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Dominican York Proyecto GRAFICA’s Critical Trajectories

Essay by Maja Horn, Assistant Professor, Department of Spanish and Latin American Cultures, Barnard College.

I. Trajectories
“Here and There” showcases the second series of prints by the Dominican American collective Dominican York Proyecto GRAFICA (DYPG), composed of twelve artists of Dominican descent. The first series was presented at the group’s inaugural exhibit “Manifestaciones” in October 2010 at the Dominican Studies Institute at CUNY, and subsequently tra­ve­lled to a remarkable number of locations in the U.S. and abroad, including Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Dominican Republic, where the exhibit was shown at the Museo de Arte Moderno in Santo Domingo and the Palacio Consistorial in Santiago. The arrival of this Dominican American print collective in the Dominican art scene in the summer of 2011 was met with particular interest. Print, or “la gráfica,” has been an important artistic medium in the country since the 1960s, and in the past decade it has had an exciting resurgence under the name of “Gráfica Inde­pendiente,” with several art collectives (with names such as “La Vaina,” “La Sedería,” and “Modafoca”) forming around the medium. What unites DYPG with these collectives is a shared skepticism about dominant notions of Dominican identity. However, there are also important differences, especially as many of the Dominican collectives’ aesthetic strategies are informed by their members’ strong ties to the Dominican Republic’s burgeoning advertising industry. The work of DYPG, being less defined by a single professional and social context, can be argued to represent a greater diversity of experiences and aesthetic approaches. Indeed, alongside their collaborative efforts, each of the members of DYPG has followed an independent artistic trajectory as well. Many have lived and worked as artists both in the Dominican Republic and in the United States, and some have participated in the Dominican art biennials as well as in the “S-Files Biennials” at the Museo del Barrio, New York, whose permanent collection includes several of these artists’ works. Group members have also engaged in other collaborations, including with Chicano art groups and with renowned individual artists such as Keith Haring. And while some of the members are very experienced printmakers, others come to print from other media, including painting, drawing, photography, sculpture and installation. They bring thus a variety of backgrounds, styles and techniques to their print works and continue in “Here and There” the complex dialogue about notions of dominicanidad that they began with “Manifestaciones.”

