Tie Jojima

On March 15th, 2018, the Center for the Humanities at the Graduate Center hosted the conference “Art and Literature in Contemporary Dominican Republic, Haiti, and their Diasporas,” co-organized by Abigail Lapin Dardashti and Wilfredo Burgos Matos. The conference took place in collaboration with the art exhibition Bordering the Imaginary: Art from the Dominican Republic, Haiti and their Diasporas, inaugurated on March 14th and curated by Abigail Lapin Dardashti at BRIC House in Brooklyn, NY.

Both the conference at the Graduate Center and the exhibition at BRIC provided frameworks for multiple conversations on contemporary visual arts and literature production from the Caribbean island of Hispañola and its diasporas in the United States. Looking at Haiti and the Dominican Republic together, and alongside their diasporas is a huge and complex task. One of the main intricacies of this approach lies in the fact that while the two countries were historically constructed as distinct nation-states (with their own languages, different historical narratives, and their own racial hierarchies), their immigrants in the United States are perceived as belonging to the same larger community of immigrants from the Caribbean, facing similar challenges, and experiencing different racial classifications (for example, even if some Dominicans identify as Indian on the island, they are considered black in the United States).[1]

By including artists from the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and their diasporas side-by-side, the exhibition at BRIC allowed for an opening of the conversation beyond island-centric discussions focused on historical differences between the two nations on the island (or how artists reimagine their history), to also include the shared and lived experiences of people on the island and in the United States. Artists in the exhibition investigate historical narratives, racial identity, colonialism, and imperialism, as well as common experiences of marginalization in the context of the United States.

The exhibition presented different ways in which artists reimagine identity that do not necessarily touch upon the racialized body. One such way is through objects. By shifting the attention from the body and emphasizing the shared experiences people have with everyday objects, artists can challenge notions of nationhood based on race. For example, Roberto Stephenson’s photographs of hand-made objects depicted against a white background highlight craftsmanship, details, and the creativity of their makers in the act of repurposing. These objects could also speak to the material conditions of artists both on the island and in the diaspora, thus creating identity through material conditions and lived reality.

Spaces of exchange between the two countries are exemplified in works such as Alex Morel’s series of photographs “Frontier,” in which the Dominican-American artist depicts people from the island living their lives between the two countries in spite of the existence of the border, thus highlighting the fluidity of this imaginary line.

The constructed nature of borders (here understood to also include the constructed nature of race and gender) was the focus of the first panel of the conference at the Graduate Center, entitled “Border and Queer Literature.” For this panel, the organizer Wilfredo Matos started the presentation with a brief relaxation exercise (encouraging audience members to close their eyes, to breathe in, and to breathe out several times). While we still had our eyes closed, Matos performed an excerpt of a Bachata song, with a powerful and dynamic voice–-making us pause and listen. In the presentation, Matos examined the politics of rhythm in Dominican Bachata songs (especially by composer Romeo Santos) in light of queer theories, proposing that Bachata has the potential to challenge heteronormative binaries of national identity, and the “dominant representation of the Dominican macho.”

Rachel Afi Quinn presented a paper on the Dominican group Colectivo de Teatro Maleducadas, a theater collective composed solely of women who self-identify as Afro-Dominican. In her interpretations of the collective’s 2013 production of the play La Casa de Bernarda Alba by Frederico García Lorca, Quinn analyzed the ways in which contemporary audiences in the Dominican Republic perceive differences of class and gender based on the racialized bodies of the actresses of the collective. She contended that the theater collective, by presenting racialized bodies, complements and expands Lorca’s vision and the significance of his work to contemporary audiences. Raj Chetty’s paper analyzed the tradition of “teatro callejero” in the Dominican Republic as a cultural repository of Dominican identity. Chetty focused on the play Ramón Arepa and the ways in which the Spanish colonial carnival, as presented in the play, “rearticulates Dominican culture with its African past and creolized present.”

