Shifra M. Goldman Review

Diógenes Ballester: Seeking Artistic and Creative Transnationalism

by Shifra M. Goldman

The artist, like the writer, has the obligation to be of use; his painting must be a book that teaches; it must serve to better the human condition; it must castigate evil and exalt virtue. — Francisco Oller

Puerto Rican culture is part of my art. My people are descendants of Spaniards, Africans, and Taínos. My formation included the Spanish language with African rhythm and cadence within a Catholic-African spiritualism, between troubadours and their improvised décimas in the vibrant colors of a Caribbean island, facing a sea that incited me to discover the promise of new worlds. These are my roots. And my roots are always present in my art. Diógenes Ballester Lucha en contra del racismo/ Struggle Against Racism (1986), which illustrate his strong social sense - the struggles of women, against racism, against anxieties and conflict, etc. The works themselves were powerfully rendered as semi-abstractions utilizing multiple techniques. To this revealing list of titles can be added others of different vintages: The Struggle Against Alienation; Portrait of Vulnerability; Loneliness of the Black Cloud; Spiritual Fluidity; Spiritual Celebration; The Anxieties of Life in the Midst of Conflict; and finally, as an entire category, The Keeper of History, Holder of Dreams, a most revealing and literary title which sums up the poetic tendencies of the artist. — Diógenes Ballester


Though circumstances and their expression in both art and literature have changed immensely since the days of Puerto Rican painter Francisco Oller (1813-1913), his concepts as well as his art continue to be revered by artists of his nation to this day. Artists and intellectuals of the 19th and early 20th century had to grapple with the effects of colonialism, extreme poverty, strict rules of censorship and the lack of training centers and museums to develop and exhibit their work. Not until 1950 were conditions favorable for such an undertaking. At that time, the Centro de Arte Puertoriqueño (CAP) was established and definitively changed the direction of Puerto Rican art, aesthetically and thematically. Nevertheless, the underlying philosophy of Francisco Oller remains pertinent to this day: Puerto Rico remains a colony- of the United States rather than Spain; there is still poverty; and censorship still serves as a means of controlling critical expression.

The generation of artists preceding Diógenes Ballester (listed in endnote #2) can testify to these truisms. And, indeed, Puerto Rico remains a colony whose highest ruling official is the Governor, and whose population is split between becoming an independent country or joining the United States as its 51st state. Puerto Rico won its independence from Spain with the help of the United States in 1898, as did Cuba and the Philippines, but never achieved national sovereignty as did the others at various times.

Some Pertinent History: The Four Floors

José Luis González’s poetic metaphor of Puerto Rican history and culture, "El país de cuatro pisos" (The Country of Four Floors), slices not only through time but through politics, mythologies and class interests, bringing them all together in the present struggles for liberation. As such, it offers a verbal analogy to Ballester’s complex and layered pictorial constructions and lends insight to their iconography. Speaking in the present tense, González is careful to delineate the three-tiered structure of contemporary Puerto Rico composed, top down, by the U.S. imperialist presence, the dominated upper classes of Puerto Rico, and the lower classes exploited by both. Toward this end, he separates culture into "elite" and "popular," the latter of which had been studied by dominant class intellectuals only as folklore, thus making invisible the true signification of popular culture in Puerto Rican history. The "four floors" of the book’s title begin with three historic groups: the aboriginal Taíno Indians whose resistance to Spanish enslavement caused their extermination; the African slaves in the Caribbean and throughout Latin America; and the Spanish conquerors. Contrary to common scholarship, González considers the most important (for economic, social and therefore cultural reasons) to be the Africans. They survived and became carriers not only of their own religious, social and artistic beliefs, but of aboriginal cultural elements due to interchanges between the two most oppressed groups of the social pyramid.

