DENVER — For centuries, the people of the Caribbean have found themselves in a precarious position: Do we leave our homes by force, or do we stay on the islands to await freedom that may never come? Following our arrival on the mainland, many of us attempted to mimic our island communities after living in predominantly Puerto Rican/Cuban neighborhoods on the East Coast. I found myself living in Denver wondering, where are the artists of the Caribbean?
Through word of mouth and focused research, I connected with Lares Feliciano, Ramón Bonilla, Diego Rodriguez-Warner, and Viktor El-Saieh to explore not only their work but the possibility that they, too, pined for a Caribbean artistic community in the Mile High City.
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Lares Feliciano, a mixed-race Disaporican interdisciplinary artist and cultural worker, uses animation, installation, and collage to create worlds where marginalized experiences are front and center. “The purposeful consequence of colonialism is to spread us far from each other so that we can’t find one another and we are isolated,” she says. “So, it’s not surprising that it’s difficult, but we are here!”
Feliciano is developing a project titled Diasporican — by interviewing Puerto Ricans across Colorado she hopes to understand the breadth of community that is accessible for future endeavors and exhibitions. “The nature of the relationship the United States has with the [Caribbean] islands makes me feel as though it’s urgent to get our story out. It has always been urgent but many on the mainland don’t understand who we are, what our history is, our culture, what we’ve gone through, and what we continue to go through.”
Ramón Bonilla is a Denver-based artist with a BFA from Escuela de Artes Plásticas y Diseño de San Juan, Puerto Rico, whose artwork examines the concept of place through landscape and architecture by integrating a seminal approach to minimalism, geometry, brutalism, and low-poly art.
Bonilla assured me, “Community building among Denver-based Caribbean artists can help with gaining access to opportunities and resources as a group. More importantly, a joint effort can also allow this creative community to establish a noticeable presence in the area that can be used to educate others about identity, art, history, and culture related to the Caribbean experience.”
Only recently has Bonilla become aware of other artists from the Caribbean or of Caribbean heritage in the Denver area. “Conversations and collaboration are needed in order to hopefully bridge gaps that exist within this creative community and also with their potential audiences,” he says.
For Latino Americano mixed-media artist Diego Rodriguez-Warner whose work combines printmaking, collage, and painting, resulting in compositions of overlapping figurative forms (his exhibition Iteratives at Rule Gallery runs from August 4 to September 17), community is more of a solitary endeavor. “Whenever I try to get involved [in the community], it always seems like there’s an expectation that I be something that I’m not.” Rodriguez-Warner’s work points to the tension and inner turmoil caused by deciding between community and personal identity.
“I feel, in a sense, that there’s a vibrating contradiction within my work,” he says, “There’s a contentiousness and argument within myself about which one of these things is the ‘true self’ and which one bears leaning into. I’ve become more and more comfortable with the contradiction.” For many artists, the community of one is not only understandable, it is necessary.
Other artists find that their work can’t be separated from the signature Caribbean style but question if either fits into the Denver market. For instance, artist Viktor El-Saieh’s work draws from the folklore, myths, traditions, and political leaders that shape Haitian culture. “I curated an introduction to contemporary Haitian art at a local gallery because I wasn’t sure if Haitian art had context here. It was a really great experience overall and everybody who came was really engaged with the work, but Denver has ended up being more of a quiet place to work for me. Not so much the place where I show my work because there just doesn’t seem to be an audience for it.”
How can Caribbean artists thrive if the market does not see their work as having value? Though the work can bridge gaps and cross divides, is it something that the Denver art scene even wants to engage with?
Although there isn’t a manual on how Caribbean artists can build community, nor will everyone agree on its definition, there are some opportunities for increased visibility, new discussions, and potential change. For example, RedLine’s 48 Hours of Socially Engaged Art and Conversation Summit, with the 2022–23 theme Roots Radical, could provide an ideal launching point. The two-day free annual event seeks to engage in conversations about “cultural responsiveness, social responsibility, and collective leadership,” as the program description explains. Hopefully, Caribbean artists in Denver will answer the call, expanding the ripples of possibility that have already begun to spread.