Scherezade Garcia was born in Santo Domingo. As a child she became involved in the arts by participating in projects that involved mural painting with visual artists Elias Delgado and Nidia Serra. She studied at Altos de Chavon/The School of Design, an affiliate of Parsons School of Design. In 1986, she moved to New York as a student at Parsons The New School of Design, where she obtained the Parsons Institutional Scholarship and the Dana Foundation Work Grant. Her work as a fine arts artist has been continuously exhibited throughout the United States, Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean since 1990. Her work frequently evokes memories of faraway home and the hopes and dreams that accompany planting roots in a new land. Garcia's work has been shown at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art in Washington, DC, El Museo del Barrio in NYC, The Housatonic Museum of Art in Connecticut, and El Museo de Arte Modernoin Santo Domingo. Her solo exhibitions have included "Paradise redefined" at Lehman College Art Gallery in the Bronx; "Island of many Gods" at the Salena Gallery, and "Theories of Freedom" at The Humanities Art Gallery at Long Island University in Brooklyn.
Garcia's work is multi-layered, vibrantly colorful, richly textured, and, as she stresses, always interdisciplinary, usually combining sculpture, painting or drawing, and written text. In it, she carefully joins everyday objects such as life jackets, inner tubes, suitcases, mattresses, tents, umbrellas, religious icons, and newspaper clippings together with her luminous paintings and drawings into a coherent whole. By turns lyrical, shocking, disarming, subtle, playful, confrontational and intellectual challenging, and often all of these things at once, the art is as versatile and multifaceted as the woman herself.
"The Dominican experience definitely informs my work," she tells me with enthusiasm. "Almost everything that I'm interested in has to do with diversity and freedom and what is new. What does that have to do with Dominicans? I will tell you. In this country we love to talk about diversity and freedom, freedom of speech, freedom of thought. We have to have tokens of diversity all over, which is almost fake, in that we have to work on it. But when you are from the Caribbean, which is the beginning of what the American experience is about, you cannot escape diversity, because you know, we already come to this continent and have the Taíno. Then the Europeans come, a very mixed people, because the people that came were the Spaniards from the Mediterranean, so that means they were a little bit North African, a little bit Arabs, a little bit of this and that and everybody else, as a consequence of empire. So they were mixed people. So we are mixed, then come the Spanish, the French, the Dutch, and so on. So for me, diversity is something I cannot escape. In many of my paintings almost all the characters have cinnamon color and my idea behind that is that by me combining all the colors to create cinnamon, because when you are trying to mix brown—the only way is to mix everything you have in your pallet, so by creating that, it's an action of diversity, and aesthetically, because it's cinnamon at the end, it's aesthetically diverse. So all my characters talk about everybody. It's an action of inclusion. So that's what my work has to do with my Dominican and Caribbean heritage." In contrast to the empty words or meaningless gestures she deplores, Garcia's art works offer a tangible representation of diversity through this active artistic choice.
Garcia takes great pleasure in contemplating her family history, in which the variety and complexity of the Caribbean are reflected strikingly. "I come from a family of people involved in the arts, involved in politics. My great-grandfather was the first lawyer of San Cristobal, the second town after the capital in the South. He was French and mulatto. That family, on my mother's side, came from Quebec, then to New Orleans, then to La Hispaniola. They went to Haiti as French people that were tutors to the kids of the white plantation owners, who wanted their kids to speak perfect French. The plantain owners brought people from France to educate the kids and usually they wanted to bring people with a family, so they would not mix. That's typical Europe, isn't it? They haven't changed at all. We haven't changed at all. When the situation with the black revolution in Haiti came about almost everybody was killed and my great-grandfather's uncle was killed because he was white so my great-great-grandfather decided to flee to the Dominican Republic. So the story goes thathe remarried—his wife had died—and he married a Dominican and went to the San Cristobal with his books, his only possessionat the time, and became a teacher. They founded the first French cemetery in the Dominican Republic, in the city of San Cristobal. On my father's side, it was a typical Spanish family from the north, involved in developing businesses, teaching, theater, and writing. When I grew up I was always very aware of my heritage in that sense. I also was surrounded in both sides of the family by strong women. My grandmother and great aunts were teachers. There were always stories about involvement in painting, in culture." Garcia's mother played and taught the piano, as well as working in the theater and studying folklore.
"I have always been deeply connected to and fascinated by history. There is a part of me that is very social. I love people, conversations, stories. My mother is very much like that. My father is a known designer—being a civil engineer, he designs bridges. So we are all in the arts somehow. My parents were very involved in the revolution in '65. They were socialists and very involved in that kind of '60s activism. I heard all these stories about the American Occupation, and I grew up during the Cold War, hearing constantly about the Soviet Union and Reagan, the threat of nuclear war. That framed many of my interests. Already when I was eight or ten years old in Santo Domingo, I was working on murals and had my picture in the paper because of that, along with my sister iliana emilia, an artist as well."
This engagement with political and social problems is vital to Garcia's vision of art as storytelling."If you really get close to my work you can see I am talking about things that are deep, about social issues. That is completely connected to my childhood and the conversations that were important in my family.