During the first two centuries of conquest, the Spanish population was in a state of flux, therefore the Africans (who could not leave) formed the most stable resident population and their (popular) culture is the first that is "American." Metaphorically, then, the "first floor" of Puerto Rico is African/Taíno. It is revealing that the earliest acknowledged artist of importance, José Campeche of the 18th century, was the son of a slave nourished by popular culture. In Spanish Harlem ( New York City), the Puerto Rican artists adopted emblems of the Taíno presence in many of their artworks to give credit to the importance of the first Native Americans of the Caribbean. The politics of African slavery also set the groundwork of all American continental history until the end of the 19th century by which time the European practicioners who had imported slaves by the millions, decided that slavery was no longer a pofitable system. This was started by England and eventually swept the American continent. The last Latin American colony to insist on continuing slavery was Brazil - the largest of Latin American countries - which was conquered by the Portuguese, ruled by the emperor of Portugal, and finally by his son who set himself up as emperor in the New World until he was displaced by the abolition of slavery in 1889, which brought an end to the imperial colonial status of Brazil. It should not be imagined, however, that the abolition of slavery as an economic structure that had penetrated the entire Western World, aided and abetted by national rulers in Africa, was slowly abolished by anti-slavery forces. A key factor, in my opinion, is the advent of industrialization in Western Europe whose capitalists found it more profitable to set up “industrial slavery” within their own borders and in their colonized Eastern and African nations. Why import slaves for agricultural empires when “wage slaves” were already on hand and employable in factories, mines, and other industries? European peasants were forcibally moved to the cities in great numbers, as the writings of Charles Dickens, and many other authors, testify. In Haiti and the Caribbean, and in many areas of Latin America, however, agricultural production continued well into the 20th century, but it was structured to function as wage labor.

Pertinent to our history as well is the factor of developments in Haiti and the Spanish-speaking Caribbean nations. Too complex to be summarized here, an insightful view of the strong African presence throughout the Americas - economically, socially, and culturally - can be found in the book, Dictionary of Afro-Latin American Civilization, published in 1980 by a professor of Latin American civilizations and linguistics. The imbedded aspects of African languages, religious bliefs, and customs, from the days of slavery to this day, present an astonishing revelation and explain more about modern artists of the Caribbean (for the purposes of this paper) and the Americas as a whole, than many volumes on the subject. This information is of particular interest to us, since Diógenes Ballester is the great grandson of Haitian refugees who fled to Puerto Rico and settled at the Playa de Ponce where the family resides to this day. His father (now deceased), from whom he inherited his name, participated in the 1937 Massacre of Ponce during which supporters of Puerto Rican independence scheduled a peaceful demonstration for that independence and for the release from jail of Pedro Albizu Campos, an ardent fighter against U.S. colonial rule. The U.S. colonial governor, General Blanton Winship, ordered the police to fire on the crowd, killing and wounding over 100 people.

Don Pedro Albizu Campos (1891-1965 )He also commanded seven languages - knowledge acquired in seven years of education in the United States was a good friend of Ballester’s grandfather, Clemente Sagarra, who was descended from the original Haitian refugees that settled in Ponce. Thus our artist, Ballester, has been emersed in the history of Puerto Rico since childhood and, when grown, found it necessary to visit Haiti and also exhibit his work there.Apart from social/poltical history, it should be noted that Diógenes was educated as both a Puerto Rican and a Catholic - the predominant religion of all Latin Americans under Spanish rule. He considers himself an Afro-Catholic and invokes spirituality from both sources through the titles and visual content of his works of art.

After Haiti (the earliest nation to eliminate slavery on the American continent) came Mexico, which decided on this course after its 1810 revolution against Spain. It is also a matter of historical interest that Simón Bolívar of Venezuela (after whom the nation of Bolivia is named) went to Haiti for shelter and collaboration in his struggle for the liberation of South American colonies from Spain, and was a guest of the first nation which arose against Napolean and the explotation of African slaves. By 1804, the new free Haiti was established and ruled by former African slaves - setting a pattern and model of liberation for the rest of the Americas.

Puerto Rico: Second and Third Floors

The "second floor"of Puerto Rico was constructed and furnished by waves of 19th century immigration including revolutionary refugees from Latin America as well as numerous Europeans. If the first contingent brought ideas of independence to the island, the second expropriated the dominant status from the old landowners. The "third floor" was constituted by the U.S. conquest of Puerto Rico which imposed its cultural paradigm on a population which had not had time to fuse its segments into a national synthesis.

