Yelaine Rodriguez at the CUNY Dominican Studies Institute Archives and Library, November 23, 2021
Yelaine Rodriguez, the Bronx-based Dominican interdisciplinary artist, curator, and educator best known for her bold wearable art and site-specific installations on Afro-syncretic traditions, has donated a part of her personal archive to the CUNY Dominican Studies Institute Library. The Yelaine Rodriguez archive, which currently consists of ephemera, will grow over time to include additional research papers, lectures, correspondence, sketches, photographs, and videos.
In the email interview that follows, Yelaine Rodriguez discusses what informs and influences her work through the course of her journey up until now.
1. What path did you take to become an artist and curator?
Y: I like to think that I was always an artist, curating came second. I grew up within a family of artists. As the youngest in my family, I observed everything. With a mother as a hairdresser, a grandmother that constantly crocheted, an older brother into comic books, and with an older sister in the illustration department at Parsons, creativity always surrounded me. My older sister struggled after graduating from Parsons because she did not have elders as an example in the field to guide her. As a result, my mother was very skeptical about her children taking on a career in the arts. Therefore, I decided on a BFA in fashion design. My thought process was that a degree in fashion design would provide financial stability while in a creative field. Ironically the fashion industry was one of the first industries negatively impacted by the pandemic.
For a while, being in the fashion industry allowed me to fund my art and other creative interest, but it wasn’t my main focus. When I graduated from Parsons, I went to Altos de Chavon in La Romana, the Dominican Republic as a Teacher Assistant and Resident Assistant in 2013. During that time, the Dominican Republic was in the middle of a human rights violation case with neighboring country Haiti. The Dominican government implemented a new law rendering Dominicans of Haitian descent stateless. At the time, I didn’t consider myself very political. I would attend protests and community meetings to lend my support, but I wanted to do something that felt more natural to me. That was when my journey as a curator came to fruition. I saw curating as a classroom, as an opportunity for gathering and sharing ideas, and since then, I have tried to maintain that same sentiment in every exhibit I do.
2. La Lucha exhibition series was groundbreaking, provocative, and enlightening for people of Dominican and Haitian descent seeking to educate themselves and find creative spaces to have a conversation about the Dominican and Haitian communities' shared history. Can you talk about its origins and trajectory?
Y: La Lucha came about during a time of political unrest in the Dominican Republic. In 2013 while on the island working as a teaching assistant and resident assistant, I found myself in an ironic situation. I was in a bubble of like-minded creative people talking about the political issues in a safe place while our community was out in the street fighting against the injustice implemented by the Dominican government. I wanted to do something about it, but I wasn’t sure what would be the best use of my time. While hearing some Dominican nationalists use language as an excuse to other their brothers and sisters from Haiti made me think of using art as a communication tool. I had no idea how to put together an exhibition or where to begin, so I approached galleries in the Dominican Republic. Of course, they all turned me down, saying that the topic was too political, thus forcing me to take my exhibition idea to New York. In New York, I soon realized that even in this so-called melting pot, we are divided. Through word-of-mouth recommendations, I commenced meeting artists all over the city of Dominican and Haitian descent. The first exhibition, which took place on a cold February evening in 2015, brought in a significantly large crowd. Every 30-mins, I had to send people out of the exhibition space to bring a new crowd in. That night even a group of Dominican nationalists came to protest. I didn’t realize how many emotions this exhibit would trigger. Good or bad, it sparked a conversation making it a success in my eyes. All I wanted with this series was to bring the community together to celebrate our similarities and our differences. Three exhibitions later, those artists are still in my life. It is great to see how to this day, various members of the collective have continued to foster their relationship with each other. Additionally, to witness the several projects that have emerged as a result. I am pleased to say that I was able to do that.
3. What social, artistic, and political perspectives inform your work?
Y: Themes around post-coloniality, slavery, and identity formation within the Afro-Caribbean and Afro-Latinx communities regularly circulate and inform my work. Afro-syncretism as a connector to the past, present, and future within African diasporic communities is of uttermost importance and dominant factor within my artistic and curatorial practices. I research sites of historically significant (both nature and architecture ruins alike) throughout the Caribbean and the United States to reimagine new perspectives and alternative futures through wearable art, photography, and video documentation. My work lives simultaneously between the past and the present. I source archival material and consult with the African diasporic communities I am connected to, thus creating images that speak to the collective experience. I am also particularly interested in gentrification and the changing landscape. I often ask myself who were the original inhabitants of this location before selecting a site for my shoots? Who is currently living here, and who will eventually end up here? Asking myself these questions helps me construct a more rounded project, holds me accountable, and keeps me informed.
4. One can find many influences in your fashion practice. Can you discuss specifically the role of Afro-Latinx and Caribbean religions in your fashion art and as a curator?
Y: I started researching Afro-syncretic religions in the Dominican Republic and Haiti out of curiosity. Growing up, I saw bits and pieces of these traditions scattered around in various Afro-Latinx homes, but it was never fully passed down or openly spoken about to me. While researching in my early twenties, I was intrigued by the similarities and differences between these religions. Geography and language truly reconstruct how people practice and interpret these African traditions. It became evident that Afro-syncretic religions are connectors to our ancestors and each other no matter what language we speak or our geographical location. I was also interested in how others outside of these cultures negatively perceived these Afro-centered traditions. In addition, how the colonial mindset is still a factor that removes us from our roots. Because even within Black communities, we condemn Afro-syncretic religions while embracing Christianity. Through my artistic practice, I seek to create images that break away from these negative stereotypes. Images that celebrate Black Latinidad and African diasporic communities while recognizing the past. As a curator, I strive to provide a platform where other Afro-Latinx and Caribbean artists exploring themes of spirituality and coloniality could have a voice. Also to highlight our African roots within vernacular cultures and the quotidian.
