I find it's always hardest to blog after a hiatus. As a friend was noting, you have to be in the mood to set your thoughts (or ramblings or whatever you have) down, and even a few days or weeks out of practice can make it difficult to put anything down. (Thus my first year conceptual rule to post something every day, which sometimes meant quotes or whatever I could muster.)
It's also hard to blog after a wonderful vacation, even a brief one. We went to the DR, and as we always do, had a ball. In addition to spending time with the incomparable Mr. Anthony Montgomery (Papi Monaga), we also got to hang out with friends like Anthony B. of DC and David, Byron, Richard, Kenny, Keith, Amauri, Jerry, Ruskin, and Maripoli, who're in Santo Domingo; to finally meet Ernest (the other Montgomery), his partner José, and other cool folks like Tyson, Duron, Tyree, Raleigh, Fabricio, and Ricardo. I must single out for praise Anthony's Sunday night extravaganza, which more than made up for the curfew and the steady disappearance of so much of the Colonial Zone gay nightlife, as well as the wonderful gathering at Tyson's home, where Richard broke off a piece and then some in the kitchen, on Monday. In addition, Anthony showed us how to get to "the yellow brick road," which we followed via rental car, C driving the stick and me navigating, with a few detours, all the way to Guayacanes, with its perfect, narrow uncrowded beaches, main strip and beach road that appears to have been transported straight from rural Mississippi. I know people love to hit the resorts in DR, but my advice: try other spots if you can.
One of the highlights of this trip was returning to the Plaza de Cultura area, in the Gazcue neighborhood (the location of the heavily fortified US Embassy, as well as many governmental buildings), where I attended the Dominican book festival in 2006, and visiting two of the museums there. C and I thought that the Noche de Hiphop might be either its own exhibit or part of one, and also thought that it might be located at the Museo del Hombre Dominicano, an anthropological and historical facility that focuses on the history and culture of the DR, so we dropped in there first. I can say that if you speak Spanish and want to learn something about the history, which extends back beyond Columbus's arrival in 1492, and rich cultural heritage of DR, then by all means visit this museum. I was struck by the emphasis it places on the country's African roots--there isn't just one plaque or diorama, but several sections--really, how could there not be?--both in terms of Africa itself and its retentions in the eastern half of Hispaniola. There was neither sugarcoating nor any of the omitting, eliding and hedging that one might find in some other "official" accounts of the country's heritage, such as the guidebooks we found in our hotel rooms when we were in Samaná several years ago, or on sites like (the infamous) DR1. Other highlights included a breakdown of regional versions of and costumes from Dominican Carnival (the most famous being the one in La Vega) and the vodún-related gagá.
One of the panels on the African roots of DR culture
Artifacts from vodun-related religious practice
Los Protestantes, a panel on the religious traditions of the 1824 African-American immigrants to Samaná and other easter Dominican cities, and the subsequent Anglophone Caribbean immigrants to San Pedro de Macorís, the native city of Sammy Sosa and Alfonso Soriano
On the other hand, the museum's physical state on certain floors was saddening. Dim or no lights, displays that could have used some cleaning and attention, faded or abraded lettering, no guards present (except for touts who offered a "tour"), no air circulation in what was essentially a kiln--it was awful. I immediately thought, if $700 million weren't being diverted to the white elephant of a subway line, a small portion could easily go to making this exhibit presentable. On the first floor, there was a traveling exhibit, "Madre Africa," featuring a series of excellent plastic artworks and marvelous little illustrative watercolors that nearly made up for the dismal upper floor. Unfortunately, the person charged with watching over this exhibit was nearly somnabulent, and could barely rouse himself to respond when I asked a few questions. There were some books for sale, but it was unclear to whom the money should be paid. A group of high school (or university?) students cycled in and quickly out, as if the presence of all those drums, masks and fetishes threatened to summon up something they weren't prepared for, and I thought, were there a competent docent around, the students could have learned quite a bit from what was by far the best exhibit in the museum. In an adjacent room, there was a fine, room-length series of vitrines featuring Taíno artifacts, as well as a diorama that both C. and I had to photograph. Two people working in this room were chatting away; perhaps at some point they stopped to address any questions the students might have had, though I doubt it. I was glad that we stopped in, but I do hope someone alerts the government that it could spend a bit more money and do a better job of showcasing itself in what is supposed to be one of its premier cultural institutions.
A display showing artifacts from a gagá ceremony (I believe)
In the "Madre Africa" exhibition space
A student taking notes before one the Taíno exhibits
We then walked to the Museo de Arte Moderna (Museum of Modern Art), which was hosting the national visual arts biennal. Almost as soon as we entered, C spotted the elevated platform where the hiphop performance took place, and it turned out that that was only one of a series of special musical evenings (jazz and funk, bachata, merengue, etc.) to be held in conjunction with the exhibit. The Modern Art Museum was in considerably better shape than its brother museum, and the Bienal exhibits, dedicated to the painter Soucy de Pellerano, which covered three floors, were expertly mounted and eyecatching. In general, there was more painting and mixed-genre visual art than anything else; a few installations of a conceptual bent, a few sculptures, a few videos, a few works defying easy categorization, some artworks with sound but no sound art, and no live performances. An artist that none other than Anthony introduced us to, Juan Mayí (whose studio and gallery are in the Zona Colonial and open to visitors), received the top prize; his brilliantly colored, heavily worked, multilayered abstract canvases and related works in sculptural forms possess a polish and depth that easily exceeds much of what I've seen in Chelsea galleries, with the added element that Mayí is working out of multiple traditions and makes art that seethes with intelligence and emotion, that seems urgent in its appeal, rather than conniving to fit into an au courant marketing gambit.
