In recent years, standout expositions in leading, U.S. museums have once again turned the public eye toward Latin American art. One landmark exhibit in particular, this year’s Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960-1965 at Los Angeles’ Hammer Museum, took one step further toward reasserting Latin American art’s place in history by gathering more than 260 works from 116 iconic, female artists in one space. The elaborate and finely curated show sent waves throughout the art world, receiving high praise from art critics and viewers alike who have consistently appealed for greater representation of Latina artists.
What the exhibit proved was that these visual narratives were necessary and timely. Yet, one exhibit could not single-handedly highlight the overlooked artwork of every noteworthy, female visual creative of Latin America. One obvious blind spot was work from the Dominican Republic, the Caribbean country where feminine art has thrived in recent decades. For this reason, we’ve curated a list of 10 need-to-know, female artists of the Dominican Republic. These women cover a range of disciplines, from oil painting to engravings to installations, and prove that when it comes to Latin American, female art, the small Caribbean island is a necessary stop.
Clara Ledesma was one of the first women to study and graduate from the National School of Fine Arts in Santo Domingo, considered one of the Dominican Republic’s most prestigious art schools. Shortly afterward, a successful solo exhibition provided Ledesma with the funds to travel, work, and display her paintings throughout Europe. There, Ledesma turned toward the artwork of contemporary greats Marc Chagall, Joan Miro, and Paul Klee, who encompassed surrealism, expressionism, and cubism in their art.
Similarly, her oil paintings employed bright, primary hues and symbolism to create a fantastical image of her native country, often portraying peasant farmers and wildlife of the tropical countryside. Despite her thematic inclination toward the magical and otherworldliness, Ledesma also touched on social realism in her work, with her most noted series underlining the racial inequities of the time.
Born in Santo Domingo and based in New York, Scherezade Garcia knows firsthand the experiences of the Dominican diaspora she addresses in her work. After finishing her studies at Altos de Chavon, an affiliate of the Parsons School of Design in Santo Domingo, Garcia relocated to New York in 1986 to advance her academic training with a BFA at Parsons – The New School and later an MFA at the City College of New York.
Drawing from her fascination with her European and Black heritage, Garcia brings to the surface historical memories that continue to haunt the Caribbean people today such as colonization, mestizaje, and religion, as well as the migration phenomenon that has forever transformed Dominican society. Through her work, Garcia never strays far from the political and social, choosing to narrate everyday stories that question today’s most complex, societal quagmires.
Celeste Woss y Gil
Celeste Woss y Gil was the first female, professional artist of the Dominican Republic. The daughter of a former president, Woss y Gil was forced into exile with her family at a young age and lived for nine years in Paris. She received her first artistic training under the tutelage of the Dominican painter Abelardo Rodriguez Urdaneta and, from there on, continued her studies in Cuba and later New York City.
When she returned to her hometown of Santo Domingo in 1924, she launched a solo exhibition, which would be a first for a female artist in the Dominican Republic. Her style may have been heavily influenced the impressionistic movement of the European continent, but her gaze preferred the sights of the Caribbean. She painted nudes of Dominican women and everyday scenes of markets, architecture, and landscapes. Perhaps more impressive than her trailblazing art career was her devotion to advancing the state of art in the Dominican Republic through a robust education program. In 1931, she opened a small art academy and in 1942, helped to found the National School of Fine Arts, where she later instructed Clara Ledesma and Rosa Tavarez.
Perhaps the only label that accurately describes Raquel Paiewonsky’s work is mutant, which also the title of one of her most noted installations. Born in Puerto Plata, Paiewonsky works through various mediums, including painting, sculpture, photography, and installation.
Her sculptures and installations often address the tensions between individual identity and the standards of normalcy constructed by our environments. The results are giant murals filled with plush breasts of every skin color, mutant creatures assembled with body parts of dolls, and restless, beeswax feet hanging from the ceiling in pantyhose. Paiewonsky also co-founded the Dominican art collective Quintipata, which includes artists Pascal Meccariello, Jorge Pineda, and Belkis Ramirez.
