Joiri Minaya: Considerations on the “Tropical Identity”

“In Conversation with Joiri Minaya: Considerations on the ‘Tropical Identity’” is an interview of artist Joiri Minaya by Raquel Villar-Pérez (C& América Latina), who writes, “The multidisciplinary artist from Santo Domingo, who lives and works in New York, appropriates visual codes formed in colonial times to point to a ‘tropical identity’ in order to create colourful pieces that invert the relation of power between the observer and the observed.”

Raquel Villar-Pérez: Tell me more about yourself and how you became an artist?

Joiri Minaya: I liked doing art when I was little, so my mom put me in the afterschool classes for painting. When I was 14, I enrolled in the National School of Fine Arts in Santo Domingo; it is a program called preparatoria. It was a twice a week after-school class mostly for drawing. Then sometime after, you have to undertake a test to go into the proper curriculum of the National School of Visual Arts. I failed the test the first time, so I had to do everything again, and I feel this was the decisive moment when I knew I wanted to pursue a career as an artist. I attempted a second time and I got in. I remember those times to be intense because I was a sophomore in high school, so I had classes Monday to Friday, like any other high school student, and the program at the National School of Visual Arts was also Monday to Friday, for around five hours in the afternoon each day. I spent the last three years of my high school doing two schools, basically.

RVP: I have noticed that the presence of women’s bodies permeates your multidisciplinary practice. I am curious to know more about the representation of the female form in your work, and how you got interested in representing or making it so prominent in your practices.

JM: The first thing that comes to mind is just the experience of being a woman in the world; it makes you realize there isn’t a lot of representation or a fair representation anyway. In fact, the woman’s body is usually objectified or understood as a decorative object. A big part of including it in my work has to do with taking agency of my own representation.

Something that I also wanted to draw attention on was the convention of portraiture. When I started studying art, there was a lot of portraiture, and representations of the human figure. It is a permanent subject within image making. The art of portraying women had to do with my experience as a woman in the world and especially my experience as a migrant in the US, and the experience of hyper visibility that immigrants deal with. I feel like since my beginnings in the arts, I have always gravitated to this analysis of the representation of women’s bodies as well as landscape.

RVP: Let’s talk about the references to landscapes. There’s a lot of symbols in your work that recall nature. Why do you feel like the urge of addressing nature in your work?

JM: I’ve always been interested in nature. When I was a child, I dreamt of becoming a biologist or marine biologist when I grew up. I think that the experience of living in a big metropolis in the US has made these ideas resurface in my work. Also, living outside of Dominican Republic and realizing that many times our identity is interpreted through the prism of what has been dubbed as “tropical” nature, makes me want to reflect upon what this means. I investigate the history of the representation of tropical nature through the lens of colonialism and how some of these ideas have survived and how they spilled onto the bodies. This relationship between the body and nature is very present in my work because both are exercised and consumed and exploited in ways that are related to each other. Although more recently, I’m starting to approach these topics from a different angle that the postcolonial discourses, thinking about how we can relate to these issues in a more enjoyable way, and not only through all the trauma of colonialism.

RVP: Can you expand on the idea of “tropical identity”, and how the Caribbean appears in the imagination of the outside world, but also of the Caribbean people?

JM: In the last couple of years, I focused on how this notion of “tropical” is representative for outsiders as well as for the Caribbean people. Having grown up there, I find there are parallels in how spaces are pictured. I have noticed that in recent years the “Hawaiian shirt” for example, this type of shirt with “tropical” prints, has become very popular in Western countries. Then I go to the Dominican Republic, and there are middle-class, young, hip people wearing them. I find this very interesting, because when I was younger, these visual codes were restricted to the construction of tropical spaces through resorts; it was more of the uniform of a resort or some sort of service that had to do with tourism. Now it has become this cool, trendy thing. This seems a worldwide phenomenon, and I am interested in the parallels and how both directions communicate or overlap.

In terms of constructions of tropical space, I think how this space was visualized during colonialism has had a lot of impact into the imagery that still prevails today. There is literature that have helped me understand this, one is Krista Thompson’s An Eye for the Tropics and Picturing Tropical Nature by Nancy Stepan. Although the two authors draw their analysis in the English-speaking Caribbean, I see a lot of parallels with what is understood of Dominican Republic.

RVP: How do you perceive the Caribbean art scene (Caribbean is simplified), and particularly in the Dominican Republic? Do you think there is a Caribbean art scene outside?

JM: To answer the first part of the question, for me the Caribbean art scene is super-rich. It’s very diverse. I feel what lacks is platforms for visualization and structures of sustainability in the sense of having a collectors base, museums that actually have an impact in the local scene, etc. But there are so many artists doing incredible work.

With the Internet there are conversations that are happening at the same time about the same topics, in different locations, and it is interesting to see what is being said in other places, and what that does to the art scene. You can no longer be isolated from conversations about the colonial legacies, or racism, or classism. [. . .]

For full article, see https://amlatina.contemporaryand.com/editorial/conversation-with-joiri-minaya/

[Shown above: Joiri Minaya’s installation “#dominicanwomengooglesearch,” 2016.]

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