Roving Eye: Tropical Realism


My first meaningful experiences with the Dominican Republic came via New York—or Parlin, New Jersey, really—the home of Junot Díaz’s frequent narrator, Yunior de las Casas. But he belongs to the DR during the Era of Trujillo and to its diasporas. Never mind that it’s fiction.

It took me years to make an actual trip to DR. I had imagined the country somehow yellowed, picturing a present colored by its past. Over time and several trips, I’ve come to better understand the nation’s colors. Depending on how much the place will show or conceal on a given day, the light will either illuminate or obstruct a view.

My most recent trip, to meet with artists, just last week, took me to Santo Domingo, where the landscape is all greens and blues. The tropical plants are tall enough to make shade; heavy clouds hide the horizon, and its coastline is bordered by a cyan so bright it blinds you. Facts, like borders, go missing here. Subtle details are perceptible. Difference titillates through culture.

“The absurd has been culturally assimilated here,” the artist Maurice Sánchez tells me over coffee. It’s my last day in Santo Domingo, and his statement makes me reconsider the art I’ve seen during this trip, and the comparison of realism and naturalism.

Fiction has a special place here. Literature and storytelling run deep. But you won’t find fiction appearing as text in art, nor as voiceover in film. Literature is in-between things, a kind of glue that binds art communities and projects together. It catalyzes.

This is why I found some recent artistic collaborations in Santo Domingo, the capital, so fascinating. Chief among these was Ediciones De a Poco, a new itinerant and independent press founded by a handful of writers and artists, including the poet Frank Báez and Natalia Ortega Gamez of Taller Las Mercedes, a studio dedicated to contemporary design in ceramic. Over the past fourteen months or so, they’ve published three titles, including two poetry books (one by Báez and another by Homero Pumarol) and a translation from French to Spanish of Les dollars des sables by Jean-Noel Pancrazi. These published works each create landscapes from various, cubistic perspectives.

An aquamarine seascape by artist Quisqueya Henriquez illustrates the cover of Báez’s poem book, Postales. And in her recent exhibitions, she has also collaborated with various members of this editorial team and their extended community, of which one of its configurations is the music band Hombrecito.

An earlier instance of this interdisciplinary collaboration is Teatro Simarron, the duo of Jorge Pineda and Henry Mercedes, a visual artist and filmmaker, respectively. Their first project was in 1993; their last to date was in 2003. They’ve produced three major theater pieces that have played locally and internationally, two with the poet Chiqui Vicioso, and another with the writer Rita Indiana (who is also a pop music star in DR.) The panic and mayhem of their last performance—about a woman devoured by her dogs—was influenced by an instance on the island of the false call of a maremoto (a seaquake).

Terrible devastation occurs regularly on Haiti, the western part of this bi-national island, but the Dominican side hasn’t escaped misfortune entirely. It’s difficult to disentangle the place from its history of dictatorships, instability and diaspora. But imagination builds things here in surprising ways. How to avoid the countless stories of eccentric characters and surreal events? These all, so outlandish you wouldn’t even believe them true. Never mind they aren’t fiction.

Sofía Hernández Chong Cuy is curator of contemporary art at the Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros and an agent for Documenta 13. Her writing about art and culture is published regularly in magazines, catalogues and on her blog

Photo: An overturned hanging-pot made in ceramic at Taller las Mercedes, Santo Domingo