Puerto Rico: the Fourth Floor

The "fourth floor" - and my imaginary "fifth floor"(that of Puerto Ricans in New York) imposed upon José Luis González’s richly conceived housing structure without his permission or knowledge - was erected almost simultaneously. The former resulted in the spectacular and irreparably cracked structure of "late North American capitalism” in tandem with "Puerto Rican opportunistic populism" which weighted down Island society at the end of the 1940s. Organized by Luis Muñoz Marín, Popular Democratic Party leader, who became the first elected Puerto Rican governor, the hopeful expansionist development of "Operation Bootstrap" (manos a la obra) resulted in the modernization (within a dependency mode) that characterized the relations of many Latin American countries in the post-World War II epoch. Since 1917, poverty in the colony had already sent thousands of working class immigrants to the U.S. where they had citizenship but little more access to its privileges than U.S.-born African Americans. Those who were black or dark-skinned suffered racial as well as economic and ethnic discrimination. The eventually negative effects of "Bootstrap" economics can be found in statistics: from the 200,000 Puerto Ricans in New York City in 1948, the year of Muñoz’s election. Migration increased to 612,000 in 1960. The 1990 census might record close to one million. Thus the Puerto Rican population of economic exiles inhabits the "fifth floor" of the four-floor structure. They can, however, move freely between Puerto Rico and the United States which has immense consequences artistically, culturally and economically. Many Puerto Ricans are bilingual and a great many artists have studied in U.S. art schools, while simultaneously North American racism and xenophobia affected the position of all Puerto Ricans in the United States.

Many artists from the Island move back and forth between their country and the U.S. - particularly to East Coast states and Chicago, with perhaps the largest number in New York. Such is definitely the case of Diógenes Ballester, who changed his residence in 1981 and established his home and studio in a section of New York City bordering both the wealthy businesses and Anglo cultural locations of Central Park on the East, and the impoverished dwellings of Harlem which houses African Americans who migrated to New York from the South after the Civil War, but most particularly after World War II began, and jobs were available. The working class Puerto Ricans live in the area known as Spanish Harlem. As we have seen, the name is not a coincidence. Since Puerto Ricans, like other peoples in the Caribbean, reflect a great intermixture with African peoples of the New World, it is natural that they should feel close to the U.S. African population. In addition, New York’s African Americans, under the leadership of W.E.B. Du Bois, had established not only a political structure in New York, but a powerful and inspirational artistic structure in visual arts, literature, and music. Many historians feel that African-American music (blues, jazz, etc) became the primary original music of the United States replacing a complete dependency on European sources. In additon, white North American musicians like George Gershwin, drew on African American music to create an original fusion that reconstitured the classical music of the United States. It is also well-known that African American music became very popular in France in the early 20th century, opening the doors to all of Europe. Finally, African American musicians of the United States absorbed the rhythms and instruments of Cuba which were also based on strong African sources, and completed the transferences and transnationalisms to which we have been referring. By the late 20th century, not only Puerto Ricans, but large migrations of Cubans and Haitians as well as Dominicans, brought the artistic presences of the Caribbean to the eastern United States. By the time of this reading, the presence of the visual art forms of all these nations is well known in the United States through numberless exhibitions.

Diógenes Ballester: His Life as an Artist

My first knowledge of and contact with Diógenes Ballester commenced when I attended a graphics Biennial in San Juan. in 1986. Wandering around the exhibition and its premises, I was struck by an amazing homage to a young Puerto Rican artist who was being honored by a sizeable group of people who had just cut a ribbon to open his exhibition to the public. I no longer recall the work presented since Puerto Rico celebrated these events regularly, and I attended many. But I do recall his youthfulness, his friendliness, and his seriousness. In the 1990s, attending New York regularly as a Board member of the College Art Association, I never failed to visit both Harlem and Spanish Harlem, in addition to the more traditional art museums. I quickly learned the nomenclature of Spanish Harlem artists of all varieties: “Ricans, Neo-Ricans, Nuevo Yoricans, Nuyoricans,” and so forth. In addition, as an homage to the Taíno Indians, were terms such as “Boríncan, Borícua, etc. If the name of “Haiti” was adopted from the Taíno language, the term “Borícua” served the same purpose.

