The Repeating Island: Dominicanyork Art in NYC
Updated: Jun 25, 2019
By Nicolle Vittini Cabral
A tweet published by @_hyperflight features a recording of two Dominican people: a man and a woman. The woman asks for the advice of the man on whether she ought to travel to Nueba Yol or to Los Estados Unidos. She mentions she’s received an offer to travel to Los Estados Unidos, but that she would rather visit Nueba Yol. The man responds that she’s better off in Nueba Yol because it’s so beautiful and she won’t have to deal with the political mess of Los Estados Unidos. El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico expresses similar sentiments on the beauty and excitement of New York City in “Un Verano en Nueva York,” their 1975 hit song. The song starts off with its catchy chorus:
Si te quieres divertir con encanto y con primor
Solo tienes que vivir un verano en Nueva York
If you would like to have fun with enchantment and delicacy
You only need to live through a summer in New York
This captivation with New York City surely is not limited to Dominicans, or to the Puerto Ricans that established themselves there beforehand, but rather is experienced by everyone. As Alicia Keys famously sings in “Empire State of Mind,” New York is the “concrete jungle where dreams are made of/ There’s nothing you can’t do… these streets will make you feel brand new/ Big lights will inspire you.” Everyone undergoes change upon deciding to live in New York City. However, the changes experienced by immigrants are vastly different than what is experienced by Americans. Immigrants must also undergo a process of transculturation.
The term “transculturation,” was coined by Fernando Ortiz in 1947 and featured in his book, Cuban Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar. Transculturation is placed in opposition to acculturation which Wendy Roth defines as the process through which one “[learns] how a society is organized and how to behave according to its rules, norms, and expectations. Those who are most acculturated are those who regularly adopt such understandings and patterns of behavior, even if they also retain their old cognitive structures” (Roth 62). Instead, transculturation refers to the two-step process in which the loss of culture (deculturation) happens in the first phase and the creation of a new culture (neoculturation) occurs in the second phase (Coronil xxvi). While the term was originally meant to develop a better understanding of Cuba, it can also be applied to other societies in transition. In this blog post, I analyze the aesthetic of transculturation for Hispanophone Caribbean populations in the United States through the art of Dominicans that reside in New York City.
New York City has historically been known as a cultural melting pot, as people from many different cultures have found ways to make New York City their home away from home. Antonio Benitez-Rojo was the first to identify the phenomenon of ‘the repeating island,’ which alludes to the ability of the Caribbean and its islands to flow outside of their national boundaries; according to the author, “it is possible to observe dynamic states or regularities that repeat themselves globally” (Benitez-Rojo 2). In its repetition outside of its national borders, a Caribbean island participates continuously “until transforming into a meta-archipelago” (Benitez-Rojo, 24). As the place where many Caribbean immigrants settle, New York City becomes part of a meta-archipelago along with the different islands of the Caribbean. Molly Roy’s map, Archipelago: The Caribbean’s Far North, which is featured in Solnit and Jelly Schapiros’ Nonstop Metropolis: An Atlas of New York City reimagines the distance between the Caribbean and New York City. The rest of America is removed from the map decreasing the distance between these places and, therefore, acting as a visual which emphasizes the strong relationship between the city and the repeating islands. New York City’s archipelagic nature further contributes to the significance of its relationship with the Caribbean:
New York can be imagined as the northern capital of the Caribbean and also a pan-Caribbean capital. Many interactions not possible or frequent in the islands themselves occur here abundantly, and people refer to themselves as Caribbean in a way they never would back home; in New York they develop relationships with and attachments to the people once next to them (Solnit and Jelly-Schapiro, 77).
Therefore, how do the relationships and bonds formed by Caribbean immigrants in New York City contribute to the development of a new subjectivity, one that complements the lived experiences and cultural background of an immigrant? While I know Puerto Ricans raised in New York City are known as Nuyorican, the transculturation of Dominicans in the city has created the identity of the Dominicanyork, distinct from that of the Dominican American. Whereas the Dominican American separates his Dominicanidad from the new influences of America, the Dominicanyork is proof of the harmonious coexistence of two cultures within the self. How might the art produced by Dominicanyorks address what it means to be Afro-Latino from a country with a large Afro-Latinx population such as Dominican Republic? I will explore the answers to these questions by looking at the work of two contemporary artists working in New York City: M. Tony Peralta and Firelei Báez.
