My installation piece Memory of Nature: the Rhythm of Life is on display from October 7, 2016 to February 20, 2017 at the Museo de Arte de Ponce.
I call myself an Arteologist, or “artist-archaeologist”. I explore cultural and spiritual history to bridge us to our past, reaffirm our identity, and anchor us to our collective future. These ideas, which first emerged in my work in the 1980’s, have progressively expanded to incorporate Puerto Rican, Afro-Caribbean, Taoist, and now Vedic concepts and symbolism that speak of common denominators embedded in philosophical and mythological concepts created to understand the fundamental elements of life.
Offered as an installation art experience, Memory of nature: the Rhythm of Life reveals more than the objects of which it consists; more than the Museo de Arte de Ponce’s architectural skylight, letting the power of the Caribbean sun stream onto the space below; more than the room’s walls oriented to the four cardinal points, which define the space below the skylight; more than the four large encaustic paintings filled with symbolic figures, imagery, and colors of cultural and spiritual meaning that hang on those walls; more than the circular floor painting-assemblage of syncretized Afro-Caribbean / tattwa imbued energy perfectly encircled by the brass circle of the floor; more than the internet presented digital universal clock that directs attention to particular paintings as determined by the tattwa; more than the Artist’s Manifesto declaring a meaning derived in search for truth; more than the combined internet images of the floor piece, the manifesto, and the digital process of movement of time; more than the sum of its parts.
It is about energy, in particular the energy embodied in the symbols of tattwa, Taíno, and Puerto Rican/Afro-Caribbean syncretic beliefs. It includes the interactive energy flowing within and between the parts. It asks for a different focus with each new direction of the tattwas, with the movement of the audience across the floor piece. It is meant to be representative of the vibrant energies, primordial in nature. It speaks to the fundamental elements that sustain us. It emulates the breathing of life.
Symbols Embedded in Memory of Nature: the Rhythm of Life
Tattwa is a Sanskrit word meaning vibration of energy, representative of a belief system with origins as far back as 2000 BC, which uses geometric symbols with specific colors to describe the elements of ether, earth, fire, water, and air. The energy vibration of these elements is embodied in the universal cycle of life on earth, and its manifestation changes every twenty four minutes as the sun moves from one position to the next over the course of the day. The five tattwas are: 1) Akash, (center) the element of ether, symbolized by a black or indigo blue oval, which incorporates all of the other tattwas; 2) Vayu, (north) the air element, symbolized by a turquoise circle, which represents unity; 3) Tejas, (south) the element of fire, symbolized by a red triangle, which represents energy, electricity, perception; 4) Prithvi, (east) the earth element, symbolized by a yellow square, which represents realization; and 5) Apas, (west) the element water, symbolized by the white crescent moon, which represents emotions and magnetism.
The Taíno people, now extinct as a culture, were descendants of the Arawaks who inhabited the northern rim of South America and the Greater Antilles before Spanish colonization. Their philosophy appears to have been an animist form of panexperientialism in which every man, animal, vegetable, mineral, river, and hurricane had its own spirit and life energy. The multitude of spirits had the power of the supernatural. The configuration of supernatural power was the fundamental element of life. As manifested in archaeological artifacts carved in bone, wood, and stone, the Taíno portrayed concepts of life energy in symbols such as the cemí, a three-pointed triangle like form representing a deity or ancestral spirit. Many of their spiritual symbols are more amorphous such as the twins from which the Taíno believed life emanates.
Afro-Caribbean Puerto Ricans, stemming from the Yoruba of West Africa, followed religious beliefs and practices brought with them on slave ships to the New World. The seven deities of Orishas often represented by their associated colors are honored as energy forces. Chango, the Orisha of lightening, thunder, and fire is associated with red and white; Oshun goddess of sweetness, love and beauty with yellow and amber; Yemaya, the mother of all living things, who resides in the oceans is associated with blue and clear; Obatala, the oldest and wisest of the deities, king of peace and logic, with white; Orula, the knowing god of the oracles, with yellow or brown and green; Ogun the mighty warrior god of fire, iron, war, with green and black; and Elegua, the keeper of the crossroads, the knower of fate, with red and black. In addition, for many Puerto Ricans, the Madama, represented as an African woman with a turban, is indicative of protective energy, the mother of all things. The Congo, represented as an African male tribal figure is indicative of the mystical power of animals.
Individual Pieces of the Installation
Manifesto of an Arteologist (2016) is the center piece of the installation. It is representative of the tattwa Akash, from which all energy emanates. It includes the skylight of The Museo de Arte de Ponce radiating the vibrant energy of the sun; the circular floor piece below with painted African figures riding bicycles and projecting the geometric elements of the tattwas, cowrie shells suggestive of vibrant forces, and the deep black meditative oval of the element of ether. Within a box designed to look like a book are two tablets connected to the internet. The “book” is placed on a metal pedestal at the center of the floor installation, with a small painting of the oval mounted in the base of the pedestal.
The internet pages of this virtual book are themselves a collaborative art/computer science piece co-created with Jorge A. Gautier. The first page of the book (“clock one”) displays aspects of the floor drawing synchronized by a universal clock to the movement of the tattwas. The first step that Gautier took in creating the virtual page in harmony with the installation was to localize the start of the tattwa with the sunrise at the geographic location of Ponce. The time of sunrise in Ponce defines the beginning and thus all further movements of the major and minor intervals of the tattwas through the clock. Building on this basic information, Gautier then used details from the floor painting to depict each move from each tattwa energy to the next. He rotates and lights up each virtual image on the page indicating the tattwa that is the major energy force during the time frame and focusing attention towards the direction and wall painting for that tattwa.