Taller Borícua; Museo del Barrio

In fact, the earliest artist-groupings in New York were the Taller Borícua and the Museo del Barrio (neighborhood museum). Both were organized in 1969 as cultural outposts for the Puerto Rican community. Rafael Tufiño, a major printmaker and painter from the Island, designed the first Workshop silkscreen poster. Tufiño worked with Nuyorican and Island artists to translate to New York the collectivist and community service principles of San Juan. Located in Spanish Harlem and boasting outdoor exhibitions, classes for the community, and cultural activities of all sorts, the collaboration between Island and migrant artists is unique. The main themes of Puerto Rican art can be seen as well in works by Taller artists. Still lifes of tropical plants, the banana as the staff of life ( a focus almost certainly from African sources), and evocations of the aboriginal Taíno Indians, set up important prototypes for Nuyoricans, while one artist’s personal “spirit traps” laid claim to a lost indigenous heritage. West African deities (hybridized with Catholic saints, or the ritual attending a child’s burial among African-descent peoples, reactivited another cultural source. Political themes remain cogent to the present. Some works detail abuses of the Island itself and the destructiveness of U.S. military exercizes there. Another political expression turned into an art form was the invasion of the Statue of Liberty in the New York bay by artists who hung a Puerto Rican flag around the sculptured head. á photograph of this event was turned into a color print by Juan Sánchez in 1986. To the photograph he added a large Taíno emblem - of the sort often used by New York’s Puerto Rican artists. Alienation, loneliness, the split and fractured identity, and the search to recover a whole vision of self and existence are the themes of some works, while self-portraits portray interior states of mind.XXX Aniversario,” New York: Taller de Boricua, Museo de las Américas, 2001-2002, pp.28-29.

Diógenes in San Francisco: 1995

Like many Puerto Ricans, Ballester has shuttled back and forth between Puerto Rico and the United States, obtaining his art degrees in Puerto Rico and in the United States. Trained in the traditions of realism and surrealism, interested in abstract expressionism and conceptual art, Ballester slowly transformed his art into organic abstraction in which figurative and landscape elements play a role in dynamic and powerful works on a monumental scale. That an active social consciousness is at work is evident: I use symbolic imagery and organic abstractions to depict the themes of struggle, vulnerability and volition. Intense colors, layers of paint, thick impasto, scratched and blended surfaces create depth, movement and dramatic contrasts which translate the experience of living within the urban landscape of human existence and interchange. San Francisco, Calif., Washington Square Gallery,1995, p. 7.At the same time that he reaches outward to U.S. training and formal experimentation (such as computer-generated imagery, film, etc.) Ballester keeps himself firmly anchored in Puerto Rican culture and spiritual beliefs. He remembers that his father made vejigante masks (painted and horned, of coconuts or papier-mâché) to accompany the brilliant costumes for the famous festivals in Ponce that celebrate Santiago Matamoros (St. James, the Moor Killer). It was in the Ponce Museum that he was exposed to a wide selection of Old Masters, as well as modern and contemporary paintings where Edvard Munch, and Baroque masters Velázquez and Caravaggio, influenced his work, particularly his fascination with chiaroscuro. As an Afro-Puerto Rican, Ballester accepts his country’s cultural celebrations without yielding ground on the manifestations of racism whether they occur in Puerto Rico or the United States.

Caught between two cultures, one of which treats him as the "Other," Ballester takes these struggles into paintings like "The Anxiety of Life in the Midst of Conflict," "Struggle Against Racism," "Confrontation," "The Struggle Against Alienation," "Vulnerability: Tied and Liberated Being," "Portrait of Existence," "Powerless," and, finally, "Looking for Structure," "Compressed Energy," and "Spiritual Celebration." In the titles alone, one finds the dialectical ebb and flow between doubt, insecurity, alienation, on the one hand, and the exaltation of the spirit, the energy to transcend the dichotomies between anxiety and hope, between the intellectual and the emotional, on the other. "I live and work in intertwined worlds;" says the artist, "I live and work under the never-ending influences of history, mythology and oral traditions; I live and work in a continuous culmination of today’s diversity." Ballester conceives his work in terms of monumental images that push at the borders of his piece, large or small, like that of a frustrated muralist. Many of his paintings are fragments of much bigger ideas that seem not to be exhausted when he finishes creating one. In fact. his working technique is additive: the paintings grow from one sheet of paper or linen to two, four, eight or sixteen, covering an entire wall in his cramped studio. In the process of growth, he changes and overpaints what is no longer compatible with the total composition. The artist’s medium is physical and visceral. He employs the ancient and difficult technique of encaustic - hot wax painting that comes down to us from ancient Greece, that vanished during the medieval and Renaissance periods in favor of tempera and oil paint. Revived in the 18th century, and again in the 20th, its effects, its visual and physical properties, and its range of textural and color possibilities, make it highly suitable for contemporary styles not adequately served by traditional oil painting or the new synthetics. Molten colors are applied with bristle brushes and palette knives; the surface can be opaque or transparent, can be textured in many ways, or can be lightly polished with a cloth to bring out a dull, satiny sheen. If kept warm, free-flowing manipulations may be carried out.

