Ada Balcacer: One-Armed Genius at PAMM

Ada Balcacer's decades-long journey to Pérez Art Museum Miami has been fraught with challenges and inspired by the twisted social, political, and economic currents that have shaped Caribbean history.

On a recent weekday at PAMM, the youthful-looking and energetic 83-year-old, dressed in a black pantsuit and a white shirt, trots from exhibition hall to bayfront gallery faster than most 30-year-olds. She animatedly contrasts young and old artists' work before pausing to describe the Baca, a mythical figure in the Dominican Republic, where she was born and spent most of her life. It can grant success to the person it possesses, she says. Or it can inflict tragedy if its demands are ignored.

"When I was a kid growing up, if they found someone in my country bleeding from a stab wound or dead," Balcacer explains, "people would say Baca gored him... The Baca is our Minotaur... part of our rich oral tradition."

She quickly moves to another room, where her 1969 oil-on-canvas Cabeza de Baca hangs. Part of the series Baca Overthrowing the Myth, it depicts the eerie creature against a bright-blue background that looks as if it were recently painted. "My work is part of my identity and my heritage," she says.

Balcacer's work is showcased in a new exhibit at PAMM that museumgoers can see during May — Miami Museum Month. Situated within several sprawling galleries in the museum, "Caribbean: Crossroads of the World" boasts a striking selection of 180 works spanning two centuries, from the Haitian Revolution to the present.

On view is a wide range of media, from paintings and sculptures to photographs, installations, films, and videos — some rarely displayed publicly — that presents an engaging study of Caribbean culture.

The show debuted in New York in 2012. For its Miami iteration, guest curator Elvis Fuentes added 50 works. There are greats such as Camille Pissarro and Wifredo Lam, as well as contemporary talent such as Allora & Calzadilla.

Balcacer, one of the oldest living artists participating in the show, was born in 1930 in San Juan de la Maguana and grew up during the brutal dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo.

It is estimated that his tyrannical rule was responsible for the deaths of more than 50,000 people, including close to 30,000 during the infamous "Parsley Massacre" in 1937 when Trujillo ordered the execution of Haitians living in the borderlands with Haiti.

At the time, her grandfather, Catedral de los Santos, worked as the overseer of a rambling agricultural estate where Balcacer spent much of her childhood. She developed a love for botany, science, and folklore. "The land was so beautiful and vast," she recalls.

But her early dreams of pursuing a career in medicine crumbled when she was thrown off a horse and shattered her arm. Doctors had to amputate it after it developed gangrene. She was only a teenager.

"I am one of two one-armed painters in Latin American art history," Balcacer mentions. "The other one was José Clemente Orozco, the Mexican muralist. I've never felt different and have been painting for the past 64 years ever since my goals changed."

In 1951, she graduated from the National School of Fine Arts in Santo Domingo, where Oscar de la Renta was her classmate. "He was really talented and gorgeous," Balcacer recalls of the now-legendary fashion designer. "Even then he had this radiant smile that was unforgettable and seductive."

Soon, however, she began to feel that Trujillo was strangling the nation's culture.

"He was a megalomaniac, and like other dictators of his period, culture became a reflection of his power," she says. "It was like the mouse that blows on your skin before biting you."

The stifling environment led Balcacer to move to New York City in 1951 soon after graduation. At the age of 21, she landed in the Big Apple at the height of abstract expressionism. The city's nightlife was becoming swept up in the Afro-Caribbean rhythms of the Mambo Kings era.

She began taking art classes and buying stretchers for her canvases in the Bowery. Once, she ran into Jackson Pollock. "I'll never forget what he said to a group of people gathered at the frame shop," she recollects. "He said it was important to create work guided by an intellectual concept and to continue experimenting always."

Balcacer returned home in 1961 shortly after Trujillo was assassinated. She joined the group Nueva Imagen (New Image) in 1972 and became interested in the aesthetic possibilities of light and color. She also began creating increasingly abstract compositions.

Later, she chaired the school of drawing in the architecture department of the Autonomous University of Santo Domingo. "I belong to that group of artists that doesn't only make work, but also thinks and talks about art continually," the dynamic octogenarian says.

When she turned 70, the artist decided it was time to explore fresh horizons in South Florida, so she relocated to Miami, a city she had often visited. Soon, she opened a modest gallery in Wynwood during a time of life when her peers were largely retired or gone.

Her Abro Gallery enjoyed a four-year run until folding in 2012. It showcased the work of local talent, including her compatriot Máximo Caminero, who made international headlines earlier this year after smashing a vase that was part of a show at PAMM highlighting the dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei.

But she hasn't given up on the art world. "We artists are the great explorers of life," she says, "and you can experience that in this exhibit."

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Carlos Suarez De Jesus