5. How do you engage with historical materials when curating an exhibition and as an artist?
Y: As an artist, I use historical material as inspiration. I find historical accounts, read them against the grain, and reinterpret them within my artistic practice. I rarely take the archives as absolute facts. I take into consideration the archivist and their purpose? . What was the archivist's intention in preserving these materials or their bias? I usually pull from colonial archives, hence why I am skeptical about my findings. Yet, I use the opportunity to reimagine history and give a voice to those silenced or erased by colonial archives. I see myself traveling more in the future. I intend to visit these historical sites mentioned in the archival materials I've found, incorporating them into my photography and video work, as a practice of accountability and preservation.
6. Can you tell us more about your experience directing and producing the chamber opera EBBÓ? What were some of the new elements that you introduced to this piece?
Y: EBBÓ originally premiered in 1998. It is a chamber opera based in Cuba, highlighting themes and elements found in Santeria throughout the narrative by Cuban composer Louis Aguirre and librettist Rafael Almanza. This interpretation of EBBÓ was commissioned by the America Society, specifically for online viewing. Set in the Dominican Republic, I envision EBBÓ in two ruins connected to the colonial and slave period of Hispaniola. I brought this opera to Ingenio Boca de Nigua, where the first documentation of Black resistance took place in the entire island of Hispaniola. It was a rebellion organized by an enslaved woman in the 1700s by the name of Ana Maria. I found her story to have some similarities with the protagonist of EBBÓ, making these ruins the perfect location for the film. It was also the longest short film I have done, as of today, incorporating dancers from the Dominican Republic. It was such a great experience working on this film on the island with a full Dominican cast and crew. This opportunity allowed me to join my interest in Dominican history, specifically history connected to acts of rebellion and resistance, with Afro-syncretism.
7. You recently submitted your Master’s thesis, “The Ghost Personified: Race, Museum Exclusionary Practices, and Archival silences in Dominicanyork art,” for the Latin American and Caribbean Studies / Museum Studies program at New York University. Can you discuss what motivated you to conduct research and write about this topic? In addition, what were some of the challenges with researching and writing this thesis?
Y: I am well aware that my efforts are part of a continuous dialogue and collective struggle. My goal for my thesis paper was to highlight the Dominican York artists that paved the way for me and my contemporaries. My thesis thus celebrates Dominican York artists and illustrates the collective and individual efforts made by Dominican York artists to heighten visibility within US and Dominican visual culture discourse. My motivation for this thesis was personal as a self-identifying Dominican York artist with an outsider/insider disposition in the Dominican Republic and the States. I wanted to highlight that Dominican York art is Dominican and American art. Therefore, it should be readdressed as such within museum institutions across the United States and the Dominican Republic. I interviewed three Dominican York artists from distinctive generations spanning from the 1960s to the 1990s. My goal was to demonstrate how artists have inched towards cultural equity, providing stepping stones for the next generations. However, I also wanted to showcase that despite these strides, Dominican York artists have yet to reach a higher position within the art world as their contemporaries (Nuyorican), regardless of being one of the largest immigrant populations in New York.
Researching during the pandemic was a great challenge. However, I was able to rely on a robust community that was eager to share resources such as books and articles from their private archives. I was able to do this due to years of community building through my cultural collective of La Lucha: Dominican Republic and Haiti, One Island that allowed me to build a family of artists throughout the year. I employ my community back on the island to get resources that have not been archived, either because of lack of resources or other hierarchical political reasons. Without this community, a thesis such as this would have been impossible to complete. Most of my archival material was from personal archives. This experience made me come to the realization that there is much to be done as our story is scattered around in fragmented pieces. One of the articles that informed my work was an interview by Felix Disla that you shared with me. Via social media, I tracked down one of his former students who had a book by Disla that was out of print and was not in any of the libraries in NY. A friend of mine met up with Disla former student and scanned it for me. In the article, there was mention of an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum curated by Disla. I reached out to Suhaly Bautista-Carolina that currently works at the Met, whom I have known for years, and she was able to track down a copy of the invitation. Without my community, my thesis wouldn't be possible. It is a collective effort.
8. Lastly, would you like to share any entertaining anecdotes or details from past exhibitions in this collection that make them particularly interesting?
Y: The first exhibition of La Lucha: Dominican Republic and Haiti, One Island, as I mentioned earlier, was protested by a group of Dominican nationalists. That evening they handed out fliers condemning the exhibition and challenging my character. Days leading to the opening, I found myself erasing hate messages on the Facebook invite. I did not want this negativity amongst my community. However, it got to a point it was overwhelming, and I decided people should see them. I didn't know we would get protestors during opening night. However, reading their article motivated me even more. It showed me how much work we have ahead of us, especially when people from the same cultural background have such polarizing points of view about our history. I found this piece and would love to add it to the archives.
Close up on the materials donated to the library
We would like to express our gratitude once again for Yelaine donating these materials to the library, and we look forward to incorporating her work in the future alongside other artists through the digital project Dominican Artists in the United States to help further disseminate her work with researchers, students, teachers, and the general public.
Jhensen Ortiz, Librarian