Raelis Vasquez turns snapshots of Afro-Dominican life into paintings of belonging

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Written by Jasmine Hernandez, CNN

This feature is part of CNN Style’s new series with hyphenwhich explores the complex question of identity among minorities in the United States.
Raelis Vasquez, an artist based in New York and New Jersey, works from a bank of his memories and emotions to create tender and heartfelt paintings of Afro-Dominican life. Typically featuring loved ones and friends, the large-scale oil and acrylic works are cast in warm, welcoming colors. In one painting, a brown-skinned girl in a tubi, a tubular headdress made by Dominican women to preserve our parlor blowouts, is having breakfast. In other works, a black woman bottle-feeds her baby as she sits in a bright blue rocking chair, and a young black couple awaits their fate as they document their marriage on their wedding day.

Addressing race, class, and immigration, Vasquez draws on his first-hand experiences and those of his subjects. The genesis of Vasquez’s pieces begins with photographs, which he himself takes of family members in the United States or the Dominican Republic, portraying relaxed scenes with them that turn into deeper moments on canvas. .

“Noches en el Pueblo de Dios” (2020) 40″ x 60″, Oil, acrylic and oil stick on canvas. Credit: Courtesy of Raelis Vasquez

Two of his works are currently exhibited at the El Museo del Barrio in New York for “Estamos Bien — La Trienal 20/21” — the first and major survey of the museum of contemporary Latinx art, curated by an esteemed Dominican American artist Elia Alba. Vasquez is the youngest artist in the exhibition, and his paintings show the joy of lively gatherings in the campo (meaning rural areas or countryside in Spanish-speaking countries and within the Latin diaspora). “Noches en el Pueblo de Dios”, from 2020 (“Nights in Pueblo de Dios”), pays homage to the small town in which he grew up in the Dominican Republic, in the city of Mao, in the northwest, known for its many rivers and bright colors. red sunsets. In the painting, people of different skin colors gather for conversations and cervezas.

On the phone, Vasquez talks thoughtfully about a recent trip back to the island, his second visit so far in 2021. He recounts spending time with his brother and extended family in Mao and traveling around the country , in the coastal cities of Santo Domingo and Puerto Plata as well as Santiago.

"Market in Dajabon" (2021) 72" x72" Oil, acrylic and oil pastels on canvas.

“Mercado en Dajabon” (2021) 72″ x 72″ Oil, acrylic and oil pastels on canvas. Credit: Courtesy of Raelis Vasquez

“The Dominican Republic has so much beauty and so many great things to see and explore,” he said. “One of the main things, (especially) me being an artist, is being in the capital in Santo Domingo.”

For Vasquez, who immigrated with his family to New Jersey at the age of seven in 2002, coming home, reconnecting with his family and consuming Dominican culture is the creative nourishment that fuels his compelling and intimate paintings. . His most recent trip, he said, will be where he draws inspiration for his next works.

“I’m still working, I’m still capturing, I’m still writing and sketching, I’m reading,” he said of his time there. “I take time out of the day-to-day work in the studio and do this other type of work while I’m there.”

A larger representation

Although there is ultimately increased attention to contemporary latin art (distinct from Latin American art), the struggle continues to ensure Black, Indigenous, and Asian representation within Latin communities.
In recent years, exhibitions like “Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art“, and the great span”Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA“, which highlighted a plethora of Latinx dialogue in art (and also featured various Latin American dialogues), served as very broad, yet valid building blocks shaping American Latinx art. More specific shows like Pacha, Llaqta, Wasichay: indigenous space, modern architecture, new art,” which investigated Latinx artists and their relationship to Indigenous architectural and spatial settings of the Americas, and “syncretic afro‘, which showcased Blackness within the Latinx Diaspora, examining its connections to ideas such as beauty standards, music, food, and religion.
"Dajabon Del Otro Lado" (2020) 30" x48" oil, acrylic and oil stick on canvas.

