On October 27th, 2016, the Inter-American Development Bank opened the exhibition Resilience: Reclaiming History and the Dominican Diaspora, which addresses the social role of artists through the lens of Dominican-Americans negotiating the history of the Trujillo regime in the Dominican Republic.
This conversation, between Jonathan Goldman, the IDB’s curator, and Eduardo Diaz, the Director of the Smithsonian Latino Center seeks to unpack the various topics brought forth by the exhibition, including the role of diasporas in American society and the social contributions made by artists and art institutions.
(JG) The IDB’s latest exhibit, Resilience: Reclaiming History and the Dominican Diaspora, discusses the ways in which artists can reflect on, reclaim, and adapt historical narratives in the wake of tragedy. With this in mind, how do you think this exhibition specifically addresses the needs of the Dominican community in the United States?
(ED) In order to understand the totality of the Dominican-American experience in the United States, you need to know the basics of Dominican history – what happened on the island. It’s funny because while we’re talking here there’s another meeting going on in my office that’s dealing with the indigenous legacies of the Caribbean. That’s the first big tragedy of Hispaniola – Haiti and the Dominican Republic – the arrival of the Europeans and the decimation of the indigenous cultures and peoples on the island and the rest of the Caribbean. In the case of the Dominicans, you can deal with a lot of traumas: the US invasion of 1916 and, of course, what this exhibit addresses – the brutality and impact of the Trujillo dictatorship.
So I think that those experiences and traumas inform the Dominican-American experience. You can’t ignore them. What this exhibition, Resilience, does is that it gives these very thoughtful and talented artists the opportunity to really reflect in a way that cuts through what traditional art is about – what happened and how you view it and interpret it. How you demonstrate it and show it, visually. The message is very clear, I think, but they provide this unique perspective that I think helps anyone understand the trauma of the Trujillo dictatorship – and in doing so, helps create a better understanding of their experience in the United States.
(JG) Why do you think it is important to support artists of diasporas that have roots abroad?
(ED) The Dominican community is probably the fifth largest block in the American Latino community. It’s growing. It’s both immigrant and native born.
Our work is about the U.S. Latino community – but 35% of the [American Latino] population are immigrants, so of course we have to serve our immigrant community. Part of what the Latino Center is focused on is this nexus between country of origin and community of residence. There’s this fuzzy line – sort of gray area – that exists in these experiences. And, so while I’m committed to the Dominican experience in the United States, I also have to know about the Dominican experience on the island and its history to fully understand the Dominican-American experience.
You can’t say, “well, you know, they weren’t born here.” 35% of our [Latino]
community wasn’t born here. And for me, as the director of the Latino Center, to say we are only going to deal with the native-born U.S. citizens – that’s ridiculous. We need to deal with the multiple realities – the totality – of these experiences within the work that we do. The fact that they are here, that they contribute, the fact that they vote, and that they’re involved with community – that’s the reason why it’s important. They are part of our community. End of story.
(JG) How do artists specifically contribute to promoting positive impact in society?
(ED) I’m a veteran of the Chicano movement. I was in college [in San Diego] from 1968-1972. So, think of all that was going on in this country at that time. It was a lot. It was the height of the civil rights movement and the Chicano movement and I was very active with many marches and demonstrations and very involved with the Grape Boycott for the farm workers’ struggle.
During that time, the role of the artist was always foundational – fundamental to the movement. From theater – Teatro Campecino – to the work of the visual artists like José Montoya to the work of Juan Felipe Herrera, the current Poet Laureate of the United States. All these people, both in the performative and visual arts, were for me almost iconic. So, the role of the artist in society and the way that they interpret and provide leadership for the struggle of social justice is, for me, a given. In some ways its colored my view about the artist and their role in society. For me, this needs to be an activist role.
This is not to say that in my position I don’t support artistic projects or art exhibitions that are fundamentally about the art – that’s not what I’m saying. I’m just saying that personally the art that has social impact is, for me, the best art.
The work in this exhibition is great art – the technique, the craftsmanship – but the fact that it has added value aside from the purely aesthetic, that it has social value, allows it to provoke a conversation and a dialogue, which is fundamental.
(JG) How can we better support the social contributions made by artists and creative?
(ED) I’ll give you my experience. I’ve been in this business for 33 years. I think my work has been directed to creating opportunities for, in this case artists, and to have the work seen, researched, collected, written about, interpreted and contextualized through public and educational programs. Also, having the work digitized for web-based distribution. That is my job.
I think that [people in Latin America] can support their communities in the diaspora. They should be supporting exchanges – cross-cultural and multi-national exchanges, in my view. Just because you’re a member of a diaspora community doesn’t make you less of a member of a community of origin, I think. These transnational relationships are pretty natural now.
All those artists that are in the show – they go back and forth all the time. They live a culturally negotiated reality. That cultural negotiation is something that needs to be supported as much in-country, as much as we support it at the Smithsonian and at the Inter-American Development Bank. It was important for the Bank to recognize the value of this work and to bring it for people to see. I think it’s a good example of why it’s important to support artists who are part of the diaspora as a way of building the bridges and creating a dialogue in the country of origin and in the community of residence. It can only be for the better.
If you enjoy discovering the intersection between art, creativity, and social impact, be sure to check out more on this exhibition and the IDB’s past exhibitions at www.iadb.org/exhibitions