Jorge A. Figueroa Irizarry Review

Record of Silences: Encounters, Mithology, and Reality in the Work of Diógenes Ballester


by Jorge A. Figueroa Irizarry

Guest Curator


History-stories of slaves and freed blacks and mulattos underlying the silence, inhabiting the memories of their African descendants... Traffic in bodies and souls resulting from a slavery system whose genesis lies in the Greco- Roman period... Africa transmuted into America through immigrant men, women, and children who had no choice but to adapt to a new geographic scenario, including the Caribbean. Their capacity for survival and creation made possible a “cultural cimarronaje,” or tradition of cultural resistance, recovering an ancestral heritage that embraces both the myth and the reality of this historical process. Anthropologists, historians, sociologists, folklorists, and writers have made extensive contributions to the study and understanding of the complex racial and social relations in America’s slavery regime. Artists, in their diverse modes of expression, have also played a predominant role in this area as creators of a heteroglossic narrative on the trauma of a period of violent intercontinental rupture (Africa and America) that germinated in a process of transculturation and ethnic mixing against the backdrop of the sugarcane plantations and later in the communities of freed blacks and mulattos. These communities in turn became places of encounter and clash of African cultural forms, rescued and transformed through syncretism and other survival strategies that would produce expressions indigenous to the new land, whose original roots could be either manifest or concealed.


As a Caribbean island, Puerto Rico is a microcosm of that complex socio-historical process. The African diaspora marked its presence in the coastal zones linked to agricultural production, particularly sugarcane. Loíza in the north and Ponce in the south became polarized zones with a vigorous African heritage. Ponce was the predominant city of the south, the principal agro-exporting and slave trade center of the 19th century. Sugar and slavery became the binomial of a city that revealed different and contradictory faces: a city of white racial hegemony that contrasted with its black and mulatto accent, a city where creolism alternated with non-Hispanic foreign influences. Distinctions were also evident between its urban center and its peripheral zones, among them Playa de Ponce, the heart of Puerto Rico’s economic development in the 19th century and slave trade center of the region. In a world dominated by triangular commerce (manufacturing, slave trade, and sugar), a hybrid community of ideas and mentalities was gradually created, resulting from the continuous interrelation of distinct social and ethnic groups.


All of this constitutes the formative space of artist Diógenes Ballester, a descendant of slaves and inheritor of an oral family tradition. His pictorial language is an irrefutable testament to the legacy of Afro-Puerto Rican culture. His discourse does not establish ruptures of time or space; rather, he believes Germán Carrera Damas’ assertion “that the slavery of the black people cannot yet be considered part of Latin America’s past.”1 In that context, his pictorial proposals are a continuing journey along the route of the African diaspora in Puerto Rico. His international experience has allowed him to contextualize and broaden his artistic conception with a transnational perspective that has helped him understand the course and the impact of globalization in the world. The artist himself asserts: “African culture and the spiritual influences brought via the slave market to the colonies of the new world, and found later in colonized Africa, have now been transported to the centers of the old colonial empires through transmigration, and syncretism continues to play a predominant and decisive role.”2


Contact with Ballester’s work is always a complex exercise of understanding and rapport with other phases of the creative process. An analysis of his pictorial grammar requires multiple anthropological, philosophical, and historical considerations. Free Registry is a continuation of the process of study and rereading that constitutes his discourse, and I emphasize this appreciation because I consider his projects to be meta-stories, where he identifies characters, events, motivations, and reactions to the realities of a changing society. The works that make up this exhibition— Globalization, Post-Industrialism, and Syncretism; Keeper of History: Holder of Dreams; Spirit of Slaves; and Podium—are yet another platform to provoke that encounter with the past, the present, and the future that the artist always proposes in his projects, whose primary purpose is to allow the observer to gain an understanding of the role played by memory, which, as Félix Córdova points out, “is always a force that operates in the present, and although it deals with the past, it is a past structured in terms of the urgencies of the present. This is so because that present is conceived as a present that has a future, and the role of memory is to open that future to its maximum expression.”3


Free Registry, as Diógenes Ballester’s new discursive act, incorporates his distinctive iconography, represented by his “madamas,” which may be interpreted within the context of what the sociologist Agustín Laó Montes has labeled “the nationalist discourse in the male narrative of the African diaspora, in which women tend to be represented as the emotional guardians of the culture and the race, while Africa tends to be feminized as the motherland that must be protected and rescued.”4 In the polyptych Spirit of Slaves, Ballester likens the primate Lucy, a symbol of the African continent and of civilization, with Agripina, a mulatto slave recovered from documentary sources in the Ponce Historical Archives.


Integrating everyday objects, ritual artifacts, and the use of new technologies (as in his virtual artist books, blogs, and interactive web pages), Ballester’s installations translate into what Francisco Sorribes Vaca has defined as theatrical, ritualistic spaces conveying a “pictorial syncretism”5 that is the artist’s means for asserting his resistance, articulating his denunciations, and reaffirming his identity, but at the same time it is his means for making a record of those silences that here acquire a different dimension and true historical resonance.


ENDNOTES


  1. Carrera Damas, Germán. “Huida y enfrentamiento” in Manuel Moreno Fraginals (ed.), África en América Latina, Mexico City, Editorial Siglo XXI, 3rd ed., 1996, p. 34.
  2. Sorribes Vaca, Francisco. “Diógenes Ballester: encuentro, mitología y realidad,” unpublished essay, 2004, p. 12.
  3. Córdova, Félix. “Somos culturas corporales” in Eugenio García Cuevas (ed.), La palabra sin territorio (hablar en la posguerra fría), Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, Ediciones Santillana, 2004, p. 94.
  4. Laó Montes, Agustín. “Hilos descoloniales. Translocalizando los espacios de la diáspora africana,” unpublished essay, University of Massachusetts – Amherst, 2008, p. 12.
  5. A concept that defines Diógenes Ballester’s creative process, in which an inner spiritual force converges with external matter.