II. Critical Intersections
“Manifestaciones” brought light to, or “manifested,” issues that affect and shape the reality of the Dominican diaspora, though rarely addressed in the United States or in the Dominican Republic. Through the juxtaposition of Dominican realities and imaginaries with American ones, many of those works provided equally a critical perspective on Dominican notions of race, gender, migration as on the narratives and symbols of the “American dream.” With “Here and There,” DYPG broadens and deepens these reflections, looking further back into the historical roots of Dominican culture and questioning more insistently ingrained forms of Dominican identity at home and abroad.
The works in this exhibit seek to capture the transformations that understandings of history and identity undergo in the critical diasporic imagination. Tellingly, the form that they have elected to dramatize the collisions of meanings that ensue from such reflections is the diptych.
This return to the past with an eye to its impact on the present is evident, for example, in Rider Ureña’s “Off Target,” a diptych juxtaposing a representation of the Dominican dictator Rafael L. Trujillo’s car, in which he was shot in 1961, with his assassins’ car. The title and the off-center target placed on both works seems to encourage the viewer to consider ways in which the assassination may have missed its target and aspects of the notorious dictatorship remain well alive. The lasting effects of the Trujillo dictatorship as well as the unequal power relations that have structured U.S.-Dominican relations since the nineteenth century are effectively brought to the fore in Yunior Chiqui Mendoza’s diptych, which features a U.S. penny with the iconic green and red houses from the game Monopoly and a Dominican centavo (the palm tree on which was one of the Trujillato’s principal symbols) below bingo game pieces. One image evokes the monopolizing economic power of the U.S.; the other dramatizes Dominican economic survival as rather more of a gamble. Given the stakes of these games, these two images insinuate a complex set of insights into luck, power, and cultural perspective.
These longstanding, complicated and often unequal linkages between the Dominican Republic and the United States are brought forth in Pepe Coronado’s piece “U.S./D.R. A Love-Hate Relationship.” By insisting on a much more long-ranging and intertwined history of these two countries, this diptych challenges the predominant story that Dominicans are simply one of the more recent additions to the waves of immigrants to the American “promised land.” This notion is also strongly challenged by Miguel Luciano’s piece “400 Años,” which provocatively insists that the roots of Dominican migration reach much further back, pointing to presumably the first Dominican immigrant, “Juan Rodrigues,” who arrived in what is now Manhattan in 1612. With a similar critical aim in mind, Reynaldo García Pantaleón’s work “Migrants/Settlers” interrogates the differentiation that tends to be made between so-called American “settlers” and “migrants.”
Many of the other works explore complex and layered notions of Dominican identity and its transformations. René de los Santos suggestively speaks of the multiple and at times contradictory facets of Dominican identity with his carnival mask wearers, whose rather somber faces contrast with the revelry, playfulness, and carelessness that is associated with the carnival. The instability of any singular notion of Dominican identity is humorously critiqued in Moses Ros-Súarez’s work, which posits that there is no one Dominican “gene,” and thus no essential Dominican identity, but instead there are certain shared customs related to food, fashion, music and tastes. These customary tastes, such as the traditional “habichuelas con dulce” that are eaten during the Catholic holy week, Carlos Almonte suggests in his piece, are placed in “indigenous” U.S. forms, here the ubiquitous New York City coffee cup, with its classical Greek design and its slogan “We are happy to serve you.” Such encounters of often incommensurate cultural values and practices in the context of the diaspora both leads to insistent transformations—portrayed poetically in Alex Guerrero’s work—but also to a melancholic remembrance of the past, as in Luanda Lozano’s “Memorias de mi Niñez,” and at times to a pervasive sense of loss, as in iliana emilia garcía’s “me&me/yo y yo.”
In turn, Scherezade García represents some of the very tangible “gains” that the Dominican diaspora brings for those left behind. She portrays the boxes full of goods that migrants send back en masse to the Dominican Republic, where they have improved, sustained, and “sweetened” countless lives. These forms of “returns,” the massive financial remittances that immigrants, and especially Dominicans, send back home have become a much-noted phenomenon in scholarship on migration. While “remittances” first referred to financial remittances, scholars, often by looking to the Dominican case, expanded this concept to consider the “social remittances,” and more recently, the “cultural remittances” or “returns,” that the diaspora sends back to the island. Without doubt, the collective Dominican York Proyecto GRAFICA, whose future projects will continue to contribute to the Dominican artistic landscape, must be considered such a “cultural remittance,” whose impact “at home” and the dialogues it produces will be fascinating to follow.

III. Collective Practices and Futures
For some of its upcoming projects the Dominican York Proyecto GRAFICA collective has decided to move towards new artistic terrain by beginning to work with other media, such as sculpture. Their expansion beyond print will instigate new conversations about and new methods for their collaborative practice. Print is often considered a particularly “democratic” art form because of its serial rather than just singular production of works, and until now the focus on print has greatly facilitated, because of size and cost, the exhibition of their work in multiple locations both locally and internationally. Indeed, the very process of printing produces forms of collaboration and sociality that the production of singular, individual works often precludes. While some of the print forms, such as inkjet printing, are easily produced individually, the screen printing through which most of the works in “Here and There” were produced is a laborious process that generally requires more than one set of hands to achieve the needed precision. Moreover, each color is printed separately, so that for example Carlos Almonte’s print required the image to be printed in twelve separate layers. The coordination of work schedules, the limited space available, and the many hours spent printing together gives the notion of “collective” a very real and lived meaning, one that will provide a crucial model for future non-print work. This meaning of “collective” is also much in evidence at the regular meetings, where a great effort is made to carry out decisions democratically, often through anonymous voting, giving the less outspoken members an equal voice in important decisions. Yet, what constrains democratic ideals in real political settings also is part of this group’s reality, where differing time availability, resources and experiences invariably influence the group’s decisions and trajectory. Nonetheless, the experience and success of the Dominican York Proyecto GRAFICA strongly suggests how the form of the collective, which can sound anachronistic, evocative of past times and of failed social experiments, can be relevant today, effectively allowing these Dominican artists to reach beyond the limits that they often encounter in the contemporary art world.

 

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Essay by Paula Gómez Jorge, Art Historian, Critic and Curator.

