WASHINGTON HEIGHTS — Dominican and Haitian artists will come together for an exhibit exploring the sometimes-turbulent history between the two groups sharing the same Caribbean island.
“La Lucha, Quisqueya and Haiti: One Island,” opening next week at the Rio Penthouse Gallery, will feature works by 27 artists, including photographs, paintings, sculptures, clothing designs and live performances.
Yelaine Rodriguez, a 24-year-old Dominican-American fashion designer, is curating the show in partnership with the Haitian Cultural Exchange after spending time studying art in the Dominican Republic.
Rodriguez came up with the idea for “La Lucha” — which translates to "the struggle" or "the fight" — after attending the renowned art school Altos De Chavon. The curator, who was born and raised in The Bronx, was surprised by what she learned about Dominican history from veteran artists at Altos.
“They really educated me,” Rodriguez said. “Like about how we celebrate our independence from Haiti, but not from our colonizers. It showed me how we try to separate ourselves so much.”
She recognized the same division among the expatriate communities in New York City.
“I started researching artists and I realized that I didn’t know many Haitian artist, even though there are strong communities in Harlem and Brooklyn,” Rodriguez explained. “I realized that even in New York, we were separate.”
When she returned to the city, Rodriguez contacted Brooklyn-based nonprofit arts group the Haitian Cultural Exchange with the idea of organizing a group of Dominican and Haitian artists who could explore their shared history.
"La Lucha" is the first project to grow out of that effort.
Sable Smith, a Haitian-American artist, is contributing photographs from a larger video project she created on the role of memory in Haitian history.
“The relationship can be contentious,” Smith said of the Haitian-Dominican dynamic. “There is this tension, and sometimes that can seem like something that is almost inherited from one generation to the next.”
Smith’s piece, “Excerpts from the R&RDM Institute,” cuts up and remixes photographs and written recollections from two traumatic events in Haitian history: the 2010 earthquake and the Parsley Massacre. During the latter, tens of thousands of Haitians were killed under orders from Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo.
Smith said she’s not interested in laying blame, but rather in revealing parts of history that often get ignored in mainstream accounts.
“This piece is not to say that Dominicans are always repressing Haitians. That’s not the point at all,” she said. “It’s about giving agency to people to tell their own stories and creating a receptacle for that.”
Carlos Jesus Martinez Dominguez, a Dominican-American artist, hopes to challenge the idea that anti-Haitian sentiment in the Dominican Republic began — and ended — with Trujillo.
“People talk about Trujillo. He was a horrible man, but he’s also our biggest scapegoat,” Dominguez said. “We sum up our anti-Haitian history by saying it was his fault, when the problem started long before he was born.”
Dominguez created an installation with a sculpture framed by a wooden crate from the Dominican Republic and coins featuring the face of Juan Pablo Duarte, one of the country’s founding fathers, who helped free the Dominican Republic from a 22-year-long occupation by oppressive Haitian forces in 1844.
Dominquez sees Duarte as a starting point for much anti-Haitian sentiment in the country.
“I’m once again trying to point the finger at Duarte,” said Dominguez, who has created anti-Duarte pieces in the past. “It’s a lot harder to talk badly about him in the DR than it is to talk about George Washington here.”
All of the artists agreed that the most important thing was to create a space where the two communities could come together and discuss these issues.
“I’m really excited about how people have been responding,” Rodriguez said. “I see that a lot of us talk about this at home, but never try to bring it out to the real world…The response shows how much we really need this space for art and to come together.”
She hopes to follow up on “La Lucha” by hosting a similar exhibit in a largely Haitian neighborhood.
The exhibit will run from Feb. 6-27 at the Rio Penthouse Gallery, 10 Fort Washington Ave. The show includes an opening reception on Feb. 6 and an artists talk on Feb. 21.