"Paint cooks in Diógenes’ house morning, noon and night," describes fellow artist Antonio Martorell, "in pots brimming with cadmium yellow, Sienna red, cobalt blue, Prussian and ultramarine blue, Spanish whites and Ivory, blacks, all of them richly mixed pigments spiced with melted virgin wax and applied, still scalding, to the hungry linen."Adds the artist, "When I stand over my encaustic mix heating in the melting pot, I can see and smell the blending of the crystal damar varnish with the stand oils. I watch and breathe in the fragrant bees’ wax as it coheres with the dry pigment or oil colors. When I apply the mix on the linen surface I am drawn in by its matted mystic magnificence." Sensuality is the final aspect to consider in the work of Ballester. It is implicit in his choice of painting techniques and explicit in the work itself. Luminous shadows, convoluted fleshy forms that turn in on themselves like body parts, rotundities, sweeping gestural shapes and stroked surfaces, cavities and bony structures, breast-like forms, warm earth colors and patches like seas and skies, areas bathed in light and shadow, are characteristic. The encaustic, “Spiritual Symphony” (1994), is an excellent example of his highly suggestive abstract imagery which remains vitalistic and corporeal in form and color. Its origins may lie with pulpy plants, or with fragments of a human body. It either case, they are anchored to the earth below, and the sky above. The artist may be expounding Catholic or animistic spirituality, or both - like varied instruments in his symphony.

María del Mar (1993), Magic of the Camándulas (or Rosaries) and The Priest (both 1994) recognizably articulate the conductors of the symphony: the goddess of the sea, (María/Yemayá, to give her Catholic and Afro-Caribbean names), and those with spiritual power (female and male) who conduct the religious rituals of Puerto Rican espiritismo. To imaginatively record rites he has personally observed in his homeland, Ballester returns to the representational mode for the figures, who emerge arrayed in spectacular vestments.

Diogenes in Paris: Internationalization. the Transnational Americas

In 2000, the Taller Borícua of New York, of which Diógenes Ballester was (and is) an active and enthusiastic member, undertook to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of its incorporation in 1970 with a collectable edition of the Alma Portfolio, one of 100 computer-generated prints on archival paper using archival inks, each print measuring 36"x24". Headed by Rafael Tufiño, the artists included Diógenes Ballester, Marcos Dimas, Gloria Rodríguez, Fernando Salicrup, Juan Sánchez and Nitza Tufiño. Each work is a diptych with the full print on the left, and a detail to the right with a column for the poetry by Pedro Pietri, Héctor Rivera, María Boncher, Mariposa, Jesús “Papoleto” Melendez, Tania Niomi Ramírez and Juan Sánchez. A most important element of this portfolio was its experimental character. Fernando Salicrup, having worked for many years with computer-generated digital printmaking, was in a position to assist the artists with this new technique for the portfolio. A clue to the importance of digital production as a new graphic form can be measured by the fact that the 1998 Puerto Rican Biennial, under the guidance of Jury President, Diógenes Ballester, devoted an international panel discussion to the topic which was broadcast on the Web under the auspices of the on-line Puerto Rican magazine, El Cuarto Quenepón. In the course of discussion, various techniques employed in Europe, the Americas and Asia, were detailed. Examples such as the combinations of graphics with photography, with video, with the use of layering (digital collage), with the digital manipulation of the photographs themselves, with the combination of digitals with traditional graphics like mezzotint, with printing on canvas, on aluminum, on Plexiglas, and on acetate, with the registration of movement, with the use of large scale images beyond the possibilities of traditional graphics, etc. Though not mentioned in the presentations, billboards in the United States have been produced digitally for a number of years, and artists have been transferring their own work to outdoor billboards - like the late Cuban artist from New York, Félix González Torres, and Los Angeles Chicano artist, Daniel Martínez - have replaced street murals with billboards. The ability of computers to create imaginary worlds not bound by reality - as demonstrated by Steven Spielberg’s movies - is also available to computer graphics. What is of central interest for our present discussion, is the portfolio entry of Diógenes Ballester. Accompanied by poetry written by his wife, Maria Boncher, which follows below in first person for the artist himself, Ballester produced a double work of art reflecting his experiences in Paris for a period of about two years.