The identity and existential questioning that derives from the condition of migrating, of settling in a new territory and entering a new society, of being immigrant subjects—or the children of immigrants—that develop practices of transnational sociability are among the concerns addressed by the Dominican York Proyecto GRAFICA Collective (DYPG) in its newly-presented exhibition “Here & There,” which is being exhibited at the Diana Center at Barnard College in New York City.

This collective of Dominican artists, who mostly reside in the metropolitan area of New York, have in just two years been able to establish a group synergy that places its stamp, among other places, on the suggestive aesthetic quality of the exhibited work, its conceptual aplomb, the interesting formal experimentation and thematic variety in the context of the graphic arts that, in all its breadth, is the common medium of expression and research par excellence of DYPG.

Historically the presence of Dominican creators in the North American art scene had privileged the visibility of individual exhibitions. Today the Dominican artistic spectrum has been expanded and this exhibition strengthens it. It is a show that speaks of coexistence and of collaboration among creators who meet routinely to share knowledge, practices and aesthetics, articulating an artistic discourse in each porfolio with the intention of showing originality within the multiple.

The reflection about national identity that springs in a unique form in the space of diasporas is re-evaluated through the eyes of these artists. The approaches exposed in the Here & There porfolio lead us to recognize one of the most interesting aspects in the daily existence of the immigrant: the revival of the sense of belonging, the duality that comes from living in one geography but feeling a part of another, finally surrendering to the integration of both in a dynamic transcultural dialogue.

From this perspective the contributions of Carlos Almonte, Pepe Coronado, René de los Santos, iliana emilia García, Reynaldo García Pantaleón, Scherezade García, Alex Guerrero, Luanda Lozano, Miguel Luciano, Yunior Chiqui Mendoza, Moses Ros-Suárez and Rider Ureña enable new readings of the experience of migration based on an evolving and generative vision of sociocultural interconnections and not of a static process of unidirectional cultural assimilation. In this sense, in general, the works included in this exhibition refer to an enriching dialogue between the present and the past, at the same time being rich in semantic and symbolic content alluding to the transnational condition of their creators.

In the case of Carlos Almonte’s work, the contrast between the traditions belonging to the societies of origin and of destination exerts an important weight. In the screen print Habichuelas con dulce the artist maintains an intense contact with a pop aesthetic, demonstrating in his language his training as a graphic designer. Furthermore, he articulates elements that contradict all illusions of unity, producing a shock among seemingly irreconcilable aspects of culture. Almonte’s work suggests a vindication of aspects of Dominican tradition in the territory of the Diaspora, in the space of memory and remembrance, raising from this dualism a suggestive proposal: the lasting force of the traditional and its permanence vis-à-vis the standards imposed by consumer society.

The work of Pepe Coronado, U.S./D.R. A Love-Hate Relationship, reveals through an alluring visual iconography the intricate map of inter-territorial relations that have been historically built between the United States and the Dominican Republic. Coronado has translated the complexity of these relations in a screen print where one territory is visually interpenetrated by the other and vice versa. These juxtapositions reflected in the silhouettes of the maps of each nation in positive and negative, along with a circular movement, allude to a relation that is living and in permanent reinvention, where the existential, dissensions and concurrences, and political and social reflection are mixed together.

Meanwhile, the pieces created by René de los Santos for this porfolio are impregnated with forms and characters belonging to Dominican popular culture. In the series Fiesta de Lechones o Diablos cojuelos de la ciudad, the artist develops a visual narrative in which the Diablo Cojuelo or Lechón allows for his true sad face to be seen, while at the same wearing the mask of the devil, achieving an image of a man with two heads, which accentuates the dual nature of the carnival figure. De Los Santos emphasizes the psychological expressions of his protagonists, turning the mask—a principal object of the carnival aesthetic—into a screen that hides dreams and frustrations, limitations and yearnings.

Me/me (yo/yo), the visual contribution by iliana emilia, is anchored in the image of a chair built out of toy bricks (Lego) as a metaphor for critically reflecting on aspects of identity, transculturation, memory and the present. The handmade Dominican chair—which finds itself in “danger of extinction” in the face of an uncontrolled “invasion” of the modern industrial and plastic prototype—is a theme that iliana emilia has interpreted many times and in very diverse ways, but always with great eloquence. It can be said that it has become a clear source of inspiration that has led her to develop a body of work around Dominican tradition and visual history. Me/me (yo/yo) shines for its high aesthetic and conceptual quality, appealing to a monochromatic key that is achieved through the use of light and shadow. An optical illusion that repeats and multiplies the image emphasizes its sculptural force. Me/me (yo/yo) is a self-portrait, a toy and an evocation that replaces the original object.

