Former Dominican dictator, el Generalísimo Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, was a conflicted man.
On the one hand, he openly embraced Nazi ideology, allegedly used face powder to lighten his skin, and ordered the massacre of some 30,000 Haitians as a way to whiten the Dominican Republic’s population. Yet, Trujillo was also a huge fan of afro-rooted merengue–so much so, that soon after seizing power in 1930, he quickly declared it the official music of the D.R.. Almost overnight, he forced all the country’s bands to play merengue, and required even Dominican light-skinned elites to embrace what they had shunned as a regional, lower-class music (to get an idea of how drastic this was, picture all of Mexico’s fresas suddenly having to listen to Chalino Sanchez corridos at their debutante balls).
Ironically, in preparing the first extensive Dominican art show ever to be exhibited in New York, el Centro Leon in the Dominican Republic again chose merengue as the national symbol through which to represent the D.R. But this time, instead of merengue serving as a propaganda tool (which is how Trujillo used it), merengue is a vehicle through which some 35 artists explore the relationship between European influence (which Trujillo venerated) and the very African and indigenous heritage Trujillo and subsequent leaders sought to repress.
Initially, this struggle over identity may be hard to grasp when viewing the Merengue! exhibit’s first pieces. To the untrained eye, some of these works appear simply derivative, i.e. artists just imitating European styles. For example, Manolo Pascual’s slender "Maraquero" sculpture appears to be practically a Giacometti copy, and in Plutarco Andujar’s "Fiesta Dominicana," both color scheme and style conjure up Picasso’s blue period.
However, once we consider the climate in which these artists worked, even these pieces gain a new meaning. It becomes clear that while the style of painting employed may be highly European—and thus acceptable to both the Dominican government and the island’s elites—nearly every artist has re-mixed that foreign idiom with more subversive homegrown Dominican iconography and subject matter.
For example, at first glance, Asdrúbal Domínguez’ 1985 painting of a typical merengue conjunto, "Cucaracha 20," may seem simply an exercise in European cubism. But a closer look reveals perspective and composition that actually draw on African masks, similar to Cuban artist Wilfredo Lam’s blending of European idiom and Afro-Cuban iconography during the 1940’s. In addition, the subject matter is clearly Dominican (musicians with Afro-Latino facial features playing the guira, tambora and acordión). Dominguez, an anti-fascist and former student leader, has also subtly inserted images of weapons in the painting’s background, as if to equate popular culture with resistance, thus subverting Trujillo’s appropriation of merengue as a tool of totalitarian control.
Surprisingly enough, neither el Museo’s exhibit brochure nor the wall tags make any real mention of Trujillo (astounding given his 31-year reign of terror and huge impact on every aspect of Dominican life). However, within the art itself, we see the clashes over identity and freedom of expression during his era (1930-1961) being played out again and again.
Clearly, a few paintings might have been deemed acceptable by ‘el Jefe,’ for example Jaime Colson’s "Merengue," of 1938, in which light-skinned couples dance sedately beneath a thatched (albeit highly stylized) roof. However, many others depict such clearly Afro-Dominican subject matter (for example Dionisio Pichardo’s 1961 "Sin Titulo," with its quartet of dark-skinned subjects reveling around a ritual bonfire) that there is no way they would have been well received by Trujillo. The dictator’s control over imagery was so absolute that he required every Dominican family to hang a portrait of him on the walls of their home. Not surprisingly, his government eventually tortured or otherwise persecuted a number of the artists featured in this exhibit.
Although the bulk of the work in the show was created during the Trujillo era, el Centro Leon’s collection also includes many recent interpretations of merengue, some of which are as interesting, or more so, than the older pieces. While they also reference race and class, many delve into entirely new questions in Dominican life.
For example, Chiqui Mendoza’s 2002 "Santa Fefa Divirtiendo Unos Chivos Sin Ley," depicts merengue star Fefita La Grande in glittery orange lingerie cavorting with some wild goats. Both the flashy Fefita and the primitively-rendered goats are painted on a truck’s old and raggedy canvas cover, thus juxtaposing the flashy style of now-urbanized Dominicans with images evoking their humble, rural origins. (Since Trujillo’s nickname was "el chivo," the viewer may imagine that his ghost figures in this work as well.)