Diógenes Ballester in Paris

I walked today / from arc de triomphe / flanked on either side by international banks / guardians of post-industrial multi-national finance capital / past the grand palais / the petit palais / through the gardens to the Louvre...I continue eastward...chic speciality stores / reminders of the homogenized existence / that is rendering paris/new york/london/tokyo / indistinguishable... I think] of sandal-strapped feet / interacting with materials / that bind the land.

While living temporarily in Paris, Diógenes Ballester’s digital work created, over a base of disparate architectures - domed, flat and framed buildings - a vision of stone monuments, rock-formed circles and the drawing of a medley of human beings, as well as an Indian profile, and three versions of a black woman kneeling in a loose white skirt. In short, a scene where Paris meets the Caribbean. A poignant man’s head in a lower corner, gently contained in a frame of letters reading “Playa de Ponce,” records the artist’s loss of his father. A maze of photographic segments and violent linear evocations push at the boundaries of the work but are held down by the architecture and by fresh earth below in which rests a straw basket - a memory, perhaps, of Haiti. Red and blue circles seem to be either traffic signs, or computer signs when one has trangressed the rules. The poetry diptych positions a photograph of a young woman in a black coat and umbrella (his wife) against a muted image of Parisian architecture. The poem itself is superimposed over the image. The tremendous importance of this visit by Ballester to the former artistic capital of the Western world (until it was replaced after World War II by New York) is that he not only had the opportunity to review the artistic palaces of Paris - where one can review the great masters of European art over the centuries - but that he also had an opportunity to meet living master artists of Latin America - many of whom had made their homes in France during the 20th century. Visiting or living in France (and other parts of Europe such as Italy or Germany) was de rigueur for many Latin American, as well as North American artists even when they returned to their native countries after the experience and training. A number, however, remained in Paris or other cultural centers - though frequently visiting their native countries for reinvigoration and for exhibition.

Ballerter’s personal contact with some of these artists left a powerful impression. As a Latin American himself, he could now identify with the entire continent, and thus with the entire world of artistic production during the 20th century which, in the New Millennium, is becoming truly transnational for the first time in the field of artistic production.


We must accept the fact that the term “African American” is an unrecognized truism for the entire continent. In fact, there is not a single nation in the Americas, from Canada to Uruguay and Argentina that does not have an African-descent population, particularly on their Eastern shores. As a result, the islands of the Atlantic Ocean not only boast such populations, but maintain a myriad of cultural manifestations of distinctly African derivation. To be finally considered in this brief history - without which we cannot understand or entertain the visual arts of the Americas - including that of Diógenes Ballester who comes from a long history of African America forebears - is the fact that the Europeans, who invaded all parts of the Americas as well as lands in the Pacific Ocean, did not bring many women with them. Thus we have the creation of caste systems in the colonial period which have been recorded in many paintings which meticulousely rendered images of the various intermixtures, known generally in Spanish (and other languages) as mestizaje (mingling, mixing). These paintings, (titled “caste paintings,” undertook to structure society so that power resided with “pure” Europeans, and later with the “creoles” who were born in the New World but did not mix with its native or imported people of color.

The other side of this pictorial culture and aesthetic is the strong maintenance throughout the Americas of cultural expressions derived, embellished, and reconstantly restructured by the repressed Africans and Native Americans. One of many people who have recorded and described these phenomena - which exist to the present and form the basis of hidden elements intentemporary aesthetics and practices - was Anita Brenner. A North American (born in Mexico in 1906) who spent many years of her life there, she wrote the book Idols Behind Altars: The Story of the Mexican Spirit, in 1929. Stated briefly, her main idea concerned the preservation of pre-Christian religious images and practices by concealing them behind the enforced altars of the conquerors. The term “idols” is, of course a derogatory one; an idea for which Inquisitions were restablished, first in Europe, then in the colonized areas of the world. However it is well known that many indigenous peoples clothed their original “idols” behind the names, demeanors and dress of Catholic saints . Thus hey could continue to be worshipped and celebrated without endangering the lives of those who carried on the celebrations. These practices are carried on up to the present. In terms of Haitian, Puerto Rican, and Cuban peoples, as well as Brazilian - to mention but a few in the Americas and in Caribbean area - the artistic renderings of the “idols,” and the ceremonies that celebrate them, constitute the “idols behind altars.” Carnivals. festivals, processions, dramatic expressions, ceremonies, costuming, music, special clothing, and jewelry, full rich colors and abstracted forms, designate religious activities that predate Christianity, or absorb and restructure it. At the same time these practices are invoked, they also represent a defiance of conquest, slavery, exploitation, racism, and misery through the military and economic intervention of super-national powers and persons. It is to these peoples and ceremonies we must look for that which we encounter in the life and culture of Diógenes Ballester.


