In Memoriam: Tony Capellán

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In honor of the recently deceased Dominican artist Tony Capellán, professor and author Jean-Marie Théodat presents a moving anecdote in Le Nouvelliste (29 December 2017). [Many thanks to Sophie Maríñez for bringing this item to our attention.] Here is an excerpt:

Having so often sought after our salvation in landfills, Loulou, Denis and I had become wise bargain hunters, and we thought we would never meet a bigger fan of used stuff than we were. All the bric-à-brac places, all the shops in the darkest corners of the city knew about our zeal, and our reputation went beyond the limits of Bois-de-Chêne to Lalue, as the best scrap dealers, the best scavengers, the finest tinkers in the area. [. . .]

Denis had followed his sweetheart to the Dominican Republic. As it is right next door, we agreed that I would visit and we would to spend the holidays together at the end of the year. Despite the cost of the trip, I agreed to take the bus to Santo Domingo with the desire to reconnect with an old friend that I missed very much and the secret hope of (who knows?) bringing him back to Port-au-Prince. [. . .] As soon as I get off my bus, I find myself crammed into an open-air colmado atmosphere, where the music is so loud that we can barely hear the voice of the announcer commenting on a baseball game on the television on the wall. The smoke of cigars and various herbs burning in pipes floats in the air in fragrant swirls, which fray at every passage of the waiter. I am welcomed like a mage king at a crèche by the group of friends to whom Denis introduces me as a poet. They have me recite verses. Mine first and then those by Dominican poets, which I had learned by heart in anticipation of the trip: Pedro Mir, Jacques Viau, Chiqui Vicioso, etc. [. . .]

Back from Duarte Park, we stop at the Malecón where the swell comes crashing forcefully on the limestone rocks that hem the shore of with a crystalline lace at sunset. Lying on our backs, our hands resting under our necks, we listen to the ebb and flow of the sea, whistling through the crevices of the rocks. The sea changes color with each passing second and changes from carmine to navy blue passing through shades of purple and terra cotta. Denis is determined to stay on. I can only think of returning to Port-au-Prince, to my books, my studies.

We were sitting in silence, our gaze fixed on nothingness, counting the hours we had left to spend together, when we saw a sturdy fellow coming out of the sea with a big jute bag on his shoulders, like a giant. He sunk down, stretched out on the gray sand. He looked exhausted, as if he had swum for a long time with his basket on his back. We rushed over to help him, but he gently pulled the hand that I wanted to slip under his back. He’s fine, he’s in shape, he just needs to catch his breath. Denis offers him a cigarette, which he accepts without fanfare. I offer him a light. He lights his cigarette looking at me over the flame of the lighter, and so begins a friendship.

His passion is floating objects—things that have traveled by sea and have drifted back on the routes of the tides. He gathers them and gives them new life. He is mainly looking for sandals, which he restores with barbed wire recovered from landfills. He does not need much coaxing to spill out before us the contents of his large bag: a pile of driftwood and metal caps gathered from the beach. He explains to us his plan to cover the sea with his sandals, blue flip-flops, like the waves, to abolish all borders, so that all the travelers of the world can walk on the water like Jesus.

He looks like an illuminated man. He is mimicking an ocean swell when a strong wind starts to blow, raising a sudden wave that carries sandals, driftwood, and ideas in a great swirl of spray, sand, and dust. As calm returned, we both helped him recover his things, which had become, for us, as sacred as relics on the beach. I contemplate that I am dealing with a madman. Nevertheless, we are both struck by the consistency of his sorting, the remarkable beauty of each piece, the tact in his choice of objects, which revealed for us the artist’s touch. “Fatra vwazen,” Denis murmurs. I reply, “We found a better junk collector than us. His approach is perfect, his collection is consistent, and it is not for sale.”

His stuff recovered and his treasures bagged, the fellow invites us to have a drink one of these days, at his studio perched on a terrace between the sky and the sea. He hands us his card. Tony Capellán, artist and bric-à-brac collector, Independence Square, Santo Domingo.

The next day we learned about his death in the newspaper.

[Translation by Ivette Romero.] See full article by Jean-Marie Théodat at

Watch Tony Capellán discuss his works in Poetics of Relation (especially “Mar Caribe”)

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