Start with his body. A recent self-presentation involves painting his face blue and his body warm red in “Apito y Cenizas with Letter to Alberto” [plate 1]. Blue glitter and raw earth rest on his body. He considers the fingers of his left hand. The ashes of his grandmother are caught there.
Deepening a private ritual of remembrance, a painted-on ideograph with two spiral pattern emblazons his chest. The artist attributes the inspiration of this sign to the Hopi. In the iconography of Native American New Mexico and Arizona, spirals can symbolize breath, wind, and smoke. In addition, farther south, in Mexican antiquity, spiral-like scrolls, when drawn by the mouth, equal speech: a wind made of words. Signing his body with this powerful sign, the artist seems to invoke his grandmother’s protection in a way very special and secret: give us breath, give us life.
Blue glitter on his chest the artist relates to star dust or meteor debris. He is thinking of Kongo-Cuban mystic receptacles -prendas- opened in the night to absorb falling stars. He is mixing the ashes of his grandmother with glitter tinted blue, the color of heaven the color that evil can’t cross.
In another photograph, “Aracoel’s Ashes or Watching the Maize in the Altiplano” [plate 2] the camera pulls back, revealing the artist’s naked body. His grandmother’s ashes now rest in his
right hand. His nakedness emphasizes the seriousness of his ritual. Betancourt arranges his hands in two gestures, one to support traces of his ancestor, the other to display his body. The tension between ritual and narcissism adds intensity to the pose.
Betancourt knows that the body is the beginning of everything. The dawn of the image very likely emerged on the frame of a woman or man. What Betancourt writes on the chest and arms are letters and messages in mirror-writing. Why would a Puerto Rican-Cuban-American be interested in writing this way? For one thing he’s aware of the role mirrors play among followers of palo, the creolized religion of Kongo in the Caribbean and Miami. Embedding mirrors in horns, as an eye to infinity, is one of the ways paleros seek vision. Horns with a mirror (vititi menso), gives eyes to their altars.
Betanocurt, however, does not copy this tradition directly. He works with a mirror in his own private way. In “Self Portrait with Letter to Aracoel” [plate 3] he covers his body with a script to be read in a mirror. Death is a negative. So, in Kongo belief, all things reverse as they pass into glory. Betancourt writes to the other world backwards, in the terms of their optic. As he does so, he brings back his grandmother’s image. In a hand richly coated with the color of passion he holds a small photograph-showing her face when she was very young and unmarried.
The body-script unfolds very handsomely. Like a rock artist in South Africa, using a curved wall to add motion and dimension to a frieze of wild elands, Betancourt takes cues from the shapes of the human figure. Words fill in pectorals like paragraphs. The curve of shoulders cause curved lines of writing to march down the back.
Script on his face takes on strange power. Somehow the letter flatten the features. We associate writing with a base that is level, with the plane of a page. So letters overmaster the nose, eyes, and eyebrows, as if a pane of pure glass, overwritten with writing, were masking or obliterating his identity. Derrida was referring to more than he knew when he talked about the ‘violence of the letter’.
The mask of letters returns in “Lily, Obatala’ y Chichecastenango” [plate 4] where the eyes of a man, ( Alberto LaTorre, Miami ), emerge in dense script. An elegant ideograph, which the artist relates to the rain, cuts down from the subject’s neck to his shoulders, truncating the lines of his body. Mirror writing here is intended as a communication to Obatala’, the Yoruba god of creativity and justice, ‘he who turns blood into children’.
We come now to an ultimate mirror: the Atlantic Ocean, a mass liquid glass that extends to the edge of our continent. Betancourt plays with this splendor. Engagement with surf leads to various works. In “Untilted (Intersection)” [plate 5] a photograph reveals the artist on his back on a beach. A wave crashes over his body. Note the slight wince, as salt and cold water slap his face. The edge of the water becomes a garment of foam.
“Daca Bagua” [plate 6] mounts a frieze of seven photographs, seven takes of his face being hit by the sea. Foam crowns his head and water pulls his hair into filaments. Theartist is passive. He lets water work him.
In “Message to Caguana” [Plate 7] a man, (Richard Blanco, Connecticut ), rests on dry sand, at the top of a beach, facing down. Small tortoise claws rest on his back. The tortoise is an attribute of Caguana, Taino goddess who created mankind. The poet’s broad back becomes a page for a prayer. Black lines of writing match the lines of his hair. The letters are mysterious. Backwards numerals - 4, 5, 6, 7 - appear. They’re mysterious too. A hard, breathing body provides, one more time, a ground for a coded communication to a spirit. Deft cropping emphasizes the arms of the poet. It’s as if he were embracing the earth. Finally wave-like strong lines of prominent writing encircle his biceps and emphasize the ridge of his shoulders.
Working with body-script, viewed on the sand of a beach, leads to an exciting development. On the night of the equinox, March 19, 2000, Betancourt signed an entire beach with an ideograph [Plate 8, 9]. Like Serpent Mound in Ohio, or Nazca lines of Peru, his earthwork is meant to be read from above.
The construction entailed some two thousand five hundred African and Taino-like patterns carved out of wood, painted gleaming black, and set on two, three and four inch stilts in the sand, creating different planes. Three hundred feet long, the earthwork ran parallel to the beach opposite 21st Street in Miami Beach. Miami art enthusiasts celebrated this work as the first major project since Christo’s “Surrounded Islands”
The ideograph has a circular head, three bars as a chest, and legs that curl out like a tail. This was Betancourt’s “Sounds Symbols Project”. The figure, however enigmatic, is clearly celebratory. A jovial team, wearing T-shirts with the very same sign [plate 10], followed Betancourt’s specifications. They set up hundreds of miniatures sculptures in the sand within clearly marked-out areas and when they were done the ideograph was complete. Sound Symbols Project was popular. Betancourt, by request, will reward Miami with another strong beachwork, this one a figuration in color. It will have two arm-like extensions, round head, and anchor-like legs.
Malraux wrote in The Voices of Silence that art leaves us nothing but irreconcilable fragments. this is a council of defeat, postmodernist before its time. Betancourt with hard work, and openness to experience, will give us an antidote. He will reconcile the irreconcilable. How, please? Because he is willing to listen to all sides of an argument. In the many-languaged nature of his work he is arguing, like Bedia and Mendieta before him, equal potency for the Caribbean and the West.