Cited by Puerto Rican artist Juan Sánchez: Rachel Weiss ( ed.) Being American: Essays on Art, Literature and Identity From latin America, New York: White Pine Press. 1991, p.96

Statement by artist in the 1986 announcement of the Exposición: Aéptima Bienal del Grabado Latinoamericano y del Caribe. In this document, Carmen T. Lugo paid the artist the great tribute of adding his name (at 30) to the names of the most illustrious artists of Puerto Rico in the 20th century: Lorenzo Homar, Carlos Raquel Rivera, Rafael Tufiño, Antonio Martorell, Julio Rosado del Valle, Myrna Baéz, Nelson Sambolin, Francisco Rodón. Also included were color reproductions of our works by the artist: The Anxieties of life in the Midst of Conflict (1983); Predella (1984); La Lucha de la Mujer (The Woman Struggle, 1985); Lucha en Contra del Racismo/ Struggle Against Racism (1986), which illustrate his strong social sense – the struggles of women, against racism, anxieties and conflict, etc. The works themselves were powerfully rendered as semi –abstractions utilizing multiple techniques. To this revealing list of titles can be added others of different vintages: The Struggle Against Alienation; Portrait of Vulnerability; Loneliness of the Black Cloud; Spiritual Fluidity; Spiritual Celebration; The Anxieties of Life in the Midst of Conflict; and finally, as an entire category, The Keeper of History, Holder of Dreams, a most revealing and literary title which sums up the poetic tendencies of the Artist. See Mari Carmen Ramírez. Puerto Rican Painting: Between Past and Present, the Squibb Gallery and others, 1987 – 1998, p.14

For a more complete history of these issues and their effects on Puerto Rican modern art, see Shifra M. Goldman, “ Under the Sign of the Pava: Art and Social Change in Latin America and the United States, Chicago and London; University of Chicago Press, 1994, pp. 416-432.

El país de cuatro pesos y otros ensayos, Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico: Ediciones Huracán, 1980, pp. 9-90. I am indebted to Samuel A. Román Delgado for bringing this essay to my attention.

Point of clarification: the terms “America” or American” as used in this essay refer to the entire American continent. All references to the United Sates refer to “North America” to differentiate this country from the America which lies to the south. I raise this poit because the United Sates of America have appropriated the word to refer only to themselves.

Bejamin Nu˜ez ( and the African Bibliographic Center), Dictionary of Afro-Latin American Civilization, Wesport: Greewood Press, 1980.

Pedro Albizu Campos, a brilliant scholar, has been compared to predecessors for liberty like George Washington (U.S.A.), Simón Bolivar (Venenzuela), and Dr. Ramón Emeterio Betances, (Puerto Rico). He is considered the first great theoretician of anti-colonialism. Albizu received a chain of degrees in the U.S. in Humanities, Chemical Egineering, Military Science, and Law. He also commanded seven languages – knowledge acquired in seven years of education in the United States.

Many catalogues and Books can be found through galleries, college and universities as well as large libraries in major cities of the United Sates.

For an extensive survey of the Puerto Rican artistic presence in the barrio, see the essay by Diógenes Ballester titled “ Aesthetic Development of Puerto Rican Visual Arts in New York as part of the Diaspora: The Epitaph of the Barrio,” in the catalogue Homenaje Alma Boricua: XXX Aniversario, Nerw York:Taller Boricua, Museo de las Americas, 2001-2002, pp.28-29

Quoted by Shifra M. Goldman in the catalogue Spirits: Paintings by Diógenes Ballester, San Francisco Calif., Washington Square Gallery, 1995, p.7. See Serge Guilbaut, How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art: Abstract Expressionism, Freedom and the Cold War, trans. By Arthur Goldhammer, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983.

Title of exhibit for Diógenes Ballester at the Centro Gallery. Hunter College, New York, 2004

Anita Brenner, Idols Behind Altars: The Story of the Mexican Spirit, Boston: Beacon Press, 1929/1970.