No Man is an Island [Wanda Raimundi-Ortiz and Sheldon Scott]

[Many thanks to Veerle Poupeye for bringing this item to our attention through Critical.Caribbean.Art.] Here are excerpts of an excellent review by Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw for ARTnews. Artists Wanda Raimundi-Ortiz and Sheldon Scott represent Afro-Dominican/Puerto Rican and Gullah Geechee cultures, respectively.

No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

—John Donne

John Donne wrote Meditation XVII in 1624, just five years after the first enslaved Africans were sold at Jamestown. Great Britain had just declared war on Spain, seeking to gain control over Puerto Rico and the other islands strategically located between the two American continents. The major European imperial powers battled over territory once controlled by Native peoples for the next century, until the former British colonies that had become the United States asserted their hegemony over the remaining Spanish colonies and, in so doing, became an empire. Throughout this period, the danger of human disconnection that Donne laments was a horrific reality for the millions of kidnapped Africans who survived the transatlantic slave trade’s Middle Passage.

When Africans arrived in the Americas, colonial slavery was already decimating Indigenous populations, including the Guale people of the Sea Islands off the coast of what is now Georgia and South Carolina, and the Arawak peoples throughout the Caribbean islands. These disparate groups survived by merging into new communities of color, which in turn created hybrid cultural forms that evolved over generations as their descendants endured unrelenting forced labor. Today, the persistence of colonialist attitudes and exploitative economic practices tests the cultural tenacity of the Gullah Geechee Black folks of the Sea Islands, descendants of Guale and West Africans, and the Afro-Taíno-Latinx communities living in Puerto Rico or stateside.

In their reparative performance art practices, Wanda Raimundi-Ortiz and Sheldon Scott materialize and animate the diasporic consciousnesses that are foundational to the cultural texture of communities of color in the American South. The New York–born Raimundi-Ortiz lives and works in Orlando, Florida, and maintains strong connections to her Afro-Latinx family in Mayagüez and Bayamón, Puerto Rico. Scott was born and raised in a Gullah Geechee family on Pawleys Island, off the coast of South Carolina, and spends part of each year in Washington, D.C. Both emphasize embodied presence as a way to honor the dignity of their communities in the present and reconnect to their ancestors. They draw on the visual and gestural vocabularies of Black performance art while incorporating site-specificity and contextual references to ground their work in a history of trauma and healing. Through their performances, Raimundi-Ortiz and Scott seek to reestablish interpersonal connections, making unique interventions into cyclical histories of violent separation to remind their audiences that “no man is an island.”

Scott and Raimundi-Ortiz were both commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery to make performances as a part of “Identify,” an ongoing performance art series intended to represent the people who are absent from most of the works in the museum’s collection due to histories of repression and exclusion. Scott’s Precious in Da Wadah (2016) activated the spaces of the museum’s Kogod Courtyard and Great Hall to create a moving portrait of the kidnapped Africans who brought their agricultural ingenuity from their homelands to the Sea Island rice plantations. Scott enlisted dozens of collaborators to symbolically enact the planting of rice shoots in the courtyard’s fountains before having himself bound to a rice mortar. The following year, for her Pietà performance, Raimundi-Ortiz cradled thirty-three men and women of color in her arms for 3 minutes and 33 seconds each—a duration referring to Jesus’s age of thirty-three at the time of his death. The tender gesture was meant to soothe the overwhelming fear of loss that people of color carry with them due to their children’s vulnerability to state violence.

Late in the summer of 2019, Scott and Raimundi-Ortiz each created new works in the South that recognized the epigenetic pain of their respective Gullah Geechee and Puerto Rican island communities. In their works these artists amplify John Donne’s entreaty, honoring the ways that island bound, African-descended communities have retained their spiritual and corporeal integrity so as not to be swept out to sea like a clod of earth with no meaning, no matter, no elegy to lament their passing. [. . .]

