When Quisqueya Henríquez mulls an idea, there's no telling what medium she might use to shape it.
The first major survey of the Cuban-Dominican artist's career in the United States, now on view at Miami Art Museum (MAM), reveals a bold, fertile mind and immaculate craftsmanship.
"Quisqueya Henríquez: The World Outside, A Survey Exhibition 1991-2007" features 22 sculptures, installations, drawings, photographs, videos, light, and sound works that crackle with clarity, wit, and tension while knocking the starch out of cultural clichés. The traveling exhibit was organized by the Bronx Museum of the Arts.
Henríquez, who lives in the Dominican Republic, employs her concept-driven work to narrow the divide between the Caribbean and the outside world. The 41-year-old artist was born in Havana in 1966 to a Cuban mother and Dominican father, and she spent her formative years in Santo Domingo after her family moved there.
In the late Eighties, she returned to Havana to study at Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA), where members of the "Cuban Renaissance" influenced her work.
A government crackdown on this generation of Cuban artists, known for its critical art production and activism, forced most of its important members to flee the island or face jail.
Henríquez was among those who moved to Mexico in a mass exodus in the early Nineties. She later relocated to Miami with many of her colleagues, living here between 1993 and 1997.
Since she returned to Santo Domingo, the city has come into sharp focus in her newer work, with its evocative sounds, sights, and textures taking center stage.
The show title comes from El Mundo de Afuera (The World Outside, 2006) a 46-minute digital video that conveys a panoramic sense of Caribbean island life.
Henríquez placed a video camera on the balcony of her high-rise apartment to capture the rhythm of her city over the course of three years.
The epic pulses with scenes of a woman sweeping the street in front of her home, cruise ships steaming into port, and a man transporting a load of bananas on a donkey-drawn cart. Barefoot tykes play rooftop soccer, and a boy preens in a mirror, working his biceps with barbells rigged from steel rods and cement poured into buckets.
Bleating car alarms enhance the diced footage, as does a metronome of crashing waves, exploding fireworks, and brassy marching bands.
A work that toys with assumptions about art and life in the Caribbean — and the idea that Santo Domingo is a party paradise — is the frantic Salon de Baile (Dance Hall, 2004). In the three-minute video, Henríquez aims her lens through a hole in a wall, filming a man's legs as he twirls to a merengue on a rooftop as the city's skyline looms in the background.
Wall text at the gallery informs that Henríquez edited the action by following the structure of a classic song, "Compadre Pedro Juan," composed by Luis Alberti in 1955, but the music remains silent as the hoofer in tattered jeans and flip-flops cuts across the tar.
The videos are light years removed from Henríquez's earlier, more austere works, which are displayed nearby and demonstrate some classic minimalist tricks of the trade.
Stereography of Memory (1995) is a kiddie-pool-size paper sculpture that looks like a geometric maze and sits ankle-high on the floor in the middle of a room.
Henríquez elegantly thumbs her nose at notions of artistic representation in Trama y Urdimbre (Warp and Weave, 1996), in which she has deconstructed a canvas, exhibiting two piles of string on a wooden plank instead.
Perhaps the most compelling of her earlier works is Untitled (Metastasis) (1996), which is isolated in a darkened gallery all its own. It is one of a handful of major works Henríquez made in collaboration with Consuelo Castañeda, a member of the Cuban Renaissance and one of her instructors at ISA.
The provocative installation, which is meant to mirror the spread of cancer cells, is composed of dozens of circular plastic light modules arranged on the floor. The yellow and white fixtures look like blood cells the size of dinner plates. At first, just one flickers on and off; then two, then three, until the ovals exponentially illuminate the entire room. As the lights run through the relay, an eerie electronic cicada buzz chirps inside the space.
But it is in her more recent works where Henríquez seems to be hitting full stride, brazenly elbowing her way into the contemporary art discourse in a language all her own.
At the entrance to the exhibit, she surprises viewers with El Centro Puede Estar en Todas Partes (The Center Can Be Everywhere, 2001-2007), a set of seven wheeled office stools covered with an image of a woman's navel. It is one of many of the artist's recent works in which the audience can become actively engaged. During a recent visit, grade-school students on a museum tour rolled across the floor and joked about the image of a woman's freckled midriff on the seats.
Henríquez's delightful visual pun makes light of those who find themselves working outside the international art and cultural mainstream while attempting to crack the blockade.
She dispels the "hot-blooded" stereotypes of her island neighbors via photographs of frozen clothes and comments on the Dominican Republic's love affair with baseball, using collages on newsprint featuring disembodied and sexualized ball players in daisy chains.
In her series Jugando con la Adversidad (Playing with Adversity, 2001), Henríquez transmutes a badminton shuttlecock into a pincushion and fashions balls into hats, handbags, and belts.
She comments on the chaos and absurdity of donkeys and cars vying for supremacy on Santo Domingo's streets by creating a vinyl mural in which animal and machine mutate. An image of an ass pooping compact cars suggests that during rush hour, the four-wheeled beast holds sway.
Color photos of ramshackle public spaces, crumbling monuments, graffiti, and derelict fountains drive home the point that for many Dominicans, life is not all fun in the sun.
A work that spectators can take home if they purchase the exhibition catalogue is Brand New Shit.
It's a piece of gift-wrapping paper folded around the catalogue, which Henríquez designed with octagonal shapes bursting with images of the world's garbage marooned on the beaches of the Dominican Republic.
She originally conceived of the wrappers as a participatory project, inviting local storeowners to use her designs to package customers' purchases.
One can't help but wonder how many of these ended up in clueless tourists' hands.
For the show's opening, Henríquez even served patrons dollops of a visually appealing turquoise treat that turned out to be salty rather than sweet. For those able to digest it, Helado de Agua de Mar Caribe (Caribbean Seawater Ice Cream) was a reminder that some things are rarely what they seem.
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