Dr. Gilberto Cardenas Review

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by Dr. Gilberto Cardenas

Assistant Provost and Director of the Institute for Latino Studies at the University of Notre Dame

Diógenes Ballester is an internationally renowned artist who has established a profound aesthetic based on his Puerto Rican heritage and experience growing up in Puerto Rico and in the United States. I have had the pleasure of knowing and working with Diógenes and his lovely wife for several years. My conversations with them have been most rewarding for a number of reasons especially with hearing Diógenes speak very passionately about his work and particularly about his insights into deep issues pertaining to the Puerto Rican experience in the Island and diaspora.

The images we collect in our memory are like the threads that make up our personal identities. Diógenes Ballesters childhood memories, experienced in the Puerto Rican city of Ponce, combined with his familys oral history, and his transmigration to the United States are the inspiration for the spiritual images of his artwork. His residency in New York, in Paris, as well as his travels in the Caribbean have strengthened the hidden memories of his spirituality, his culture and his ethnic identity. Highly trained and well-schooled (Madison, Wisconsin and New York) Diógenes work exemplifies a uniquely distinct blend of many outstanding attributespersonal, artistic depth and skill and a vision that links wide spanning global processes and contemporary realities.

While he was immersed in foreign languages and cultures, he recognized the art sensibility of others in himself, his images in other images, thus experiencing the feeling of belonging and universality.

In ENCOUNTERS WITH THE MADAMA: MYTHOLOGY AND REALITY IN THE WORK OF DIÓGENES BALLESTER,Francisco Sorribes Vaca, Paris, France 2003, Diógenes Ballester intertwines his memories of syncretic religious images of Puerto Rican Espiritismo, slavery, and influences and elements of Taino aboriginals. Memories of La Madama traditionally dressed in white and a white turban reminds the observer of the veneration of the spirits of their ancestors. This collection of African imaginario or imaginary and beliefs systems are informed, interpreted and maintained directly by recognition of the African heritage of Latino culture especially in the Caribebean region. The clothes worn by the African women in Paris reminded him of the espiritistas (diviners and spiritual healers) he had seen both in Puerto Rico and New York.

With the familiar name given to household altars in the espiritista tradition, Ballesters painting La Mesa Blanca, reflects the syncretic religious images of the African ancestral worldview. The altars, usually displaying cowrie shells, bones, horseshoes and other fetishes, are found in Puerto Rican communities that practice Spiritism, both in the Island and in New York.

Diógenes artistic vision is profound. His work addresses deeply spiritual foundations of Puerto Rican culture interlaced with layers of complex social and political realities. Diógenes work offers the viewing audience and students of Caribbean art incredibly rich opportunities to engage the evolution and transformation of the Puerto Rico experience through its historical foundations to the present day.

With the imposing drawing of the cacique (Taíno Indian chief) and the figure of his father in El Duelo, Ballester brings forth the participation of an aboriginal indian to affirm this intrinsic Taino element of Puerto Rican culture and heritage. Ballester also reaffirms his African heritage and African slavery in Espíritus de Esclavos and Registro de Esclavos. The observer can visualize the stories of his grandmother, and perhaps their own, depicting the arrival of slaves to the Playa de Ponce.

Every element found in Diógenes artwork is shaped by his most serious concern and preoccupation to represent the complexities and beauties of Puerto Rican culture. Diógenes achieves this in a most masterful way, a conclusion that I am confident all would agree after viewing his work and listening to the ideas that Diógenes so carefully and passionately articulates. I have learned much from Diógenesboth from his artistic creations as well as by his teachings.

A walk through Ballesters artwork will take the viewer through a mystical and syncretic experience of rituals and mythology and visuals of Caribbean cultural traditions and history.