Ada Balcacer has had one of the most active career among Dominican artists. In 1947, she embarked on a long academic journey at the National School of Fine Arts in Santo Domingo, later enrolling in the Arts Students League in New York, then studying in Puerto Rico, and taking textile screen printing classes at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.
Returning to the Dominican Republic after the fall of the Trujillo regime in the 1960s, Balcacer took part in various, homegrown art movements, such as Frente Cultural, the collective Proyecta which she co-founded, and the group Nueva Imagen. Her art reflects her multidisciplinary background, utilizing watercolor, collage, acrylic, screen printing, and mural painting to recreate worlds informed by her investigations into native folklore and the relationship of women and nature. Currently in her mid-80s, Balcacer continues to exhibit internationally.
Through her paintings and drawings of city life, Rosalba Hernández is said to “restore the dignity of the street in her most vulnerable characters”. An admirer of the Argentine artist Antonio Seguí, Hernández renders everyday life in Santo Domingo, taking into consideration the gait of passersby, cars, signs, architecture, the sounds of the radio and transforming these observations into complex cityscapes and portraits.
Despite the often cold renditions of the city, the Dominican artist immerses herself in her urban landscapes, which encompass as much chaos as they do passion, most recently realized in her 2014 exhibit Memories of a Passion. Hernández studied drawing and painting at the National School of Fine Arts in Santo Domingo, where she later taught for seven years.
The Afro-Dominican artist Lucía Méndez draws inspiration from the magical rituals and experiences of Black, Caribbean women. “I feel a deep pride in Afro-descendent women — I’m one of them — because with their fortitude they’ve achieved everything they’ve wanted to achieve,” Méndez said at an artist talk in North Carolina.
This fortitude and resilience she portrays with the vibrant hues she colors the inner worlds of her subjects, but also through her focus on popular Caribbean spirituality. Méndez sees the rituals she portrays, such as the lighting a candle or setting up an altar for a saint, as a medium of expression that Black women have taken up when they had few other outlets and that they have proudly passed down through generations.
One of the most eminent Dominican painters of the last five decades, Elsa Nuñez began her career in the 1960s – a time of social upheaval in Dominican history. The assassination of the brutal dictator Rafael Trujillo, the short-lived Dominican Revolution, and subsequent U.S. military intervention all had a direct effect on the artist.
During her years in college, where she studied philosophy, Nuñez joined student-led political movements while, during the military intervention, her brother was killed. Nuñez’s work has run the gamut of artistic styles, from expressionism to abstraction, but the underlying themes remain constant. Sometimes Nuñez turns outward, toward the social conditions of everyday workers in the Dominican Republic or pays tribute to the women who toppled the Trujillo dictatorship. The acrylic painter also envisions female figures and their turbulent inner minds.
Belkis Ramirez is one of the foremost contemporary printmakers of the Dominican Republic. Perhaps most well known for her woodcut illustrations of the book A Cafecito Story by Dominican author Julia Alvarez, Ramirez engages with social issues in her work, ranging from feminism to environmentalism. Her woodcut drawings often portray women.
As a female artist, she attempts to amplify the voices of women, touching on subjects such as sex trafficking, education, and women’s equality, she explained in an interview with the International Association of Art Critics (AICA). One of her most celebrated works, a woodcut installation titled En De La Misma Madera, includes a block of female portraits that faces a slingshot surrounded by stones, beckoning the viewer to shoot and underlying societal intolerance.
A celebrated printer and engraver, Rosa Talvarez learned from some of the greatest Dominican artists of the time, such as Yoryi Morel, Jaime Colson, Celeste Woss y Gil, and Gilberto Hernández Ortega, first at the School of Fine Arts in Santiago de los Caballeros and later the National School of Fine Arts in Santo Domingo.
Her art is characterized by its display of vibrant and spontaneous color and figurative rendition of the human spirit. Tavarez also devoted her life to art education. She founded an engraving workshop at the National School of Fine Arts in 1973, served as an art professor in various universities within and outside the country, and directed the Dominican College of Plastic Artists, from 2000 to 2003. A recent retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in Santo Domingo brought together Tavarez’s drawings, painting, and engravings from the last 50 years.