A month later and 450 miles farther south, the sound of metal debris being dragged across pavement announced the presence of Raimundi-Ortiz in Orlando’s downtown arts district. She was resplendent in a long, ruffled dress—an unruly wearable assemblage of bright-blue construction tarps, orange plastic temporary fencing, and other bits of detritus. She had scavenged these materials with her own hands from the thousands of emergency home repairs that followed Hurricane Maria’s destructive path across the island of Puerto Rico in 2017. A red, white, and blue Puerto Rican flag fluttered atop Raimundi-Ortiz’s back, and her long skirt spread out in a swirl around her ankles. At the center of her chaotic costume, she resembled the eye of the hurricane itself as she serenely strode up to the front door of a local performing arts center and into the central salon.

Once inside, Raimundi-Ortiz greeted a band of musicians by walking a circle before them and a crowd of onlookers. In lifting the hem of her skirt, she initiated the bomba, a dance form that for centuries has been central to Black self-expression in Puerto Rico. In bomba, musicians, singers, and dancers all interact with one another in exchanges derived from West African dance and drumming traditions. The drums are accompanied by maracas and cúa, the Taíno Arawak musical instruments endemic to the island. For centuries, a gathering for bomba was one of the few creative outlets that allowed the island’s enslaved to resist the social death engendered by their relentless labor on the sugar plantations that have long characterized much of the Global South. When contemporary African-descended Puerto Ricans like Raimundi-Ortiz dance bomba, they use their movement to both honor and embody the spirits of their ancestors.

To perform bomba is to champion the anthem of the displaced. To sing its verses is to remember ancient histories. Entering the circle made by the musicians and the crowd is to be transported back to the space of the batey, the plaza found at the center of the living areas for the enslaved on colonial sugar plantations. Bomba reminded the African-descended people on plantations of their true origins. Today it does the same for contemporary Puerto Ricans living in Florida and throughout the South. “Just because you live here,” Raimundi-Ortiz told me, “does not mean you are from here.” Like Shaun Leonardo’s performance El Conquistador vs. The Invisible Man (2004–07), in which the Afro-Dominican artist mobilized a popular wrestling format to explore the challenges of being seen as both Black and Latino by a dominant culture that fails to comprehend much about either, Raimundi-Ortiz’s work serves as a reminder that the histories of the Global South are rooted in complex individual identities.

Raimundi-Ortiz’s performance in downtown Orlando, Exodus|Pilgrimage, was a refusal to allow the horrific destruction of Hurricane Maria, and the displacement that it caused for so many Puerto Ricans, to go unseen by those living stateside. The bipartite title evokes both the biblical departure of the enslaved Hebrews from Egypt and the journeys made by believers to holy shrines. For each Floridian who lost power for a week after the hurricane, there were hundreds of Puerto Ricans who lived without electricity for nine months or more. After desperately needed relief from the federal government failed to materialize, the immense hardships that came with Hurricane Maria forced thousands of Puerto Ricans to leave the island. Exodus|Pilgrimage draws on Puerto Rico’s deeply imbricated histories of Taíno Arawak genocide, African enslavement, labor exploitation by the sugar industry over centuries, and the continuing colonial status of the island as a neglected territory of the United States. As Raimundi-Ortiz proceeded through the streets of Orlando, she was dragging more than just the trauma of Hurricane Maria, woven as it was into the detritus that trailed behind her. She was pulling the weight of the island’s contemporary experience of oppression and the exodus of those who had fled its unchecked destruction into the field of vision of those who had long been shielded from that reality by virtue of their economic and geographic position—comfortably middle class, residing stateside. [. . .]

[Wanda Raimundi-Ortiz, in a gown designed by Kristina Tollefson, during a dress rehearsal for the performance Exodus|Pilgrimage, 2019, in Orlando. PHOTO DOMINIC DIPAOLO.]

For full review, see https://www.artnews.com/art-in-america/features/sheldon-scott-wanda-raimundi-ortiz-1234609615/

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