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In and Out of DR

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IDB Reflects on Dominican Arts Scene at Home and Abroad

“Inside and Out: Recent Trends in the Arts of the Dominican Republic,” now at the Inter-Amer-ican Development Bank (IDB) Cultural Center, doesn’t exhaustively scour the Carib-bean country’s art scene inside out as the title suggests.

Rather, the inside-out theme refers to the eight Dominican artists whose work makes up the exhibition — specifically the four who live outside of the Dominican Republican (in New York, Madrid and two in Paris), and the other four who live and work in their native DR.

But this small exhibition offers revealing insights into much larger issues that are universal to both a globalized world and specifically to the Dominican Republic, which is witnessing something of a resurgence in its contemporary art scene.

In fact, resurgence is a subtopic here, or rather a question if you will. The exhibit asks what is the nature of this resurgence, what does it say about Dominican art, and, on a broader scale, how are issues such as originality, innovation, displacement and identity addressed by artists operating inside versus outside of their country’s borders.

Those questions aren’t exactly answered in this exhibition, which winds up posing even more questions about globalization, national dialogue and its impact on the world of art.

Nevertheless, all these issues have their say in a remarkably tight exhibition of 28 works that range from paintings, drawings and prints to photography and video. The creators behind these pieces are Polibio Díaz, Gerard Ellis, Mónica Ferreras and Fausto Ortiz — the four Dominican-based artists — as well as Radhamés Mejía, Inés Tolentino, Julio Valdez and Limber Vilorio, who live elsewhere.

But I would guess that most viewers, whether conversant with the country or not, would be hard pressed to pick out the Diaspora artist versus the local live-in artist, except when it comes to readily identifiable subject matter in the photographic works.

This isn’t a criticism, however. In fact, it’s the same pattern that has emerged in past exhibitions. That’s because underlying most Latin American art — even decidedly cutting-edge, high-tech art — is the heavy residue and resonance of the indigenous influence, which appears among artists from Mexico to the Caribbean to Chile. This tends to stand next to the influence of the Old World as it transported itself to the region and then eventually morphed into individual national styles and new artistic trends.

Comparing Diaspora and local art addresses some of these questions of Old World traditions versus modern artistic impulses, although it doesn’t provide defining answers. After all, each individual artist is just that, individual, and the indigenous footprints can just as easily be found in the Parisian transplant as in the artist born and raised in the same local village. So what does result, almost every time out, is a startling, affecting diversity — and the Dominican exhibit is no exception.

This display is actually a big one in the sense that many of the works are large, imposing and dramatic. And the clean, minimal gallery space itself is ideal for showcasing the individual pieces so that they can talk to the audience and to each other. The design was also set up in a way that allows us to see just how the Diaspora-home, inside-out theme plays out.

For instance, the mixed media works by Radhamés Mejía — beautiful, primitive and as old as tribal memories — speak to the ancient history of the island and its geography even though the artist lives and teaches in Paris, far away from the common memories he creates.

Limber Vilorio’s canvasses also have a primitive element to them, but they are in fact violent, blood-red meditations on today’s urban decay (in the form of deserted, mangled car parts) that could just as easily be remnants of ravaged temple altars.

In contrast, Polibio Díaz’s high-energy photos capture the vibrancy of urban life, while Fausto Ortiz captures the shadowy underbelly of cities such as Monte Cristi and Santiago.

More abstract but equally jarring are Gerard Ellis’ spattering life forms, eerie but visually stunning renditions of men choked by snakes or seemingly torn apart atom to atom.

Inés Tolentino offers gentler, quieter imagery in her musically titled works such as “Weaving My Story,” “Threads of Life” and “I will Sew My Heart to Yours.” And from the watery depths comes Julio Valdez’s “Achilles: The Heart Fell into the Sea,” in which a head, not a heart, is submerged in a strangely soothing water canvas dotted with tiny green lizards.

With enigmatic works such as these, it’s nearly impossible to brand name the artists as Dominican per se, which is neither here nor there. But it is easy to call them original yet universal, hooked into the world outside while at the same time grounded in their native insides.

Inside and Out: Recent Trends in the Arts of the Dominican Republic through Nov. 7 Inter-American Development Bank Cultural Center 1300 New York Ave., NW For more information, please call (202) 623-3774 or visit www.iadb.org/cultural.

About the Author

Gary Tischler is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999