Awilda Sterling-Duprey: (Un)Drawing the Continent Blindfolded

For “In Conversation with…Awilda Sterling-Duprey: (Un)Drawing the Continent Blindfolded,” José Álvarez interviews dancer, choreographer, and visual artist Awilda Sterling-Duprey for C& América Latina [translated by Sara Hanaburgh.]: “A chat with the Puerto Rican artist about her participation in the Whitney Biennial in New York, where she performs a series of dance-drawings.”

Born in San Juan in 1947, Awilda Sterling-Duprey is one of the most important visual artists from Puerto Rico. In this interview, the Boricua artist Pepe Álvarez-Colón speaks with Sterling-Duprey about her work in abstraction, the body’s tridimensionality and about …blindfolded, the work on exhibit at the 2022 Whitney Biennial: “Quiet as It’s Kept,” in which the artist blindfolds her eyes to draw lines on dark papers in response to jazz improvisation.

C& América Latina: In addition to your background in experimental performance with a community of dancers and theater artists, you also trained in the visual arts with a group of abstract painters, at a time when abstraction in Puerto Rico was not considered a national art. When did you become interested in abstraction?

Awilda Sterling-Duprey: At the School of Visual Arts of Puerto Rico. I was a teenager and I had just graduated from the University of Puerto Rico. I didn’t know any other art that wasn’t traditional Puerto Rican and Latin American. At the time… we have always been in a fierce fight with the United States because we are a territory, we are a colony. Talking about abstraction in Puerto Rico in the 1960s was complicated by what we had not been able to achieve (politically as a country). So, I made a transition, but in a fierce way towards abstract expressionism… Franz Kline is the first artist who had an impact on me. His black paintings. Black and white. A fierce gesture. No doubt about it. Throw out the brushstroke of paint and accept the accident and the way in which it recomposes the pictorial plane. Also, Kline worked while listening to a great African-American musician, Sonny Rollins, who used to rehearse his saxophone solos on the Brooklyn Bridge. The jazz that influenced me the most at that time was straight-ahead jazz [with no influence from rock]… And it’s the practice of performance, which I had already integrated, … of listening and drawing, which led me to …blindfolded. [. . .]

[. . .] C&AL: Improvisation is constitutive of Afro-Caribbean traditions. How do you approach improvisation from Afro-knowledge?

ASD: Improvisation is a characteristic element of African arts. I have realized that in repetition there is a moment when the pattern changes. This happens with jazz; it happens with sculptures of saints. Fabric design is nourished precisely by this change in the pattern. I learned a lot about this subject from Sylvia del Villard, from the University of Puerto Rico (Afro-Puerto Rican actress, choreographer and activist), who mentored me and taught me the value of the entire continent and the ethnic groups which form us… She talked to me about deities and my abilities for art, dance and my interest in religions. Of course, it was already integrated in my family but at that time people didn’t talk about African value. So we had to “behave well so people would respect us,” so people would see that we were a different kind of Black woman or man. But Sylvia embodied the ethical values of an entire continent and had been with all those Africanists at Fisk University in Tennessee, USA. And that had an impact on me… That is what leads me to integrate religious concepts through dance, because history is in the body and in dance. Each step is a story of the deity that has as many levels as the elements of nature it represents… My wholeness is visible and expressed within all those contexts of improvisation. [. . .]

Read full interview at https://amlatina.contemporaryand.com/editorial/awilda-sterling-duprey-undrawing-the-continent-blindfolded/

[Photos by José López Serra. 1) Top image: Awilda Sterling-Duprey and Pepe Álvarez-Colón, …blindfolded for P.E.P.O.S.A (..con los ojos vendados para P.E.P.O.S.A) (2021), Platform for performance research, by Pepe Álvarez-Colón, at the gallery Hidrante, Santurce, Puerto Rico. 2) Awilda Sterling-Duprey, …blindfolded (…con los ojos vendados) (2022), Whitney Biennial, New York.]

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