Art

An Artist Illuminates Our Need to be Seen and Recognized

The indispensability of recognition is simultaneously made both more urgent and more complicated when you realize, as Yelaine Rodriguez does, that we are mutable, never sufficing to be just one person.

Yelaine Rodriguez, “Ezili Dantor, Freedom and the African Diaspora: We are here, because you were there” (2018) (all photos by Melanie Gonzalez unless otherwise noted)

Sometimes it is not enough to be seen. To merely be looked at or noticed doesn’t necessarily mean that all the subtle and supple ways of your being will be registered. When you are only seen, critical information about you isn’t necessarily conveyed: the name you are called, who you recognize as your family and kinfolk, how you identify along the valences of sexuality, profession, gender, and personality. Human relations, the whole range of them, from wholesome to ugly, depend on recognition. You can only carry on debating, desiring, ignoring, or fighting another person if you recognize her — even if it is to recognize her as a stranger. But then the indispensability of recognition is simultaneously made both more urgent and more complicated when you realize, as the artist Yelaine Rodriguez does, that we are mutable, changing over time, never sufficing to be just one person, morphing in and out of distinct aspects of our personalities and the discrete spirits that from time to time inhabit us.

Yelaine Rodriguez, “Zemis” (2018) solar plate prints, edition of 25; a zemi is a deity or ancestral spirit, and a sculptural object housing the spirit, among the Taíno people of the Caribbean.

Rodriguez literally manifests this human mutability through mask making, performance, and photographic documentation of these performances, which draw on her study of the loas (or spirits that function as intermediaries between humans and a supreme creator) of Haitian Vodou and the Orishas of Santeria. In her exhibition Chronicles: We are here, because you were there at the AAA3A gallery, Rodriguez features women she knows personally, such as the Afro-Dominican singer Carolina Camacho, who becomes the Shango Orisha of thunder and lighting and drum. In the piece “Shango: We are here, because you were there” (2018) Camacho appears in a red leotard with ruffles and ornamentation, holding a red axe, and wearing on her head a beaded red helm — an outfit that imparts to the viewer that she is a warrior, but she conducts her campaigns through song and the music of the drum. In the gallery, that red mask with its hanging beads and curved horns sits on a small pedestal.

The loa of Ezili Dantor comes into view in the piece, “Ezili Dantor: Freedom and the African Diaspora: We are here, because you were there” (2018). Here the warrior is seated, with an elaborate crown on her head, surrounded by her children who dance in celebration of her. Here, the model takes on the role of Madonna, nurturing the next generation of fighters who follow the spirit of the African slaves in Haiti who forcibly took their freedom through armed revolution.

Yelaine Rodriguez, “Shango: We are here, because you were there” (2018)

Rodriguez wants to call out and call to the common ancestry of the Santeria and Vodou traditions: those who spoke the Yoruba language of West Africa. Through the photographs I see Rodriguez herself, who, as she told me, is a daughter of the mixed heritage of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Part of what motivates her work, she explained, is the misguided cultural amnesia regarding the shared African heritage and lineage of those born in the Caribbean, an amnesia that manifests in several ways, among the most pernicious being the arbitrary division of the island of Hispaniola into the Dominican Republic and Haiti. The artist seeks with this work a syncretism of both her people and herself. Rodriguez embraces all the essential and formative aspects of her identity and asks us to see them, recognize them, and say her name.

Chronicles: We are here, because you were there continues at the AAA3A gallery (309 Alexander Avenue, South Bronx) through February 27.

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