CARIBE (2002): Debora Ruth

In an age where visual media has a direct, and stressful correlation with our world, I am convinced of witnessing two extraordinary artists determined to energize your mind.  A narrative [voice] exists in all the works of Edouard Duval Carrié and Carlos Betancourt, each creating a perceptive dialogue of symbolism to unravel; a terminology that thrives daily in too many places to number, one that I have only partially used, whose pursuits to define have proven noble and richly exciting.  But with eyes fixed to the seas, the Tainos who saw the first arrival could never anticipate the events that would follow.  Soon the Spaniard’s shouts would last through the night, assaulting even the gentlest breeze.  In not so subtle ways, both artists revisit this rape and destruction with eyes wide open.  They target zealously the historical record of their respective countries, choosing direct methods to visually interact with the spiritual world, and especially their viewers.  And while Betancourt enacts events, how they may have occurred in graphic, cinematic scale, Carrié invokes voudon and it’s dialectic, baroque guises, to tell their stories of death and survival on two distinct but neighboring regions; these men who convey injustice with loaded messages.

As a result, both artists work intimately with symbolism, however, Betancourt opens the door of his studio, and seeks the coastal refuge of windswept trees, earth and ocean, site specific to where the Spaniards arrived.  His work is pensive, employing photography with hyper-real colors in their raw essence, compared to Carrié’s exotically creole palette and his many inferences to hardcore irony.  Each artist, in the process of shedding light on two cultures from long ago, deal with loss at a heightened sensitivity.  Their images radiate with electric sorrow for a heritage that evolved out of unbridled corruption, exile, massacre and fear.

In the work of Betancourt, there are no ships, or sails to be seen, and you want to believe it is the time, eras before, the arrival of the barbarians.  But the Spanish sword did silence tongues, as captivated in his works The Vague Year and Royal Palm Trees for the Horizon, forever affecting the evolution of indigenous cultures.  With different levels of irony, these photographs represent the life, death and resurrection of language - which is really the fundamental bond that sustains a society.  The backward inscription he imbues on the figures is appropriated from the letters of Bartolome de las Casas; rich, black, fluid penmanship almost identical to the sixteenth century author.  It is especially here that Betancourt’s images are a still frame in the life of the Taino during the chaos.

His image entitled Guanaboina (La Cueva Pintada) is by far the closest I have ever been to feeling the Taino woman/mother.  At first an innocent glimpse to a pre-columbian time, and then you notice the red markings on her arm in the shadows, and see the brief glimpse of her brown eyes, rapt with fear.  This juxtaposition of life bearing life and eminent death lingers in the mind long after the viewing, allowing for a tidal wave of psychological content to confront you in this ‘virtual’ look back into space and time.  Guanaboina is the deity that summons the power of Itiba Cahubaba - Earth Mother and symbol of what is ‘interior’, the mythic cave where the Taino originated, in this case, the figures’ living womb and the forest mercifully surrounding her.

Earth and water are key elements in Betancourt’s images, and like Carrié, they involve celestial forces and Afro-Caribbean symbolism.  A blending of religions that beckon our existence, the essence of which is colored by many layers of socio-historical knowledge.  A larger-than-life scale of his photographs, permit you to enter the environment and feel a closer affinity to the figures and brilliant details.  The incorporation of powder pigments mirror nature’s purest colors, summoning the gods of the Taino cosmos such as Boinayel and Guabancex onto living skin.  This action is comparable to Greek tragedy because it prompts us to recognize that as a thriving civilization, pain and torture were not the daily nourishment.  A striking duality surfaces, in that, with all the beauty and color of the image, it underscores and magnifies the grievous announcement of the near death of a beautiful culture.  Luckily we are blessed with several surviving tribes of original descendents who have formed an Inter-Tribal Council headed by Cacique Pedro Guanikeyu in the province of Caguana, Puerto Rico.  While Tainos are currently fighting for the rights to worship on their sacred lands, my prayer to this council is that they prosper, and keep their beliefs alive.

Through symbolism derived from Afro-Caribbean slaves, Betancourt offers a performative record that exacts, for me, a permanent connection to my consciousness, which not only requires, but begs further examination.  It was a unique privilege to visit his studio, seeing his images in their original home where fundamental aspects of his craft are laid out.  In place of aromatic turpentine is the aura of creative magic that explores concepts with diverse media such as textile, plaster, wood, and the invocation of gods, who were palpable.  A significant message written on his studio wall reads:“…odot ed etadreucA” (remember everything…), is very indicative of his art.

On the subject of in-depth examination, in a similar way, to experience Carrié’s work is to traverse the narrow terrain of Haiti and to walk above the paths of buried bones that have never left, since the beginning of time.  The artist emphasizes a baroque approach to express the compassion he feels with his country, which reflects its politically complex modes of existence.  In fact, his many skeletal figures invoke Baron Samedie (the voudon god of Death), whose typical appearance of top hat and black dress coat, was adopted by the tyrant leader Papa Doc Duvalier as intimidation.  It’s a clever combination of metaphor and ritual, which Carrié succeeds to invent. 