"As an artist the way that I work is that I become very much connected to books, information, and research before I start painting. I feel like I have to have the essence of whatever I am talking about. Then I am able to create or to formulate the story that is my inspiration. To get ownership of something, I have to have expertise."
In answer to my question about what response she seeks from the spectator, Garcia tells me, "My goal is to provoke thought. I want you to come out of my exhibition thinking, questioning: 'What if?' I love the 'what if.' I am very anti-dogmatic. I feel that dogmas reinforce our tendency as people to have a need for absolute answers, to make everything fit into a square. When I am doing anything, my main goal, as a teacher especially, is to open the mind. To free yourself. I hope that happens at my shows."
Garcia's work often addresses the consequences of the so-called "discovery" of America.I ask her about this theme and its importance to her. "The moment I am from the Caribbean," she says, "I am the direct consequence of the 'discovery.' … The 'discovery' is a term I use chronologically to allude to the events of 1492. We could write a whole chapter in a book about it. These people were more advanced than those people in Europe. When I think about the Aztecs, it is a crime what they did to those people. The 'New World' is the consequence of all the brutality that we see in the 'Discovery.'"
I further ask what inspires her choices of the objects she uses in her installations. There is, to be sure, nothing random about them. "I told you that I love people and their stories. But I also need to find symbols. I am anti-dogmatic so I don't want to tell obvious stories with pre-digested information. I play with symbols and reconstruct or recompose the clues of the story. Inner tubes are something I use constantly because it's a device that's able to float. For somebody from the Caribbean, who lived on these islands surrounded by water, for me the way to travel from one place to another which is also the consequence of what we are as people, we need to cross those oceans, those highways of water; so I always think these inner tubes, these floating devices are a way of salvation, because they can get you from one place to another. Those are devices that people use constantly. Dominicans use them to go to Puerto Rico. They actually cross the canal in those inner tubes. Cubans do the same thing. And if you just go around the planet, we will find situations like that in the Pacific Islanders or with Africans trying to get to Europe. We're always going to find this need. I always think of the Vikings, in the North as well. We have this need to see what is on the other side."
These symbolic objects, too, she reveals, are versatile, with multiple layers of meaning."With the inner tubes, I compose it in different ways, for example, I have one with golden inner tubes—called 'Cathedral'—deep in gold. I compose them as an altar—a tall building of inner tubes, almost. I was inspired by the story of an interview with a priest in Santo Domingo. He was saying, 'We have all these beautiful churches in America and of course maybe 200 feet away, on the other side, there was a gold mine. It tells a story about us. Everything is about money. 'We have to Christianize these people and steal everything too. Let's do everything at the same time, keep everything in the same neighborhood.' That's why I paint everything this need again of clearly and looking for salvation and escape but understanding that everything is about this need for riches. So, in the 'Cathedral,' going up, obviously searching for heaven, there is gold, representing earthly, material desire. But the whole piece is full of little milagros (small folk votive pieces). I use the iconography of Catholicism: the little prayers they give you in church, but with the text on the back in every language, basically alluding to the idea that this history doesn't belong to us, it belongs to everybody in different places. This idea of looking for something better, surviving, exploring, and suffering."
Acute specificity and precision in symbolism and method thus become interwoven in Garcia's piece with a confident reach toward the universally human. "I attach these inner tubes together with these safety ties. These plastic safety ties are used by immigration police all over the planet now, instead of handcuffs, because they are disposable. So I use that to show that it's an old story that is still new. Timeless. My installations start with drawings. A lot of paintings and drawings before I make a sculpture. It's always very interdisciplinary, but that factor has a reason. I am Caribbean so I have everything. I have Spanish, very Spanish in some ways. I have French, African, most likely a little bit Chinese, and Dutch. How can I be minimalist? Never. I love that I feel like I belong to so many cultures. I feel it in my skin. Everything has to be full of layers because of that."
Garcia finishes by telling me about an ongoing collaborative project that engages with another painfully real subject. "I am working on a project about the conflict between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. I started this whole thing in 2003. I started this project and presented it at the Haitian embassy in DC and they loved it. Then after that there was no money, then there was the earthquake.Dr. Edward Paulino, my good friend, who works on Dominican history, and I have been doing what I call pop-up projects in the Dominican Republic every October since 2012, so for three years now. We've been doing this project about collecting memories of the conflict between Dominicans and Haitians and how our history, even though different in many ways, is deeply intertwined. This is my new thing."
I note the prescience of the project, in view of developments in the past several years. "Yes, the tensions are up there. Last year I got a lot of hate e-mail on Facebook. But at the same time, just so you know, I got more emails of support, saying these solidarity actions are great, it's great that you are doing this, we are together. More of those than hate. It's a very hard issue. Every time we do this, it's the same. People want to reconcile. That is hope right there. I am not a believer that people have to be the same. I am not pretending that we can forget history. But we have to live with our differences. We don't have to be twins to agree on something. It's something I get emotional about. Everything Dominican and Haitian is close to my heart. In New York I have so many friends who are Haitians, and who are from everywhere. The distance can also give you a better perspective on things. Whether here or there, it's still the American experience, because I call the Caribbean the American experience."
Photo: William Vazquez Photography (www.williamvazquez.com)