“Del Otro Lado de Dajabon” (2020) 30″ x 48″ oil, acrylic and oil stick on canvas. Credit: Courtesy of Raelis Vasquez

Vasquez and other emerging black Latino contemporary artists such as Yelaine Rodriguez (who curated “Afro Syncretic”) and Joiri Minaya, continue to construct deeply nuanced black Latino narratives that artists like Fabiola Jean-Louis and Firelei Báez have created during more than a decade. These artists disrupt limited, monolithic ideas about Latinx identity (which racially center white Latinx and mixed race people by default) and explore the multidimensionality of Blackness. Vasquez does this simply by spotlighting his black Dominican loved ones in everyday scenes rendered monumental with genuine relatability.

“I would say that just by representing the culture that I come from, I give that Latinx identity a wider range of perceptions,” he said. “In the United States, people usually think of Latinx people, or Latin American people, in a certain way.” But, as Vasquez points out, the range of skin tones within her own family challenges that idea. “The way my family looks like, side by side, you’d think you talk about all of Latin America like, phenotypically,” he said. “I think it’s important to have more voices in these broad categories, so that we can really see the nuances and really appreciate the differences and the similarities, because we all have our similarities too.”

Grow as an artist

For Vasquez, art has long given him a sense of freedom and refuge in processing and praising his Afro-Dominican identity. He turned to drawing as a child as he culturally adapted to the United States, and by high school his talent had blossomed.

“I think it was a consequence of the immigration process,” he said. “It was the drawing, this thing that I could control in this environment (where) I felt really out of place, and in an environment that I couldn’t control.”

After attending a community college in New Jersey, he enrolled in the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), which, while prestigious, is not known for its diversity.

"Birthdays like ours" (2021) 36" x36" oil, acrylic and oil stick on canvas.

“Birthdays like ours” (2021) 36″ x 36″ oil, acrylic and oil stick on canvas. Credit: Courtesy of Raelis Vasquez

Vasquez used the time there to reflect on his sense of self, which became fundamental to his growth as an artist creating Black Latinx narratives.

“It allowed me to reflect on what I’ve been through, who I am (and) where I come from,” he said. “I think it took being out of this DR, New Jersey, East Coast, New York, very Caribbean culture, because once you’re there, you think everything’s normal, until you be removed from it.” In Chicago, he added, “it was the first time I started to think about the fact that we had immigrated.”

Now an MFA student at Columbia University, Vasquez’s career is thriving despite the uncertainty and frustration of the pandemic. Last September, Vasquez and fellow Afro-Dominican American painter Tiffany Alfonseca collaborated on a duo exhibition, “Como Nosotros Somos,” (“How We Are”) in Los Angeles, bringing together their figurative and dynamic approaches to the multi-layered experiences of Black Latinx identities. Last spring, Vasquez was included in “Broken glass“, a successful group exhibition at Jeffrey Deitch in Los Angeles, featuring black artists and POC curated by two young black curators, gallery director Melahn Frierson and AJ Girard. The exhibition included recent painting by Vasquez “Mercado en Dajabón”, which respectfully shows the daily survival of Haitian immigrants in the border town of Dajabón in the Dominican Republic.
"La Mesa Nuestra"(2021) 60" x84" Oil, acrylic and oil pastels on canvas.

“La Mesa Nuestra” (2021) 60″ x 84″ Oil, acrylic and oil pastels on canvas. Credit: Courtesy of Raelis Vasquez

Vasquez’s recent first international solo exhibition with De Buck Gallery in France, “Belleza Común (Common Beauty)featured six new works made in late 2020, combining oil, acrylic, oil stick, and sand. The portraits are reverent, pensive, and vulnerable. In “Picnic Day,” a family of four enjoys rest, recreation, food and sunshine, while in “El Sastre”, a tailor takes a contemplative interlude. Symbolically, these subjects represent Dominicans who come to Washington Heights and the Bronx in New York; Paterson, New Jersey; Boston, Massachusetts and Providence, Rhode Island; cities are running like clockwork, while breaking their backs and establishing new roots.
Next month, Vasquez has a second international solo exhibition in Frankfurt with Sakhile & Metitled “As We Were”, and this time he sources old family photos as a basis for the works.

“With this (upcoming exhibition in Frankfurt), I had to remove this control because I’m looking at old family photos that weren’t taken by me,” he explained. “I select (the images) and continue to do my process, inserting myself in ways that revitalize the moment, but I see it as a difference.”

Top picture: “Buen Provecho” (2020) 40″ x 60″ oil, acrylic and oil stick on canvas.

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