With shrewd ambiguity, he draws narratives of a thousand symbols, and his painterly journey to where the dead live is downright bohemian.  Entering the ‘opening night’ exhibit, the first room glowing in the red-orange lights of Ayizan Velekete and Agowe Taroyo, immediately transported me to New Orleans, thinking all the while that the cold, rainy, moonlit night was suspiciously appropriate.  One of the first paintings to visit your gaze is part of a series of six works of equal dimensions, “La Porte du Jardin”, which clearly represents the mother of all Haitian spirits Erzulie Dahomey and a beau, arriving near the port of Miami, just like the “rafters” before them.  In sixteenth century French wardrobe, the lovers mirror the legacies of Jean Jacques Dessalines and Toussaint Louverture who personified in dress, the commanders of the French insurgents.  Preferring to use strong political irony, Carrié suggests that even the gods are taking the rough ride to freedom; that one never knows where these gods will truly show up.

Walking through sirène mystères  to an adjacent room, a different mixed media image called “Papa Legba” has its own unique translation.  As the gatekeeper of the Grand Chemin (arc of the sun’s course and of the human life span), he is commonly depicted as an old man with a walking cane and a shoulder bag (macoute).  This loa is the first summoned to open the gate of communication between the worlds through the medium of the Poteau mitan (a ceremonial pole or tree).  Carrié depicts the traditional symbol that coincides with this spirit, a veve drawing colored in white lines that include a walking cane.  Elaborate signs of nkisi offerings, chains, metal tridents and veve drawings are just a few objects that can be identified in his work.  Furthermore, each symbol is faintly altered to create new meanings, and the vocabulary is vast, highly spiritual and complex. 

The term Voudon is defined in French as réglé, which means structure, order and form.  Ceremonies involve a houngan (priest) or mambo (priestess), and devotees of the local sect, who participate in dance and song, which are the strongest vehicles for trance and spiritual interchange.  Like the Kabbalah, only mature, ‘orthodox’ members are privy to Eskots - the secret language of Voudon.  Regarding Carrie’s use of this genre, art historian Charles Merewether insightfully reveals, “Duval brings back into the halls of the “civilized” contemporary art world a violence and enchantment which reverberates through the history of Haiti.  It reproduces the fetish-like spectacle of the sign as a magical emblem of liberation…and like ghede or the “Chaloskas” of carnivale, he brings a fearful laughter to this scene.” 




The Interview


?     Dear Carlos:


¤  In order to pose pertinent questions to you, I have a large amount of reading to accomplish - to this end, these are my preliminary questions that I will base most of my readings on:  First, in the Sounds & Symbols installations, what is the literal/written meaning of the small symbols within the large icon?  I understood that they are a mixture of traditional and imaginary symbols.  They appear to form typography of a statement, similar to stele writings - I would like to know any particulars (like exactly what the scriptural meaning is), which may not have been noted by Robert Farris Thompson in your artist statement.

Most of the symbols in the SSP are from developed from my own iconography, alphabet.  In my sketch book, a meaning or a letter/number association  is attributed to many of them.  In most of my work, the imagery remains secretive.  The subject, the words, the symbols and the color may exist in the works as ritualistic elements and someitmes the final work may be unltimately free of the polemics of reason and appealing under the realms of its secrets.

The SSP was the first large scale outdoor art work in which I had a complete natural setting to place my work at.  I played with nature, remorselessly, like Robert Farris says.  It is a Caribbean thing.... nature, language, mixing and blending, ...the Caribbean has been mixing races and cultures for a very long time, mostly in a harmonious way...I developed a harmonious relatinoship w/ nature early on, because of a very active oudoor lifestyle in Puerto Rico.  This relatinonship continuos to be an integral part in my work...

The SSP perimeter was placed during the vernal equinox, and its center was bisected by the rising sun, on that exact date.  The overal symbol is masuline and feminine.  Ribs are @ its center.


Was there music at this 24-hour event, and if so, what was playing, and is it possible to buy a recording? Yes, there were drummers performing in a very casual manner.  No, unfortunately, it was not recorded.  I do have some good photos of the performers, in the

circle of the form.  .

From the poems by Blanco, D’Aguilar and Campbell McGrath (Prof at FIU), can you specify which works were read?

I remember Cambell reading I believe it was called MANGROVIA, one of my favorite poems by this so talented poet.  Blanco, I believe one of the poems was Hiakutaki..They both read like 3 poems each.  Blanco read fron his award winning antology:  City of a Hundred Fires...( I have seen it @ Books and Books)

Please do contact him . It was a glorious sunset and the moon was rising right behind the poets as they read.  I remember calculating w/ nature...

Fred D' Aguiar had to cancel @ last minute, some complications he had out of town.


Are there photographs/music info on Light/Sound Projects for the following locations?

I will attach some of these.  I call this project temporal intervetnions (w/ nature)

? Caguana, PR

? Connecticut

? Savannah, GA

? California

? Teotihuacan, Mx

? Cuba ; can I get copies of photos?

? Bibliography of ritual imagery & symbolism.   The bookstore Ediciones Universal has ordered the book Ana Foruana for me, which they say is a source book for historic  Caribe symbols.  Is this a good reference book?  Lucky you


U  I’m reading Robert Farris Thompson’s “Face of the Gods” right now and noting his fantastic bibliography; ordered arqueological-linguistic book by Manuel Alvarez Nazario & also “El Mito Taino: Levi-Strauss.  Both are quite life enhancers.  You can see my small library when you feel neccesary


Once I do the extensive reading, art intake of Caribe, it will take up to 6 months of research before I can pose compelling or poignant questions relevant to your work.  Researching Caribbean symbolism or linguistics is new for me, and should be an eye opener.  If you have any suggestions, I would greatly appreciate it.


Thanking you in quantum magnitude, in advance, Debora


(If you prefer talking on the phone, or to arrange a meeting, my number is 954-893-5738)