M. Tony Peralta is a contemporary artist born and raised in Harlem, New York City to parents originally from Santiago, a city in the Dominican Republic. Tony is a graphic designer who uses his art to reconnect with his Dominican roots as well as make political commentary on life in America in comparison to life in Santiago.
In a 2014 interview for The New York Times with Sandra E. Garcia, Peralta discusses the motivation behind his exhibition “Reconnected,” which was then on display at the Renaissance Fine Arts gallery, as well as his influences in making art. Some of Peralta’s artistic influences are Andy Warhol, Frida Kahlo, Salvador Dalí, and hip-hop culture. According to Garcia, “Mr. Peralta says he aspires to be respectful and proud of his culture, as Kahlo’s work is, and as futuristic as Dalí, as commercial as Warhol and as ‘honest’ as the hip-hop trio De La Soul… Drawing influences from graffiti and fashion, he satirizes Dominican-American culture in his work.” In a video interview with NY1 Noticias that followed up on “Reconnected,” the founder of Renaissance Fine Arts gallery, Curtiss Jacobs, points to Peralta’s exhibit as a special one, stating, [translated from Spanish back to English] “This exhibit in particular speaks to everyone. It speaks to you whether you’re from the South, or Central America, the Caribbean, Latin America, or from Europe. It makes you travel in time to your place of origin and it makes you feel good.”
In his comment, Jacobs alludes to the universality of Peralta’s work— anyone can relate to it although it deals specifically with a Dominican context and experience as captured by Peralta on a trip to Santiago. “Reconnected” is a follow up to Peralta’s previous exhibit, “Complejo.” While “Complejo” focuses mostly on the iconography of Dominican culture, “Reconnected” focuses on the actual people of the Dominican Republic, giving viewers better context and understanding of the symbols presented in “Complejo.” Afro-Latinidad is explicit in “Reconnected,” whereas in “Complejo,” it is implied by Peralta’s choice in symbols that reveal the commercialization of anti-Black sentiment in Dominican Republic. For example, the pieces “Sammy, Before and After” and “Nice and Straight (Fefi)” overlay images of products used for skin bleaching and hair straightening over people or symbols familiar to all Dominicans regardless of where they find themselves.
Sammy Sosa, the famous Cubs baseball player is now known not for his skills on the baseball field, but for the drastic change in his appearance due to skin bleaching creams. While people make jokes about Sammy’s appearance, Sammy is a high profile case study of internalized anti-Blackness. On the other hand, the “Nice and Straight” used in hair salons and homes is a painful reminder for many of the sacrifices that must be made in order to achieve flowy locks. Because these are American products, Dominicans in the states may be more familiar with their significance than Dominicans that still remain in the Dominican Republic. In the transculturation of Dominicans that live in New York, anti-Blackness remains mostly the same; the differences arise in the commercialization of products aimed not only at Dominicans, but at all people who identify as Black or have what are perceived to be Black features.
Four of the pieces in Peralta’s “Complejo,” allude to the distinction between PELO BUENO (good hair) and PELO MALO (bad hair). Each of the screenprints features either a plastic afro pick or a round brush with boar bristles on either a green or fuschia background, with the words PELO BUENO or PELO MALO written underneath. The afro pick is a tool used to style hair into an Afro, a traditionally and unequivocally Black hairstyle. On the contrary, the round brush is a staple tool in all Dominican salons as they enable stylists to straighten hair and stylize it to conform to European standards of beauty. Those with straighter hair or hair that is less textured and more manageable are deemed to have pelo bueno. Those with hair that has more texture and is more “difficult” to manage are deemed to have pelo malo. By ascribing use of both tools to both pelo bueno and pelo malo, Peralta debunks the myth that such things actually exist.