In another contemporary piece, this time on video, New York performance artist Nicolas Dumit Estevez dons a superhero suit complete with chancletas to become "Super Merengue," a character who hands out bananas (but not platanos) to a mostly gringo audience somewhere in the United States. Here, Dumit Estevez is turning the dialogue on Dominican identity in a new direction. The question is no longer simply, who are we on our island, but rather, who are we in relation to other Americans? How will we represent our culture? The artist calls the character someone "who leads an existence both here and there, as well as in the void that links both places."
It’s worth noting that not all the show’s work is so fraught with meaning. Anyone who grew up listening to El Mayimbe or Johnny Ventura playing a to’ que da in their parents’ sala will likely flip over the wall-long collection of old-school merengue album covers, on view towards the end of the exhibit; and the video of merengue pioneer Ñico Lora is dope to watch just for its own sake.
To El Museo del Barrio’s credit, they didn’t stop at just exhibiting el Centro Leon’s Merengue show, as extensive as it is. Instead, an adjacent show called "This Skin I’m In," adds a collection of conceptual art by ten young Dominican artists, many of them living and working in New York. For the most part, these works tackle the experience of Dominicans post-Trujillo, when immigration strictures were loosened in the D.R., and amid a shaky economy, the great migration to New York, and parts beyond, began to jump off.
Some works here address that topic a little too didactically for my taste, for example Nicolas Dumit Estevez’ "The Flag," a combination American-Dominican flag with an
airplane sewn into the center. However, other works are subtle enough that they leave plenty of room for thought. For example, the super-prolific Freddy Rodriguez (the artist chosen to design the Flight 587 memorial) creates a homage to Sammy Sosa in which a fragile glass baseball bat hangs above a pile of sugar (yes, that’s sugar, not another white powder!) The beauty of the bat’s clear, almost fetishized form suspended in the air appears to represent the fragility and seductiveness of baseball fame to young Dominicans on the island (where a growing number of boys leave school to enroll in baseball academies, exiting practically illiterate and with little chance for advancement if they don’t make it in the major leagues.) The pile of sugar underneath, just in the place where the bat would come crashing down if it fell, appears to represent harsh reality, since in the D.R. one of the worst jobs one can have is cutting cane to be exported as sugar.
One of the most visually beautiful pieces, Tony Capellan’s “Mar Caribe,” also speaks of the hardships of island life through a collection of 500 found plastic chancletas. Where the plastic toe strap once was, Capellan has threaded barbed wire, forcing the viewer to confront the physical pain inherent both in staying on impoverished islands, and in crossing the Caribbean Sea–whether that means Dominicans paddling to Puerto Rico in a rickety yola, Haitians desperately fleeing northward, or Cubans on rafts drifting toward Florida under the blazing sun.
Also not to be missed is Quisqueya Henriquez’ "Ropa Congelada", in which photographs of crumpled, frozen clothes evoke the stress of migrants’ first winters in New York; and Jaime Jimenez’s "Juguetes", which despite its seemingly innocent subject matter—Dominican children playing outdoors with homemade toys—provides an emotional jolt to those of us who’ve grown up here, holed up inside and hunched over video game boxes. As much as any other piece in the show, Jimenez’s work forces us to confront questions of where Dominicans come from and where they are headed as they become more and more Americanized.
On a side note, El Museo deserves huge props for putting up the city’s largest Dominican show ever, and for continuing on their recent tack of including art that is accessible and enjoyable to both abuelita who hates abstraction and the Derrida-obsessed art nerd. Unlike some cultural venues, they have decided not to dumb down any recent shows in an effort to be more appealing to the surrounding community, and instead have assumed (rightly so) that Latinos are as interested in serious, multi-layered art as anyone. At the same time, they’ve avoided pandering to the elite downtown art world by including only work acceptable to that milieu (some of the art in the Merengue! show looks like it could be straight from a Caridad restaurant’s walls, and that is pretty cool.)
If it weren’t for El Museo, I doubt such an exhibit would have been shown anywhere in New York. So, curators, don’t be mad this show has received scant critical attention from the mainstream art reviewers. You’ve succeeded in something way more important: You’ve provided the first chance for Dominican-American kids (mi’ja included) to see the incredible range of art other Dominicans have created before them, thus planting in them the revolutionary idea that they contain multitudes.