The second panel of the conference entitled “Curating Hispañola,” consisted of a vibrant conversation from an all-women’s panel comprised of seven curators and scholars of Latinx and Latin American art. The panel was moderated by Arlene Dávila, who started the conversation by inviting each speaker to share initial thoughts on curating Latinx art in the United States.

E. Carmen Ramos pointed out the similar challenges faced by Dominican and Haitian artists of the diaspora and the fact that they also come into contact and share experiences with other artists of color who are questioning their relationship to the United States. Ramos mentioned the need to look at historical antecedents of diasporic artists in the U.S. from the first half of the 20th century, who were also challenging discourses of national identity and history, and the importance of highlighting this legacy of diaspora artists and the continuity of these discourses up to the present day.

Debora Cullen presented the case of Jean-Michel Basquiat, an artist of Haitian and Puerto Rican descent born in the United States, who has received considerable recognition from the mainstream art world (i.e. critics and the art market) mainly as a black artist. Cullen argued that in the context of American art, his Caribbean and Latino/x identity was erased under the umbrella of race, and that only recently has his hybrid artistic production started to be understood as related to his hybrid identity.

Jerry Philogene shared her thoughts on the tensions created when art institutions categorize artists under national identity, and thus fix their spaces of exhibition and reception. She proposed that we move away from pre-conceived notions of what Dominican or Haitian artworks should look like, and instead focus on issues of medium, and the potential of these works to generate discussion. She questioned the politics behind the creation of identity labels, inviting the audience and discussants to think about who profits from the creation of such divisions.

Rocío Aranda-Alvarado shared her experience curating the show Hispañola from the late 1990s, in which she incorporated artists from Haiti and the Dominican Republic in the context of contemporary American art. She highlighted two major themes that she found were important to artists from Haiti and the Dominican Republic and their diasporas: body and labor, and presented examples of how artists articulated various forms of the body, and the invisibility of labor in different artworks.

Axelle Liautaud presented an overview of representations of the racialized body throughout 19th century Haiti and the construction of nationhood. Yelaine Rodriguez shared her experience as an artist and curator, emphasizing the challenges she faced when she started to curate exhibitions of Dominican art in New York back in 2013.

Finally, Abigail Lapin Dardashti shared her experience curating Bordering the Imaginary, pointing to the challenges of curating an exhibition that integrates artists from Haiti and Dominican Republic, alongside artists from their diasporas, given the two different visual traditions in which these artists articulate their ideas, and also given the different realities they face in terms of race and class in these two different­, and yet connected, universes.

Members of the audience emphasized the necessity of continuing this conversation beyond this exhibition and conference, and the role of art historians and curators to include these artists in larger historical narratives. A major point of concern from the audience was related to the art market and its role in creating institutional validation and in fostering collections of Latinx works. In this respect, Arlene Dávila pointed out the complicated dynamic of creating market categories based on identity: if, on the one hand, they are necessary as visibility tools (to promote artists and exhibitions), on the other, they are ultimately constructions that can sometimes be essentializing. However, she pointed out that scholars and curators are able to work with these categories, highlighting their nuances and utilizing them strategically to give visibility and communicate values of Latinx diasporic art to the art world at large (collectors and institutions). One such example of this nuanced approach to identity is present in the exhibition Bordering the Imaginary, with artists that proposed reimagined identities through objects, and not through a racialized body. I’d like to end with E. Carmen Ramos’ provocation on the role of education in expanding ideas of identity, in which she ultimately claimed the “need to rethink, in revolutionary terms: What do we mean by America?”

[1] Abigail Lapin Dardashti, “Borders and the Flexibility of imaginaries” in Bordering the Imaginary: Art from the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and their Diasporas (New York: BRIC House, 2018), 3.


Tie Jojima

Tie Jojima is a Ph.D. student in the Art History program at The Graduate Center, CUNY, where she is specializing in Modern and Contemporary Latin American art. Her research focuses on performance, pornography, and technology in Brazilian art of ...