On page two of the virtual book (“clock two”), Gautier uses graphical offsets and scaling to indicate the current major and minor variations of the five tattwa symbols as they pass through rotations of major and minor vibrations. The major tattwa is depicted by its painted symbol in the middle of the page. He uses opacity to indicate which of the five smaller painted images of the tattwas at the top of the page is the minor vibration. To achieve the animation, Gautier connects the drawing function to the web browser animation cycle and uses a physics inspired spring to interpolate "in between" values and achieve a smooth movement during transitions.
Vayú / Respirando (2013), on the north wall, integrates tattwas and Afro-Caribbean symbolism to capture the spiritual energy of air depicted by an African woman, the Madama, smoking a pipe. The tattwa of air, symbolized by brown muted turquoise circles, interplays with the oval for ether across the bottom of the piece. These are punctuated by two ovals centered with crosses bringing in a piece of Christianity. The woman wears a dress patterned with the geometric forms of the tattwas which alludes to light, perhaps coming from the sun or perhaps from the inner glow of the Madama. The Congo appears across the center of the painting as five African males moving in different directions. The piece, like air, is both heavy and light, dark and bright, ever present.
Akashic Archives (2014), on the south wall, represents the fire of Tejas with a powerful conflation of cultural and spiritual symbols and imagery to convey the electrifying energy of the cosmos. In this encaustic painting I integrate the symbolism of both tattwas and Afro-Caribbean mythology and spirituality. The center of the painting shows an African male figure, the Congo, whose body is composed of all five tattwa symbols. His foundation is the yellow square representing the earth; his abdomen is the white half-moon of water; his chest, including his heart, manifests the red triangle indicative of fire; his neck is surrounded by the purplish blue circle of air; the dark blue oval of ether sits on his head. A rainbow made up of the tattwa colors passes through the Congo’s body, absorbing and vibrating energy. Symbols of the Tattwas seem to dance around the figure. Three small African figures on bicycles, like the figures in the floor piece, ride on and through the vibrant rainbow. An even smaller African Madama powerfully anchors the right side of the painting. She is smoking a pipe or maybe meditating on the meaning of the universe.
Taíno Thought (2016) is on the east wall. This encaustic painting on linen is dominated by the depiction of the amorphous Taíno twins, painted in the earth brown colors of the Caribbean Islands. There are several cemís and small Taíno spirit-like faces dancing in the surrounding space anchored toward the bottom by a queen-like Cemí. The tattwa Prithvi, the earth element, is depicted through the use of rich yellow background color part of which is an outlined square. The geometric signs of the tattwas are found within the cemí on the right side of the Twins balanced by the Akash oval, the Tejas triangle, the Apas half-moon on the other side.
In Point of Origin (2010), on the west wall of the installation, I use West African symbolism, mythology and spirituality to address the profound experience of the origin of life. The painting includes a depiction of a fertility mask from the Ebo people of Nigeria with pregnant women dancing in a circle around a figure that I interpret as Oshun, the Yoruba goddess of sweetness, love, and beauty. Perched on top of the mask is a red Phoenix, which by myth dies and is reborn every five hundred years. There is also an African, perhaps Ebo male figure, obscured but a strong protective presence. The blue sea in the background brings into the piece the suggestion of water, the Atlantic connecting the Caribbean to Mother Africa, the place on earth where life originated. Although tattwa symbolism is not included in this piece, I correlate the painting with the tattwa Apas by hanging the piece on the west wall. I may also see a correlation between the fertility represented in the Ebo mask, the love of Oshun and the emotions and magnetism of water.
My work embodies stories and wisdom passed down by our collective ancestors. I apprehend, reconfigure, and re-contextualize fundamental meaning from cultural and spiritual symbols and mythology. These are then offered to the observer/participant as experiences that connect us with our past, help us make sense of the present and point with hope to a possible future grounded in meaning.
In Memory of Nature: the Rhythm of Life I integrated the tattwas with the Afro-Caribbean, and Taíno stories of my childhood. These are stories that connect both the Caribbean to West Africa across the Atlantic Ocean and East Africa to the land of the Sanskrit across the Indian Ocean. The world views embraced are linked by the intense Tropic of Cancer sun that warms the lands across which it moves, as seen streaming through the Museum’s skylight; by the common theme of respect for the fundamentals, which underpin existence; by an understanding of the elements as spiritual forces, which connect us to our earth and each other.
One wonders, why use the images of these ancient philosophical and mythological concepts of the fundamental elements of life to create works of art? What do these images and these concepts have to offer and convey to the public of the visual arts in the 21st century? What is their purpose and meaning?
It is precisely the importance of making sense of what is at issue in today's world that attracts me to the reconfiguration of these ancient ways of knowing. With global warming increasingly present in our lives, with natural disasters affecting the environments that must sustain us, with the need to exist sustainably with the natural environment, with the survival of the human species an approaching issue; we need a better way of understanding and living together in this world.
The concepts left to us by our ancestors, the images of balance and tranquility can teach us to reframe our existence on our planet. Maybe we can learn from them. This is the intentionality offered in Memory of Nature: the Rhythm of Life.