The Inter-American Development Bank Staff Association Art Gallery invited Dominican artist Yoce Ramírez to present a series of works collectively titled Identity. Ramírez’s work consists of three discreet series linked by common subject matter addressing, as the title suggests, national and racial identity in her native country. Her interpretation of identity is a fresh departure from many of the identity-oriented exhibitions presented over the years by American artists in the DC region as Ramírez seeks to understand identity both at the individual level as well as on a collective or societal basis.
The three series presented can be broken down generally as follows: the first series identifies social practices in the Dominican Republic of which the artist is critical; the second addresses a personal reaction against such practices as the artist holds herself as a role model for young Dominican women; and, lastly, the artist examines Dominican multi-racial identity within the context of national identity.
Ramírez systematically addresses the idea of national identity in her work, understanding that society reflects itself, for better or for worse, in its citizens. Rather than taking on a series of general political critiques of her native Dominican Republic, Ramírez focuses on a single issue—the tolerated practice of older men dating adolescent girls. In Flor de Loto (Lotus Flower), an adolescent girl, dressed in what appears to be a school uniform, sits on the lap of an older man painted in green. While the expression “green with envy” may come to mind in English, in Spanish, viejo verde (green old man), roughly translates to “dirty old man.” Of this practice, Ramírez asks, “where are the parents, where is society, the government and the educators?” In Ramírez’s experience, many adults either look away, or worse, gently encourage adolescent girls to date older men as it may accord some financial benefit. But, in so doing, Ramírez understands that the girl in the relationship loses a part of herself—her youth. Ramírez calls this time of one’s life a “lotus flower” referring to the sacred Buddhist plant which represents overcoming materialism for spiritual gain.
In the next painting of the series, Imperio de una Cortesana Moderna (Empire of a Modern Courtesan), a young girl who dated older men has transitioned into adulthood. Possessing everything she could possibly want—a Mercedes Benz (she is holding the keys of her car in her hand), a designer handbag, expensive shoes and fashionable clothes —Ramírez has rendered all of the acquired material objects in color. In contrast, the subject, painted in grayscale, except for her hands and arms, looks at the viewer with great sadness. She has traded in her lotus flower for material wealth and has lost a part of life which she will never regain. The hardness of her expression suggests that she has become old before her time.
In reaction to Flor de Loto and Imperio de una Cortesana Moderna , Ramírez painted a series of self-portraits which provide an alternative path for adolescent girls and young women. As an educator and artist, Ramírez seeks to hold herself to a higher standard. However, she candidly describes her chosen path as one fraught with its own uncertainty and perils. By her own admission, Ramírez understands that she has taken a risk, particularly when it comes to earning a livelihood, by selecting a career as an artist. In Destino Ramírez takes her first step into the world as an adult. Doors around her open and selecting the right one presents its own set of challenges. In the painting, two figures, both representing her in movement, offer few details; her face, hands and feet are blurred, as if seen from a distance. Her brightly colored dress, painted in warm tones, stands in contrast to the cool palette of what lays ahead—her future. In Destino a Destiempo (Destiny at the Wrong Time), the artist has transitioned from the uncertain future she presented in Destino, to her chosen path as a visual artist; she understands that there is never a right time to leap forward. In Destino a Destiempo, Ramírez is strong, determined and confident. All of her facial features are clear, her dress has visible folds and the background has warmed with green tones laid over the black and white patterns replicated from Destino.
In the last of the series comprising Identity, Ramírez examines the ethnic makeup of her fellow Dominicans. The artist presents us with two portraits—one of a young woman simply titled Identidad (Identity) and another of a young man also titled Identidad . Ramírez used her friends as subjects to create both portraits as this subject is one of personal interest to her. In the Identidad portrait of the young woman, Ramírez suggests that the subject may be of indigenous origin; however she may be of European descent or of both ethnicities. In second portrait titled Identidad, the young man depicted is Dominican and of Haitian origin. Many Haitians have crossed the island’s common border into the Dominican Republic in search of economic opportunity but continue to face systematic discrimination, according to the artist. These two portraits, and the artist’s self-portraits, sample the diverse ethnic make-up of her native country. She explains that, “We may all look different and come from different backgrounds but, ultimately, are we not all Dominican?”
Thematically, the ideas of the first and second series engage with one another more directly while the third series, consisting of portraits, is relatively distinct. Visually, the paintings do not conflict with one another as discreet series sometimes can when exhibited together. In these works, the lessons presented by Ramírez have universal resonance. As Americans living in a time of increased racial polarization, we can learn a great deal from Ramírez’s representations of national and ethnic identity. Ramírez’s ideas show an extraordinary maturity for an artist of such a young age—she is only 30. In addition, her painting style, particularly the use of color which she deftly juxtaposes in large swatches while still maintaining transitional mid-tones between dark and light areas, reasserts my belief that painting continues to be relevant in the 21st Century. Fortunately, this young talent did not falter when enduring her “quarter-life crisis” as she describes in Destino and chose a career in the visual arts. We should expect to see great things coming from Ramírez in the near and not so distant future.
Identity is on view at IDB Staff Association Gallery through Friday August 9. The gallery is located on 13th Street between H and G Street Streets NW in downtown Washington DC across from Metro Center. For more information contact the gallery by email at idbsaARTgallery@iadb.org or by phone at 202-623-3635. The gallery’s website is www.idbstaffassociationartgallery.org.
Gallery hours are Monday through Friday, 1:00pm to 7:00pm