In Dominican Republic, where a large part of the population is visibly Afro-descendant, the designations pelo bueno and pelo malo serve to remove oneself from Blackness and stigmatizes hair that is curlier and more textured. This perspective of Dominican hair matters for Dominicanyorks because, in New York City, Dominicans are confronted “with the U.S. model of pure whiteness that valorizes lank, light hair, white skin, light eyes, thin and narrow-hipped bodies” (Candelario 130). The boundaries of Dominicanidad are not extended to those who might be perceived to be Black by their skin color and other Black features like hair, nose, and mouth; those who embrace and highlight their Black features are denigrated as “animalistic and crude” (Candelario 230). Furthermore, to be a provider of hair styling services through salon ownership in New York City is a way of acquiring social capital in ways not possible in the Dominican Republic (Candelario 132). Overall, Peralta’s prints allude to the importance of hair for racialization practices in Dominican Republic that have carried over to the United States. The hair salon and the practices and beliefs touted within serve as proof of Dominican transculturation and is a way in which the island has repeated itself, while in a different racial context in the United States, where the mainstream Black narrative is that of the Black American.
Although Ginetta Candelario’s work on Dominican hair culture in New York City was published in Black Behind the Ears in 2007, hair continues to be an avenue for discrimination within institutions and the workplace, further emphasizing her claim that “for Dominicans, hair is the principle bodily signifier of race” (Candelario 223). On March 25th, the Ministry of Education released a campaign, “ni pelo BUENO, ni pelo MALO” (neither good hair nor bad hair). The video features Dominicans across all ages, skin colors, and hair types praising their contentment with their hair. Notably, the Director of Gender Equality and Development for MineRD, Marianela Pinales is featured in the video. She has the longest speaking portion of the video and says: “At the Ministry of Education, no boy, girl, or adult person should be discriminated against for their physical appearance. We are committed to guaranteeing the equality and identity of every person.”
According to an Instagram post by journalist Edith Febeles, Pinales was fired later that evening. She was not given a reason for the firing, other than it was an order from superiors. For me, and probably for many others, it is difficult to believe that her dismissal was not rooted in anti-Blackness; Pinales is a darker complected woman with tightly coiled hair. While her nose is not necessarily wide, she has relatively bigger lips. In her appearance, Pinales does not ascribe to what most Dominicans would describe as an acceptable phenotypic representation of Dominicanidad.
Similar to M. Tony Peralta, Firelei Báez’s art deals with Dominican aesthetics. Báez, unlike Peralta, was actually born in Santiago to a Dominican Mother and Haitian-descendant father, but was raised and currently works in New York City. Notable themes in her work include, but are not limited to, the portrayal of hair, the Black female body, and the gaze.
Báez’s first major solo exhibition in the United States, Bloodline, was on display at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania for the majority of 2017. The exhibition features one of Báez’s older, more recognized pieces: Can I pass? Introducing the paper bag test to the fan test for the month of June from 2011, as well as newer works.
Can I pass? Is the intersection of Báez’s Americanness and Dominicanness because it alludes to the infamous American “paper bag test” while simultaneously alluding to the Dominican “fan test.” Both the paper bag test and the fan test were implemented as ways to differentiate people by how much Blackness they appeared to have. “The fan test is… where men who hope to be divorced could invoke a law from the colonial period that states that a woman’s hair must flow freely when blown by a fan. Hair that does not flow readily reveals too much African blood, thereby tainting the woman’s entire being” (Aranda-Alvarado 62-63). The further a woman is from Blackness, through skin tone or hair texture, the more valuable and marriageable she is. However, there is more than one way to show proximity Blackness. In Can I pass?, Báez’s work shows this by the varying color of the paper bags that make up the skin tone in the silhouettes as well as the different hairstyles; some hairstyles reveal curlier, more textured hair than others.
In Baéz’s other works, there are things shared in common with Can I pass?, such as how Baéz is in full control of how the racialized body is perceived. In works like Can I pass?, as well as in Báez’s 2015 works, Sans-Souci and Voice After Memory (June 20th) the most striking element in the image are the subjects’ eyes, which are not primary factors for the racialization of the Dominican body.