The piece presented by Reynaldo García Pantaleón inscribes itself within a series of works based on expressionist figuration, in which feelings of drowning and confusion predominate through scenes of burgeoning crowds. Migrants/Settlers marks the overwhelming anxiety that the immigrant experiences in moving to strange lands, the feeling of rootlessness that will be at the forefront of his existential journey and personal and social wandering. García Pantaleón’s expressionist language convincingly addresses the chaotic rhythm of daily life in the metropolis. He has put his sights on intense urban scenes of crowds limited by multiple needs, in search of a new space, a new possession and a new home. The artist reveals the fragility of large masses in a fragmented reality, in perpetual movement, symbolically unified by a strand of hair.

Scherezade García, who since residing in New York has herself discovered the world of immigration, introduces us anew to her multifaceted artistic imagination that has been operating for a quarter of a century. On this occasion she mixes reflections about the new social and cultural reality that she lives in the diaspora and that leads her to a constant revision of themes such as identity, memory, utopia, power and fragility. In Piñata de Nueva Yol, her language integrates photography and drawing with a distinctive formal synthesis, in a refined critical attitude charged with irony about aspects of the Dominican social reality that are directly tied to that of Dominican immigrants in the country up north. Throughout her corpus of pictorial, audiovisual and installation work and in this print work, Scherezade constructs allegorical stories by bringing together elements of history, traditions and contemporary Dominican culture that are essential for understanding the interconnections between Dominicans “here” and “there.” The artist elaborates visually hybrid narratives that not only have as protagonists those who leave but also those who stay and the interdependent relations that develop between them.

Alex Guerrero’s graphic work Two in One also presents a strong imaginative and allegorical content that refers to the mythical symbol of the man who is transformed and turns into another being capable of reaching new spaces. Like the artist points out, his work gets close to the aesthetics of animated vignettes. Guerrero gives new meaning to geographic locations from the point of view of man fused with nature. In the pieces included in the exhibit he recreates new imaginations both real and invented, where the fantastic is intermixed with his existential reflections.

Luanda Lozano also plays with imagination and remembrance. In Memorias de mi Niñez, she embarks on a journey to childhood in which she is trapped between what is real and imaginary, what has stayed in her memory and what is now only forgotten. The past matters as an emotional evocation that recreates her personal reality and experience as an artist. Through the silhouette of heads that are juxtaposed with images of playful things recorded in her memory. An almost pictorial surface reminiscent of the presence of pure pigment unifies the composition, emphasizing the shadows and lights, achieving a hypnotic atmosphere that confronts us with our own memories and thoughts.
For his part, Miguel Luciano reveals his fascination—that is already a constant in his artistic production—with questioning the diversity of material records that establish the information of identity, the registers of human activity and the sense of its classification. The image of identity documents, passports, mail envelopes, bar codes and stamps are a few of the records appropriated in order to underline the high levels of manipulation and the absence of credibility in the data collected by censuses. For example, looking at migration statistics he highlights the way in which they don’t really take account of the human being that migrates or their story. The subject is simply reduced to a number. In his piece Juan Rodrigues / 400 years, he establishes a suggestive dialogue between the past and present. It consists of an ancient stamp, with a design that recreates the imagery of sixteenth-century European cartography, that is interposed with figures from actual census data of Dominican immigrants to the United States. The figure of the first immigrant to arrive from Hispaniola to “America”— Juan Rodrigues—is the pretext of the artist to bring us closer to one of the fundamental problems of the phenomenon of migration that is everywhere and touches all individuals directly and indirectly.

A dialogue with elements that refer to identity is a central theme in Moses Ros-Suárez’s universe. In his etching titled Sancochito Sabrosón & Musiquíta por Dentro, by means of a very personal visual iconography he focuses on elements such as music and popular Dominican cuisine, proposing a crossing of dialogue between the cultural and the genetic, the cellular memory and culture. With humor and abandon he creates a playful code of words in his visual discourse, building new semantic relations between the words “gene” and “jean” that detonate multiple sensitive possibilities beyond the visual. With a vibrant and expressive drawing the artist submerges us in the frenzy of the vibrant and rhythmic Caribbean music and in the prototypical corporal movement that is derived from mestizaje.

