Thursday, March 19, 2015

From the 90s: Michael Auld at Fondo del Sol

For TBT, this is one of my reviews originally written and published in the late 1990s. I've updated the links.
Michael Auld at Fondo del Sol: An Art Review
By F. Lennox Campello

Originally Published in Visions Magazine for the Arts
I remember as a little boy the story of Hatuey, told to me by my grandmother, who had been raised as a little girl in Cuba. Hatuey was a Taino Indian Chief from the island of Hispaniola who was a witness to the atrocities the Spaniards were committing upon his people. 

The Hispaniola Tainos had received Columbus and his fellow Europeans with open arms, and the Spaniards had brutalized the Indians in return. Hatuey sailed to neighboring Cuba and warned the Cuban Tainos about the Europeans. 

When Columbus and his ships showed up, they were received not with open arms but with armed resistance. Eventually Hatuey was captured by the Spaniards and prepared for burning at the stake. 

A Spanish priest asked Hatuey if he wanted to repent from his sins and be baptized before being burned at the stake. The baptism, promised the priest, would ensure that Hatuey go to heaven and live happily among the Christians. Hatuey asked if the bearded white men would go to heaven when they too died. The priest nodded yes and said that the Spaniards would go to heaven because they were good Christians. 

"In that case," replied Hatuey as the flames began to lick at his feet, "I want to go to hell."
Just like my grandmother, I have always believed and been told that the Caribbean Indians, comprised of the peaceful Tainos, the warlike Caribs and the Arawaks were all extinct as a result of mass suicide, murder, disease and Spanish enslavement. 

We were all wrong! The Fondo del Sol Visual Arts Center in Washington currently has on display an extraordinary exhibit by sculptor Michael Auld which not only pays homage to many of the Caribbean Indians' legends and stories, but also offers (via two fascinating videos), clear evidence that descendants of the Caribbean Indians still live in isolated, mountainous areas of the Caribbean islands. 

The exhibition's center piece is an extraordinary wooden sculpture of Itiba Cahubaba, the legendary Earth mother of Taino legend. This stunning piece depicts the Earth mother giving birth simultaneously to two sets of twins, who became the fathers of mankind. This is a gripping piece not only because of its artistic value, but more importantly because it marks the rebirth of Taino culture after nearly 500 years of being nearly forgotten, erased and virtually destroyed. 

Also on display are three large wooden totemic sculptures depicting three stories in the Spanish conquest of the islands. The Hatuey story is here, as well as the story of the rape of a Carib woman by Spanish Conquistador Miguel de Cuneo, recorded in his own words: "I captured a very beautiful Carib woman, who the Admiral gave to me... I conceived a desire to take my pleasure... but she did not want it... I beat her with a rope...Finally we came to terms...She seemed to be brought up in a school of harlots."
The third piece represents the drowning of a Spaniard by Cuban Tainos. The Spaniards had passed themselves as Gods, and the Cuban Indians decided to test this claim, and one day submerged one of the Conquistadores under water in a river. When he died, the Indians realized that he was a mere human, and the word quickly spread to other Indians on the island and the Europeans had to fight from there on. 

There are many great pieces on exhibition at the Center, and the show establishes Michael Auld (who was born in Jamaica) as one of the best sculptors in the city, but it equally re-affirms the importance of a place like the Fondo del Sol, which gives artists like Auld an opportunity to exhibit work which most commercial galleries and museums would ignore. 

Furthermore, the evidence recorded in video by Auld (during a visit to the island of Dominica in 1992), which depicts visual evidence of a supposedly "extinct" people holding on to a remote enclave in the north of the island, is a visceral reminder of a people nearly destroyed, almost erased and yet shouting to be heard. 

This is an extraordinary, seminal yet important show, which for the first time in art history presents a people's cultural ancestry being rediscovered via contemporary art. Mr. Auld, and just as importantly, the Fondo del Sol Visual Arts Center are to be complemented and honored for delivering this exhibition, and I hope the Smithsonian anthropologists and historians are listening! 

The Fondo del Sol (which is run by its exuberant, Havana-born director Marc Zuver), is an artist-run alternative museum located at 2112 R Street, NW in the Dupont Circle area of Washington, D.C. The exhibit closes on February 10, and the museum can be reached at (202) 483-2777.