Cuando suena el caracol
Coño despierta Boricua
When the shell
This art installation was conceived when I was invited to travel to el Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico to install another segment of my Soul Rebels series that debuted as part of El Museo's Bienal: The (S) Files at El Museo del Barrio in New York City. Soul Rebels is a tribute to poets and musicians who use their work to combat injustice. For the Puerto Rico segment I chose to create a portrait of a musician I had long admired, Andres Jimenez, also known as El Jíbaro. In Puerto Rico, Jíbaro, Taino for "man of the mountain" is a national symbol of pride as it represents the farmer, the person who works the land to receive its produce. Throughout the 20th century, this symbol has risen in legend status as the United States turned the colony's agricultural economy into a more industrial one. In addition, when in 1952 the island's status went from colony to "commonwealth" (colony with a fancier name), it cemented the political tie to the United States and so Puerto Rican artists throughout the 50s with literature, music, visual arts, theater documented the history and culture of their island as a way of celebrating and preserving their identity.
All this background information got me to consider how if I was choosing to paint Andres Jimenez, Puerto Rican folk protest singer who called himself El Jíbaro, that my work should somehow reflect this history, this struggle. It then became apparent that the perfect accompaniment to the Andres Jimenez portrait would be another of Puerto Rican Nationalist poet Julia de Burgos, who I had already painted at El Museo del Barrio, dressed as a jíbara. I chose to work with both their images within an installation to investigate the idea of the changing economy and political climate in Puerto Rico.
I chose to create both portraits on burlap as a symbol of the poverty associated with those who continue to work the land for a living in a world where the pursuit of money reigns. The irony is that those who work the land have access to one of life’s greatest, most necessary riches, and that is self-sustenance, something that Puerto Rico has been robbed of after a century of US rule. Unlike the majority of my works, I chose a limited palette working only with earth tones to develop the images. As was the case with the Julia de Burgos portrait created at El Museo, NYC, I chose to paint both figures this time holding their machetes, standing in a sugarcane field.
Working with the images of a poet and a musician, it was vital to include text, an excerpt of one of Julia’s poems and one of Andres Jimenez’ songs. To incorporate the text into the painting, I decided to channel the rich artistic heritage of Puerto Rico, particularly the traditions from the times I referenced above when artists used their work to celebrate and preserve the culture and history of Puerto Rico. Two such artists who I greatly admire are Lorenzo Homar and Rafael Tufiño, the former having passed in 2004 and the latter who continues working to this day. (El Museo del Barrio has a tribute to Homar on view through September of 2006.) Both artists were/are master printmakers and master calligraphers. Another master artist working in this tradition, but also exploring it in paint is Antonio Martorell. With their legacy in mind I chose to incorporate my own calligraphy technique. I had been taught calligraphy by Ms. Currier, my Chinese 8th grade homeroom teacher at an after-school program at IS 302 in East New York, Brooklyn. I had kept it up and although I’ve incorporated it into my work here and there, I’ve never seriously considered continuing in this Puerto Rican tradition until recently.
For Julia de Burgos, I chose to include the excerpt of her poem Pentacromía, which inspired the first portrait created for El Museo del Barrio. For Andres Jimenez, I chose to include an excerpt for his song Barlovento. Both texts make references to poverty, protest and a need for justice. To learn more about each individual panel, visit their respective pages with the following links: Jibara Julia El Jíbaro.
The purpose of the installation was to tie these two artists, who although are both Puerto Rican worked in two different times and in two different genres. The unifying element between the two is their Puerto Ricanness, nationalism, desire for Puerto Rico to be an independent nation and their reverence for the Puerto Rican jíbaro and what it represents. Made up mostly of natural materials, the installation is a tribute to both Julia and Andres as well as to the jíibaro. It includes sand from Carolina (birthplace of Julia), palm leaves, banana leaves, coconuts, ñame, yuca, yautía, sugarcane, seashells (also for Julia), and corn.
The impermanence of the natural materials is meant as a commentary on the agriculture of Puerto Rico. In creating an installation with fresh, natural materials I had to take into account the fact that they would change during the course of the three-month exhibition. It was important to me that most of the materials be natural, even the natural fiber of the burlap on which the paintings were created. At the start of the installation the palm and banana leaves were all green. As time progressed they began to darken in tone and dry, eventually taking on the earth tones of the paintings as well as the tones of the root vegetables, sugar cane and sand. This drying serves as a metaphor in the drying of the crops in an island that no longer produces as it should and unfortunately imports most of its staples. To further illustrate this point I chose to incorporate old, rusted machetes to suggest that they are no longer in use. The machetes also symbolize transition, as a tribute to slain Ejercito Popular Boricua/ Los Macheteros Commander Filiberto Ojeda Rios, killed by the FBI in Puerto Rico, 6 months before this exhibition. The evanescent element of this work also calls for a transitioning of Puerto Rico’s current political situation. The only strong colors referenced in the installation are the red and black peronía seeds. Usually abundant near river banks, these seeds were traditionally used in Puerto Rico inside an higuera shell to make the natural instrument of the Taino, the maraca. In Afro-Cuban tradition however, particularly in Santería, the seeds are associated with indecision and are called upon to help one determine the correct path. Their color is also associated with Eleggua or Eshu, the orisha who opens doors and paths. The peronía seeds are dotted along the outer edge of the sand. This was my own reference to the need for Puerto Rico to come together towards the resolution that will secure its natural right to freedom.
Guasabara is the battle cry of the native Taino people of Puerto Rico and its surrounding islands. Many battles, or areitos (ritual celebrations) were started with the sound of someone blowing into a large conch shell. One of the more popular songs performed by Andres Jimenez, “Coño Despierta Boricua”, says: “Oye Boricua yo te canto esta canción. Viva la patria viva la revolución”. This song again refers to a call to battle with its “wake up” references and with the reference to “cuando suena el caracol”. In these two paintings both Julia de Burgos and Andres Jimenez seem to be looking up over their shoulders as if they’ve heard something. I painted them as supporters and messengers of a liberation struggle, having heard the call that will eventually unite/ build the nation.