Mayí's award-winning painting, part of a series, Memoria Signica
Maria Román's "Con el negro detrás de la oreja, hay un país en el mundo (Poliptico)" [top] and "Con el negro detrás de la oreja, hay un país en el mundo (Poliptico)" [bottom] (The phrase, "a black behind the ear" is common in parts of Latin America, and was even uttered by Brazil's former president, F. H. Cardoso, speaking of his own mixed ancestry)
C at right, with Jhonny Bonnelly's "Arte-Facto" looming above
Raúl Morilla's "Involuciando los orígenes"
Most of the selected works seemed conversant with the major contemporary international art trends while also commenting directly on Dominican themes. One thing I wished to see--and it may very well take place on a day or evening to come--was a live performance piece that explored negotiating daily life in DR from the perspective of someone who wasn't one of the wealthy or cultural elites; I realize that there very well may have been such pieces in past exhibits. Some of the artworks were merely clever, but in general, I found compelling formal elements or arguments in a great deal of what was on display. I'm unsure if or when I'll be able to catch the exhibit again, but I'd love to in order to look at everything at much greater length.
Another revelation in the museum was the brief but illuminating collection of Dominican "modern" art on the museum's top floor. The exhibit proceeded chronologically, and showed how powerful the influences from Europe and other parts of the Americas were until the 1940s through the 1960s, when a number of notable Dominican painters and sculptors, working in styles from post-Cubism to geometric abstraction to expressionism and expressionist realism, and inspired by antecedents like Celeste Woss y Gil, and later Jaime Colson, Dario Suro, and George Hausdorf, came into their own. Eligio Pichardo, Clara Ledesma, Paul Giudicelli, Elvis Avilés, and Katya Paiewonsky were some of the names I filed away in my memory. One artist whose work I fell in love with was Antonio Prats Ventós (1925-1999), a Catalonion native and political refugee who became of the DR's major sculptors. Prats Ventós repeatedly won the top prize at past Bienales, and is perhaps best known for his works such as the sculptures in the Plaza de la Trinitaria (the Trinity of Founders of the Dominican Republic) in Santo Domingo.
I believe--and of course, I forgot my notebook during this excursion--this installation of sculptures is called "El Bosque." In addition, there was this one, which I believe is titled "la Selva."
(You have to approach both to fully experience them.) Both, operating on the principals of abstraction and metaphor, and packed with symbolic power, left me with a feeling of almost indescribable delight. According to María Ugarte, they are two of Prats Ventós's major works, which means that the Museum of Modern Art's possession of both is a real coup. I have no idea whether its funding is exceeds to a great degree that of the other museum, though apperances would suggest this to be the case, but it's clear that whoever oversees this institution is determined that it show, as best it can, some of the treasures of Dominican culture and contemporary art.
I cannot travel without returning with at least one new book, and so I did. (I took Orhan Pamuk's Snow, which I'd been struggling to read for most of August--and before that, a good deal of the spring--and only recently made headway in, after finally resigning myself to his difficulties--or ineptitude?--in narrating this thematically fascinating realist novel in even a quasi-linear, forward-moving fashion.) I purchased Professor José Luis Paéz, S.J.'s Breve Introducción a la Cultura Dominicana (Santo Domingo: ABC Editorial, 2006). In addition to being a gorgeously designed book, it's truly brief yet informative, easy to read even if your Spanish skills are moderate (you may need a dictionary, but after the 15th "hay que" and passive construction, you can grasp the gist of his arguments), full of excellent photos (which do not, unfortunately, always correlate with the text), and informed by contemporary humanities and social science discourse, so you're not getting a flat, monochromatic discussion of cultural formation, transition and transformation, but a surprisingly nuanced and agile one. There are better books on Dominican history, race relations and so forth, but Paéz's little book, which ranges from the Taínos to bacheteros, is one that anyone interested in DR history and culture--which is the book's focus--could benefit from reading.
I was sorry to hear that Luciano Pavarotti had passed away after a bout with pancreatic cancer. Anyone who knows my tastes in classical music is aware that while I do love opera, I'm not a great fan--brace yourself--for the Italian operatic tradition. Yes, I know, you may be saying, as a former boss of mine did, that without it there's no operatic tradition to speak of, unless you count the scant offerings from the French and Germans (save Wagner) and what passes for opera after the turn of the 20th century. But that's the opera--from Richard Strauss's Salome to Steve Reich's Dr. Atomic that I'm most interested in. Nevertheless, I can appreciate talent, and hearing Pavarotti on CD and mp3 files rendering his greatest roles, with his often astonishing range as a tenor, from the works of Giordano, Rossini, Donizetti, Puccini, and yes, Verdi (alright, one of the greatest operatic composers of all time) warmed me to all their works. I'm not such an operatomane that I can comment much more than this on Pavarotti's greatness, but great he was, and not only opera, but music in general--because he had long since branched out--has lost a great one.