The artist on exploring suppressed histories and the shifting of collective memory.
So much of your work is inspired by archives and the photographs and documents found within. What first made you turn to archives for inspiration, and how have they informed your work?
The found photographs were first a pretext to move toward representation, then toward my own context as a way to understand what being from this place now called the Dominican Republic meant. Years ago, a close friend used to work in the Archivo General de la Nación (National Archives in English), and just out of curiosity, I asked him for whatever photos he could get from the 1965 Revolution. He burned me a cd filled with hi-quality photos, mostly by photographer Milvio Pérez, that ignited my curiosity about the political history of the island. I was still doing abstract paintings and wasn’t sure about what to do with that collection of images. I did a few paintings from that archive and thanks to conversations with two good curator friends, reformulated my practice toward research-based images.
Although I don’t have an academic background, I try to be as thorough as possible, so I put myself under a lot of pressure while researching. I want to absorb as much information as I can on a certain topic to, in a way, imbue the work with that thoroughness. That’s why a single painting can take a few weeks of research, then look for references, do the photo collages and finally work on it for several hours on the easel. I know it’s probably not the best approach or the fastest one, but it’s the one that works for me.
What are some of the things you've come across in archives that affected or stuck with you the most?
Every research initiative reveals information I haven’t thought about. Sometimes it is not going through a proper or official archive where I find an idea for a project. For example, in Monte Grande/Paramnesia I found the mention of Santiago Basora–a former enslaved person and later a member of the Black African battalion during the Dominican Independence–who was left aside by historians in a book written by Dominican-York intellectual, Silvio Torres-Saillant. The book was about the role of our diaspora in the shaping of our identity, and it was a pleasure reading something not work-related. I like that serendipity that comes from the outside as opposed to me trying to pull an image from my gut. And it’s something that relates to my previous answer about my distancing from abstraction.
Sometimes, you realize how little you know about the history of your own country and question why that is: Is it because of historical omissions? State-controlled media? A lack of documentation? Or simply ignorance? It could be any of the above and as an artist, I think one has the responsibility to shed some light on those obscured moments that are still part of my identity.
The subject of memory is something that's been coming up a lot lately with other artists I speak to, and your work often touches on the idea of collective memory. In a time where there's so much documentation of almost everything (especially digitally), how do you think our relationship to memory is changing?
I’m no neuroscientist, but I can imagine that the exposure that the current and future generations are subjected to is going to reform the idea of memory. We’re also the first generation to have grown up with access to this supposedly democratic flux of global images and not subjected exclusively to one historical narrative.
We are innately transcultural beings. And to me, that relates to my anchoring to the place I live in, trying to make sense of this totality of images through my art. I say that I create fictions and, to me, in that alteration of archival images, later placed in circulation in a gallery or the internet, has the potency to change collective memory, or at least call into question the discourse of the “original” images. So, what I’m trying to do is to reframe the archive as art, something that I understand can be more gentle than the obscurantism of academic thinking.
The Dominican Republic, its history and its people are frequent topics of your work and very close to you as it's your home. What are some of the things about the Dominican Republic you feel don't get discussed enough–either by the people there or from others around the world–that you feel are important to explore?
DR’s relation to Haiti. That’s something that is rarely spoken of in the media or is portrayed only as problematic. It’s a complex topic and one that’s not easy to talk about. We had our independence not from Spain but from Haiti, so the construction of “Dominican-ness” is in opposition to “Hatian-ness”. Haiti, being the first Black country to achieve its independence on this side of the world, has assumed Blackness at its core, so the Dominican Republic's national (and racial) identity was constructed as something that derives from mestizaje [mixed race] although it is a Black country.
Media's use as a tool for political gain is something you discuss a lot. How does your own research into the topic inform how you consume or think about media on a day-to-day basis?
In the mid-2010’s, I used to work at a newspaper and I read the news daily. Although what I did there was advertising, I still got a glimpse of the politics that drove the newspaper. After that job, I couldn’t see the news the same way, just seeing who made the decisions and why for something that conditions the thinking of so many people made me distrustful.
Since the pandemic, I’ve seriously limited my media exposure. Given that at times, my work requires a lot of reading, I try to only focus on the topic I’m working on. And sometimes those topics are from a different time when information wasn’t ubiquitous. That’s something that interests me because it’s a way to see how our parents or grandparents were conditioned.
On a lighter note but still on the topic of media, what are some of the things you like to consume for pleasure?
I watch a lot of films. Recently, I haven't seen as many as I’d like to, but there was a time when I could watch three movies every day. I think films have informed my practice more than visual arts, especially filmmakers like Andrei Tarkovsky and Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, who approach cinema with poetry that is currently rare. I prefer fiction in movies and essays in literature, so I rarely read a novel or watch a documentary.
What are some of the things you have coming up that you're most excited about?
I’m doing a residency at Corsicana this winter where I’ll have a huge studio! I’ve never had so much space to work in, so I want to try out ideas I’ve kept stored for some time.
I also have a solo show in NY in the fall of 2023, and it’s going to be my first solo outside of the Dominican Republic. I’m still not sure what series I’ll include, but it’ll definitely be about more recent topics.