Báez provides no context about the color and style of hair of each of the subjects in Sans-Souci and Voice After. The only visible and recognizable things about both pieces are the eyes. The hair in Sans-Souci is depicted through an elaborate arrangement of cloth samples interspersed with what appears to resemble the flaunted feathers of a peacock and leaves. The subject’s hairstyle is reminiscent of 18th-century aristocratic hairstyles for women that were complex and part of a spectacle. There is no allusion to curly or textured hair, and therefore Blackness, because even the hair that falls outside of the cloth, to the left, is rigid and without curl. Furthermore, the skin complexion of the subject is not one monotone color, but is a mixture of colors that would make up an earthy palette as an allusion to darker skin. However, the mixture of a higher class hairstyle and darker skin color negates Dominican understandings of Black people as “animalistic and crude” as found by Candelario. The features that would normally allude to Blackness in the absence of an understanding of hair and skin are not clearly discernible in Sans-Souci. Similarly, Voice After Memory complicates general Dominican understandings of race. The skin of the subject does not reflect an earthy palette, while the hair is exposed to show the outline of curls of a 3b/3c texture. The subject’s hair would normally be used to determine the subject’s race. However, her eyes are blue, a feature that is not often attributed to Black people.
By giving her subjects captivating gazes, Báez follows in the tradition of Dominican subjects to refuse the gaze of the outsider as an act of resistance against consumption of their bodies. Dixa Ramirez writes about the “monte refusal” that was demonstrated by Dominican subjects in the photography of Americans during the 1904-1905 American takeover of the Dominican Customs House. The photographs taken from that time period served not to acknowledge a unique Dominican subjectivity but to place “Dominicans as types within a larger, hierarchical human family” (Ramírez 149). Therefore, “the concept of ‘monte refusal’ [channels] a variety of interpretive practices that, to varying degrees, unhinge the set of signifiers and expectations comprising gendered racial types” (Ramírez 153-154). By only making the subjects’ eyes available, Báez’s engages in “monte refusal.” It becomes difficult to draw a likeness between subjects that is not imagined because their gaze refuses invitations to assimilate to expectations of gendered and racialized bodies. Therefore, Báez’s pieces protect the Dominican body and subjectivity from being co-opted in the American racial context as photographers attempted to do in their work from 1904 to 1905; Báez preserves the integrity of not just Dominicanidad, but Afro-Latinidad in general as she is also Haitian.
As artists in New York City, Peralta and Báez make references to their Dominican culture implicitly and explicitly in their art. Peralta’s “Reconnected” features actual photographs of Dominican people in quotidian scenes, and his “Complejo” series is all about Dominican iconography. Báez alludes to Dominicanidad more implicitly through the Dominican history of colorism and the “monte refusal” exhibited by Dominican gazes. The Dominican Republic is repeated in what is recognizable as Dominican in the art of Peralta and Báez, yet in the formation of a Dominicanyork aesthetic both Peralta and Báez keep the integrity of their Dominicanidad, which is similar to, but ultimately different from, American Blackness.
Aranda-Alvarado, R. (2017). Bodies of Color: Images of Women in the Works of Firelei Báez and Rachelle Mozman. Small Axe: A Caribbean Journal of Criticism 21(1): 57–69.
Benítez Rojo, A. & Maraniss, J.E. (1996). Introduction: The Repeating Island. In The Repeating Island the Caribbean and the Postmodern Perspective. 2nd edition, (pp. 1-29). Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Candelario, G.E.B. (2007). Black Women are Confusing, But the Hair Lets You Know: Perceiving the Boundaries of Dominicanidad. In Black Behind the Ears: Dominican Racial Identity from Museums to Beauty Shops (pp. 223-255). Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Candelario, G.E.B. (2000). Hair Race-ing: Dominican Beauty Culture and Identity Production. In Meridians: feminism, race, transnationalism, 1(1): 128-156. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/40338439
Coronil, F. (1995). New Introduction. In Cuban Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar, by Fernando Ortiz, (pp. ix– lvi). Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
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