Tony Capellán: An encounter is only the beginning of a separation


This lovely and touching piece by Dominique Brebion—published in the Aica Caraïbe du Sud site—is entitled “Tony Capellan: Une rencontre n’est que le commencement d’une séparation.” I highly recommend reading it in its entirety, especially for those who, like me, are still mourning the recent and sudden death of this exceptional Dominican artist.

My professional immersion in the Caribbean has encouraged meetings and reunions at the mercy of international events. Some are more striking than others. To have crossed paths with Tony Capellan, artist of the generation of the 80s in the Dominican Republic, remains an indelible experience, because of its sweetness, its simplicity, the attention he showed towards the others, and also, his sense of celebration and his joie de vivre.

The first time was in 1992, at the first painting biennial of the Dominican Republic and Latin America. Tony, a young, thirty-seven year-old artist, won one of the first prizes of the biennale for an emblematic work, an immense triptych, “Interrogantes febriles en el dilema del Caribe.” The imaginary signs of Capellan stood out against a background of deep blackness and asked, in a few sentences, questions that still seem to me unresolved today:

“Is this art contemporary? Is it a painting? Is it in bad taste? Is it snobbish? Is it engaged art? Is this art Caribbean? Is it folkloric? To which tradition does it relate? Do these works mean to please and to sell? Must the Caribbean artist, in order please, survive in place or emigrate? To be authentic? Is this art Afro-Caribbean? Hispanic, mestizo, naive, insane, native, or what? Is this art original or is it appreciated by the magazines? Is it serious? Does it serve to communicate or create stories?”

Frac Martinique accepted my proposal for the acquisition of this work, which appears today in a public collection in Martinique, initiated jointly by the Ministry of Culture—DAC Martinique and the Regional Council between 1987 and 1994.

The following year, in 1993, at the event Carib Art of Curaçao, sponsored by UNESCO, which I attended as part of the Martinican delegation, Tony presented a work that continued his questions on the art of the Caribbean, “Mitos del Caribe.”

It was at the 22nd São Paulo Biennial that we were to meet again in 1994, because the general curator, Nelson Aguilar, invited Caribbean regions twice in a row. As pointed out in an article by Roberta Smith of The New York Times, which featured Tony Capellan’s work, “Forced March” as the main illustration: “Artists from major and minor countries are equals here.” Alongside works by Jesus Raphaël Soto, Betye Saar, and John Outerbridge, Jean-Marc Bustamente, and so many others, artists from Aruba, Barbados, Martinique—Ernest Breleur and Serge Goudin Thebia—from Costa Rica, the Bahamas, the Dominican Republic—Tony Capellan. It was beyond doubt an unforgettable experience. [. . .]

Tony, unable to count on financial support from the government of his country, had transported the pieces of his installation of 720 x 90 X 120 cm—dozens of small children’s shirts in his hand luggage. In addition to the aesthetic and conceptual issues, Tony, by obligation, had to solve contingent questions: how to move consequent installations in the least costly manner. You will note that “Interrogantes febriles en el dilema del Caribe” and “Mitos del Caribe” are composed of small squares … which can be stacked for transporting, the work then being reconstructed on the spot. [. . .]


The installation Mar Caribe appears in the form of a beach of flip flops arranged in a circle or rectangle over a few dozen square meters, most often blue and green, like the sea of the islands, but whose straps are made of barbed wire. The artist draws attention to both the contamination of the oceans and the precarious living conditions of poor families living on the banks of the rivers that cross Santo Domingo. Torrential rains carried the meager belongings of this abandoned population to the sea where Tony collected them. Behind the postcards and dream stays in the sun on the paradisiacal beaches of attractive all-inclusive hotels, daily Dominican reality persists: colonization, migration, natural disasters, social and environmental issues.


“At the water’s edge, in Santo Domingo, is my favorite space, and everything that happens by the sea inspires me. What the sea brings back today is like what it brought back five hundred years ago. Five hundred years ago, came ships that created a new culture. Why would this same sea not bring things that would testify to the history of this region, of what is happening here: the imperialist presence, oil and all its derivatives?

Most of the object I collect are plastic, and plastic is processed petroleum. Plastic is a catalyst for what is happening in our history. Everything is made of plastic. These plastic objects fall into the sea and are specific to each social situation, to each country. These products arrive on the beach and I often walk by the sea, I started to collect them and build stories.

With Mar Caribe, I began my series of multiple works; these are works that will always belong to me and that I will continue to create as long as the sea brings me objects, as long as the social situations that support them continue. My theory is that the day when we will not have any more poor people to lose their flip-flops, that day, I will not be able to work anymore. As long as there are poor people who lose their shoes, I can continue my work” (Kreyol Factory catalogue). [. . .]

Lastly, as curator of the Francophone Caribbean region at the first (and, unfortunately, only) triennial of the Dominican Republic, I had a long conversation again with Tony Capellan, guest artist and honored at this triennial devoted to environmental issues, with three of his works: Mar Caribe, Flotando, and Ramillete.

As always, his art, mastered to signify the most starting from the simplest, from the tenuous, to question contemporary society and to generate reflection in the viewer in the most subtle way. ( [. . .]

[Excerpts translated by Ivette Romero.] For full article (in French), videos, and gallery of Capellán’s artwork, see

[Photos, top to bottom: 1) “Mar invadido”; 2) “Mercado de órganos”; 3) “Mar invadido”, detail.]

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