In Off Target Rider Ureña orients his critical sense towards the Trujillo Era. In his dialogue with this “dark segment” of Dominican history he creates an acute, compelling and iconic image that reproduces formally and conceptually the fall of that megalomaniacal figure. The artist retakes the images that circulated in the local and international press of the Cadillac luxury car inside which the dictator was mortally shot and achieves through the drawing of an off target rifle scope questions about up to what point was this death real. The artist seems to ask himself and others if traces of Trujillo’s harmful ideology still persist in the Dominican nation historically and in the present. His graphic contribution, realized with a woodcut technique on a car tire, feeds off the aesthetic codes of Pop Art, creating with his personal stamp an acute sense of a scathing and provoking critique directed at a specific target: the collective memory of immigrants.

Yunior Chiqui Mendoza in his work 2 Cents has preferred to question and enable new readings and feelings in themes that historically have permeated relations between the Dominican Republic and the United States: control and economic power. For that purpose, as a representative mode he has used a playful resource that is apparently inoffensive: popular board games such as Monopoly and Bingo. Two screen prints representing the image of two coins from both nations with loose pieces on their surface, like game boards, reinforce the idea of “playing” under unequal conditions: an opponent with shining coffers filled with the resources of indebted countries versus another who ensures that benefits stay in the hands of a few. Mendoza uses color and shades as his protagonists for generating contrasting and suggestive images, highlighting each nation’s emblems: the palm on the centavo that circulated during the Trujillo Era, the chele de palmita, for the Dominican Republic and the figure of Abraham Lincoln on the North American cent. One bets on safe money and the other on chance.

Each work in the Here & There exhibition splendidly illustrates at once the artistic formation, the personal identity and subjectivity of each creator. In the same manner it illustrates the diversity of forms of plastic expression chosen and the achieved mastery, whether in photography, illustration, installation, painting and collage, among others. At the same time very sensitive themes—such as hybridity, transculturation and rootlessness—of the globalized yet unequal scene of immigration are restated.

There is no doubt that through collective work the artists of the Dominican York Proyecto GRAFICA have achieved in this show a noteworthy formal and communicative richness. They have placed in a tense and brilliant dialogue all their living and aesthetic experiences, achieving a magnificent chorus in which each one declares her or his own poetics and autonomy.

 

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Manifestaciones: Expressions of Dominicanidad in Nueva York

Essay by E. Carmen Ramos, Independent Art Curator

Unlike Chicanos and Nuyoricans of the 1960s and 1970s—many of whom were born or raised in the United States and strongly identified with the social movements of this tumultuous period in American (U.S.) history—Dominicans started arriving in the United States in large numbers in the early 1960s, and continued thereafter in a steady stream. Given their “late” arrival, it would take some time before the Dominican-American community would come to be known as such.

Dominican artists based in the United States would come of age without a dedicated visual arts institution of their own. By the 1990s, they would also mature in a post-multicultural artistic scene less devoted to culturally specific exhibitions. Dominican-American artists, however, did participate in the artistic scene in New York City and elsewhere, exhibiting their works at key Latino cultural institutions such as the Cayman Gallery (1974–1984), the Museum of Contemporary Hispanic Art (1985–1991), and El Museo del Barrio (founded 1969), among many others. Yet, unlike artists from other Latino cultural groups, Dominican artists made inroads as individuals. There was no collective or group-oriented “Dominican-York” cultural movement, but instead the actions and careers of solitary artists. This is not to say that Dominican-American artists did not capture, explore, document or reflect upon the new diasporic culture that was sprouting in their midst. Rather, it is to affirm that Dominican-American artists have plotted a different path that has yet to be coherently documented.

This history makes Manifestaciones: Expressions of Dominicanidad in Nueva York all the more historically and artistically significant. The idea for this project originated with Pepe Coronado, a peripatetic master printer whose life crossed paths with the Chicano movement. While living in Austin, Texas, Pepe began working with Chicano artist Sam Coronado (no relation), who in 1993 initiated a printmaking workshop—The Serie Project—modeled after the renowned Los Angeles–based printmaking studio Self-Help Graphics. The collective spirit Pepe witnessed among Chicano and other Latino artists would leave a strong impression. Simultaneously, Pepe sought to piece together a history of Dominican printmaking—on and off the island—only to discover a fragmented past. In part, the confluence of these experiences resulted in the current project.

