The winner of the Grand Prize at the Dominican Republic’s XXVI National Visual Arts Biennial for “In a Flicker of an Eyelid” is an active interpreter of Dominican identity, writes Yaniris López for El Listín Diario. The Grand Prize winner is an art installation.
Dominican artist Charo Oquet’s first entry in the Biennial competition has resulted in her winning the Grand Prize for a work that consolidates years of artistic experience: a lot of color, subtle messages that speak to popular identity and religiosity, and a summary through images of events impacting the country and the world.
What will the public see as they go behind the black curtain that serves as a threshold to an installation less than 10 meters across titled “In the Flicker of an Eyelid”? He will see a video and many plastic objects, pieces of plumbing, water buckets, ribbons, domestic appliances, parts of toilets and card, wires, toys, cycling helmets and many other found objects. Almost everything is recycled and responds to the Miami-based artist’s peculiar way of addressing her work. “For me, searching for materials is part of the work of art, since I look for them at the corner of Duarte and París and in Villa Consuelo, and that brings me close to the people’s economic reality. If, as an artist, you remain in the prettiest and most affluent parts of the country, you never get to know those realities,” Oquet explains. It is a method she deploys in the countries to which she brings her art to force herself to know the people and themes she works into her creations.
The installation presented at the Museo de Arte Moderno (MAM) is open to multiple readings. It is inspired by the work of Haitian novelist Jacques- Stephen Alexis, In the Flicker of an Eyelid, since it is closely related to the tensions in the relations between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. This relationship is present in two ways, says Oquet. It is visible through the recreation of a room of a Haitian living in the Dominican Republic and in the marked traces of the religious customs shared by both countries: Gagá, Vodou and Catholicism.
An accompanying 20-minute video is important to understand the rest of the installation, Oquet argues. It is composed of black and white photographs taken by the artist in the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and other places that signal events affecting the planet, as well as urban and rural landscapes and scenes characteristic of the Dominican and Haitian peoples. There are marked contrasts, such as the juxtaposition of the intersection of Duarte and París and the Blue Mall, two antagonistic spaces in the city of Santo Domingo. “I show different phases of our country”—Oquet explains—“of what we are as a country. When you go to Duarte and París you realize how dynamic the country is. The spot shows you that we are in a dynamic, growing city, full of an incredible energy you want to connect to. The dynamism that I feel there send shivers down my spine. There are people who would look at it and say ‘these people are poor,’ but I don’t see it that way. I prefer to go there because what I see is a country with a spirit of hope you don’t see in many countries.”
Installation art is her forte
Oquet was born in Santo Domingo and lives in Miami, where she directs the Edge Zones cultural space. She works in sculpture, installations, performance, painting and photography. For the biennial she opted for what she considers to be her strength although she knows that installations are not commercial and are very difficult to sell. “It is the most complete part of my work since I can express more fully what I want to say and because it allows the audience to enter a world in which he or she is surrounded, immersed in the work. The reading of my work has on the one hand chaos, the dynamic of reusable materials and things created through art—but on the other hand there is the concern with identity that has always been a part of my work, popular religiosity, Dominican Vodou.” This reading can be seen in all her previous work and marks her style. Because of that, in order to understand the possible readings of “In the Flicker of an Eyelid” we recommend that people visit the artist’s website at www.charooquet.com and get to know her earlier work.
“The country does not value its artistic richness”
Charo Oquet lived the first ten years of her life moving from town to town, since her father was a military man and Trujillo moved soldiers around every three months. In the early 60s, the family migrated to New Jersey and there, at a public school, not knowing English, feeling uncomfortable because of the nomadic turn her life had taken, she lived the first experience that would mark her as an artist. She was ten. She doesn’t remember the name of the teacher, but she does remember her face and the fact that she was very young. She asked the students to make masks to mark Halloween. When the teacher saw Charo’s finely-done mask, she told her she had done a wonderful job and she should dedicate herself to art. And she did, almost secretly, with her family barely realizing her imminent fate. She became the class’ decorator, the class’ artist. From then on, all her projects would have art as their starting point.
