The butterfly chair or BKF Chair was designed in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1938 by architects Antonio Boner, Juan Kurchan, and Jorge Ferrari Hardoy, all of whom worked at some point in Le Corbusier’s atelier in Paris. Henríquez’s collaborative practice has extended to other artisans. In Untitled (2018), Henríquez asked a local framer to make a series of custom made, odd-shaped interlocking frames and then asked Fico to weave over them with plastic strips. In all of these works, authorship is entangled in the process of making, while different systems of knowledge (from different fields and economies) intersect and overlap.
In the project Vevés, Engel Leonardo combines symbols of Afro-Caribbean religion with the elaborate iron grilles that are a common structural element of vernacular Caribbean architecture. The forms of these architectural elements are sourced from Leonardo’s own investigations on popular street aesthetics and architecture around different parts of the island. Although its true origins are unknown (possibly a combination of Taíno and African belief systems), the vevés are symbolic representations of the loas (spirits) and have very formal characteristics. Used in rituals to summon the gods to earth, they are abstract drawings comprised of swirly lines and organic and geometric shapes. In a suite of drawings of the same title, Leonardo uses the juice of green plantains to produce marks or stains on imported French cotton paper. The juice of green plantains, the latter a staple of Dominican cuisine and other Caribbean and African cultures, is generally avoided because it produces stubborn stains. In these drawings, however, the plantain stain is revalued and aestheticized. Contained within geometric forms that depart from a formal study of the vevés, they also implicitly reference the island’s geography and its insular landscape.
In another work on view titled Añil, Leonardo addresses the transatlantic commerce that defined the economic, social, and political relationship between European countries and their colonies through process and materials. To make the work, Leonardo stained a fabric manufactured in England with Mayan indigo, suggesting the frequent and unequal exchanges between Europe and the Americas. The form of the sculpture itself mimics the industrial production conveyor belts and cotton mills. Like the Vevés drawings, which are made with European materials that speak to the history of manufacturing, the work juxtaposes organic materials with industrial materials, as well as techniques and local knowledge with the language of modernity.
The works by Puerto Rican artist Alana Iturralde, glazed ceramics and textiles at the intersection of art and craft, allude to the material histories and knowledge systems of ancestral cultures, while incorporating personal, emotional, and embodied narratives. While living in Puerto Rico, Iturralde participated in several craft workshops taught by the Cheveres family in Morovis, a mountainous municipality on the island of Puerto Rico. The Cheveres claim to be direct descendants of the Taínos and have maintained their knowledge and belief systems through oral histories. Iturralde’s ceramics and embroideries, which are informed by ancient as well as contemporary object making traditions, are expressive of a very personal sensibility that is process based. Making as both a physical and an emotional gesture, where the hand and the breath engage in a direct and intimate relationship with the materials, is at the center of Iturralde’s practice. Shown here, Lunas are ceramic hand built vessels or “moon jars” covered in a metallic bronze glaze, whose round forms are meant to simulate the breath. Also on view, Otra vida (another life) is an embroidered mask with yute and silk on fabric where every stitch represents a breath; a haptic pattern inspired by the chirping of the cicadas, a small insect that is that is born from the ground periodically every seventeen years. Finally, Healing Hand, a ceramic candle holder to be lighten by the curator, represents the healing properties of working with your hands as well as the labor required to make handmade ceramics. At the end, it is the curator’s hand that activates the work, thereby acknowledging the relationships that often arise between artists and curators.
For many years, US based Puerto Rican artist Nayda Collazo Llorens has used found aeronautical charts and vintage maps to make a series of works titled Island Mapping, in which she explores concepts of perception, imagination, and abstraction as they relate to the practice of mapping and charting territories. Stemming from this ongoing investigation, Collazo Llorens’ watercolors on view are representations of imagined geographies; shapes that resemble islands suspended in space and maps comprised of geometric topographies with intersecting lines. These latter ones, with warped and distorted patterns of color with overlapping circles and other shapes, give the illusion of depth and movement. These new topographies and imaginary islands suggest a different understanding of the Caribbean as a space. It questions what remains of out sight— what is hidden and what is imagined—and invites viewers to think beyond the visible towards the sensible.
Altogether, the four artists whose work is shown in A Fact of Differences negotiate the forms and techniques of a hybrid modernity, combining western art histories, local artisanal practices, and other contemporary languages. By avoiding aesthetic stereotypes tied to a specific latitude, the works express the complex difference of a region that resists categorical definitions.