Grounded in a firm belief that printmaking is an accessible medium uniquely suited to capture the immediacy of contemporary culture, Pepe sought out other Dominican-American artists to form a collective that would both advance Dominican graphic arts and interrogate Dominican diasporic culture. The group of twelve artists that eventually came together worked in a collegial, workshop atmosphere, exchanging ideas and commenting on each other’s work. Together they determined the focus of the project: to represent the forms and manifestations of Dominican culture in the United States. Their individual voices—clearly visible in the diverse graphic approaches and subjects of the prints themselves—speak to their open-minded approach to their collective endeavor. Their goal has always been one of exchange, with each other and ultimately with the public who will encounter, discuss, and debate their work. They have left us with a valuable document of a vibrant cultural and artistic community that long ago took root in the heart of New York City.


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Manifestaciones A Portfolio of 12 Prints by Dominican York Proyecto GRAFICA

Essay by Graciela Kartofel, Art Historian, Art Critic/Curator  Copyright 2010

Manifestaciones marks a pivotal moment. It is one of the few group exhibitions by Dominican York artists, and marks the convergence of several trends that were simmering and maturing among artists who had, until now, made a name for themselves only as individuals. An enriching collaboration among the Dominican York Proyecto GRAFICA artists has produced 12 considerable artworks, each one offering a specific approach to the selected theme: New York City as seen and lived by the artists.
Carlos Almonte created Vale John, a serigraph integrating dreams, memories and reality, with a linear gray drawing as background and a colorful character in the forefront. Artist and printmaker Pepe Coronado, incorporated text with images to recall a historic moment involving the USS Intrepid, symbolic colors, and a combination of line and photo documentation. His artwork includes history, geography, and text in post-conceptual graphics. René de los Santos, in an expressionist linocut and serigraph, situated the mythical Cigüita Cibaeña bird in New York to look over its bridges and skyscrapers. iliana emilia garcía created the Dreambox, as shoeshine boxes are called in the Dominican Republic. Her serigraph, on reflective Mylar and chine collé, is a reference to the habits of their native land, and to the dreams of migrating Latinos. Reynaldo García Pantaleón created Amarrao, a black and white eloquent expressionistic scene of physical and social oppressions. Scherezade García’s Day Dreaming employs a symbolic-geographic approach through combined mediums. The sacrificed human figure lies down, supporting civilization. Alex Guerrero reaches an evocative and lively climate in his artwork. He intertwines a black-and-white photo-based print with a colorful-naive construction and a rainy cloud. Its details are precious. This work is a good example of the updated use of media.
Luanda Lozano, an accomplished printer at the Manhattan Graphics Center/Robert Blackburn Printmaking Workshop, did her piece via a religious-romantic green figure, Sálvame Santo. Miguel Luciano deals with the theme of passports and the social divisions that society establishes and brings to these documents. Yunior Chiqui Mendoza makes a clear statement through graphics—the New York subway map in the shape of a banana. He names it Bananhattan, a logical and very original approach referencing the term “banana republics,” derisively used at times when referring to Caribbean countries. Moses Ros-Suárez piece Reggaeton del Bachatero, is a triptych etching and chine collé. The three sections, headlined by words in Spanish, have different core colors: brown, yellow, and greenish inks. Moses has a key tool, space, which he allocates to his narrative through various approaches. Rider Ureña—in whose studio the group held meetings and produced some of the prints—brings to the project the Dominican mythological figure Cigüapa. Integrating drawing and a painterly approach, the piece is mysterious and sensual.
The twelve coincide in their figurative mood, but neither the imagery nor the artistic tendencies and styles are the same. This makes it clear that they are not a group with tight rules, but a “collective.” Through it, they came together to exalt the Dominican presence in New York in their personal, professional, struggling voices. They have chosen the print medium to bring accessible artwork to the city, and to be part of one of Latin America’s strongest traditions: the graphic arts.
Prints nourished the cooperative developments and outreach of numerous movements through the years. Printed artwork and printed words have a parallel capacity: to reach out to the world with specific informative, social, educational, and community-building intent.