It was also in New Jersey that she understood Dominicanness.
The contemptuous treatment of Latinos awakened her patriotic feeling and made her value her roots. “If it weren’t because I would come back home and learned about my culture and who we were, I would have felt like shit, as they called Latinos. Knowing my own culture strengthened me since that knowledge empowers you and then it does not matter if they tell you that your country is small and poor since you know that poverty and wealth are relatives, that we are rich and great in many things.”
At the age of sixteen, back in her homeland, she didn’t hesitate and went on her own to the Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes determined to study there. They asked for her portfolio, and since she didn’t know what the word meant she showed them the notebook on which she drew. They accepted her on the spot.
Art and religiosity
And that is why Oquet’s work displays such a marked religious tendency, “because my work is related to what is quintessentially Dominican, because it is related to me, to who I am,” she expressed. Although she does not practice Vodou, for example, she recognizes that it is an important force. “I don’t practice it but I acknowledge its value, because it forms part of a culture we deny, and if we deny it we deny ourselves. It is a part of ourselves and when you acknowledge you begin to understand it and see it around you.”
The people don’t acknowledge it as part of its culture, she argues, because we have been made afraid of it. “Fear is sad, since you hate what you are afraid of. It’s not that you have to practice these things, but learn about them, because they have their worth, learning about culture won’t hurt you,” she adds.
The artista believes that the country has yet to realize the artistic wealth it possesses and how art lends itself to sell its attractions. “If you can awaken people’s interest in your culture, in your art, you have made a friend; and those interested in your culture and your art will also be interested in your beaches, in your music,” she believes.
Oquet learned the work that earned her the Grand Prize at the Biennial in 1997. She was invited to participate in the celebrations of Saint Michael in Mata Los Indios, Villa Mella, whose brotherhood, Los Congos del Espíritu Santo, is a UNESCO Oral Patrimony. But Charo said that she didn’t just want to see, she wanted to participate, to learn about their preparations. Before that, the installations she had seen in great museums seemed to her enormous and indecipherable, objects that seemed to take a lot of space and time. At Mata los Indios, “when I saw a humble home transformed into a grand altar, a sacred space, through the use of a bedspread, a tablecloth, glitter and paper, I understood what an installation was. I realized that it is not expensive materials or money that can transform a space, but your desire and artistic capabilities, and I started to work with second-hand fabrics, thread, crepe paper.”
Without abandoning painting she started to build her now famous altars, to photograph herself in them, to find beauty in second-hand objects and turn them into art. Around this time her sculptures also changed.
Charo has lived in Miami for 21 year. In 1999 she moved into a run-down building and had to bring up her materials—some of them quite heavy. What did she do? “I adapted the work to my needs. I searched for plastic instead and made interconnected pieces from which I could make a 10-feet sculpture that could be taken apart. That brought me to understand another part of the work: its skeleton. I tend to dress my sculptures, but seeing them undressed made me fall in love with the skeleton, and I began to make another type of sculpture.”
A lot of growth
Charo Oquet is not surprised when people get interested in this type of art, which appears to be alternative or contestatory but is not. “Dominican art is in evolution, it has grown a lot. It is difficult to make a living from art. The stage in which Dominican artists had to make complacent and sellable work has passed. We have moved on to stronger work, more truthful, not wishing to please but to transmit knowledge, communication, to communicate the urgent problems of the day. Here we have the best example of this, we are seeing the new Dominican art. The evolution started years back, but in this biennial we have seen the breadth of the field, with themes that have not been approached before, and this represents a great evolution and the nation has to be applauded for it. If people have not realize that they have to come see for themselves. To see how today’s artist takes risks because the foundation for it has been laid out.”
So what is needed now, according to Oquet? “We need the buyer to accept this new situation; we need the country to offer more support, through the creation of grants and prizes, since they help and represent an incentive,” she concludes.
For the original report (in Spanish) go to http://www.listindiario.com.do/la-vida/2011/8/20/200448/Charo-Oquet