I have always been one of those people that believed the cliché “you are always a student,” because I was always keen on learning. Born in the South Bronx in the 1990s, I was a naturally curious child, and I suppose part of that curiosity remains within me. I was always asking questions and confronting people when I saw something wrong. At times it got me in trouble with my overprotective Dominican mother, whose answers to my questions rarely satisfied me. I could have only dreamed of something like Google being accessible to me back then, a machine that you can ask the most random questions at any time of the day.
My mother was an immigrant, raising four children in the concrete jungle of New York City on her own. As the little one in the family and the only one born in the States, I was tasked with translating various official US government documents. Usually I knew the words, but not what they meant together.
My father lived back on the island, so my mother and I would travel back “home” every summer. All of a sudden, my Americanness became hypercontextualized. In the South Bronx, I was Black, Hispanic, Latina, or the politically incorrect and dreaded “Spanish Chick,” which my African American peers adored using. However, nothing was worse than “La Americana” or “Rubia” when I visited the island; my US citizenship othered me in a place that was supposed to be my home. I lived and breathed yet another cliché, “ni de aquí, ni de alla,” (neither from here nor there).
Both my childhood and time as a university student, composed of mixed experiences, shaped my formative years and turned me into the artistic scholar I am today. I loved making things as a child, and I was fascinated by history. Then, as I got older, my world became tainted by dominant worldviews, and what made me unique actually marginalized the community that I loved and myself. As a Black student mining the archives—a burden for Black academics—I confronted an apparent hierarchy of worldviews and community. I asked myself, where were the Black voices within the archives?
As a Black artistic scholar, I soon realized that I could not rely on the colonial archives if my ultimate goal was to construct a narrative true to my community and myself. I began to look outward, composing a story line based on architectural ruins, nature, and elders’ dispersed oral accounts. I constructed pieces from the living archive, which was co-founded by the ghost of our past, of our history. My research led me to Afro-spirituality and traditions. The more I saw these entities condemned within the colonial archives, the more I wanted to learn about them. I desired to strip these Black narratives and traditions from the negative stereotypes that colonization inflicted on them.
As part of the African diaspora of the Dominican Republic, I am in continuous conversation between the concrete landscape I grew up in and the mystical Caribbean island I experienced in snippets. My work reflects this. Currently, I travel back and forth, connecting the dots in archival fragments, histories, and architectural ruins, all glued together by Afro-spirituality.
Afro-spirituality and Afro syncretism are the diaspora’s heart and soul. Afro-syncretic religions are the common thread throughout African diasporic communities. Even the traumatic experiences of slavery could not repress them: Santería, Vodou, Candomblé, Winti, to name just a few.
Back when I was an undergrad, I majored in fashion design because I was interested in how the wearer of fashion added another layer to it, another spirit. But my work in the fashion industry was lacking. As the intermediate person in my job, I saw firsthand how segregated the fashion field is. It was rare to see a Black person holding the stakes, and I was tired of putting my energy into projects I wasn’t truly connected to. This realization rerouted me in the artistic direction I have embraced. My work today as an artistic scholar draws on Afro-spirituality free from stereotypes and colonial gaze. My work is not linear; it’s a spiral or a line that crosses the coil, touching various topics and points at once. (I am especially interested in Saidiya Hartman’s critical fabulation theory, the idea that nonfictional creativity brings out suppressed voices from our past.) Moreover, descendants of enslaved Africans, including myself, must keep alive the flame of these Afro-traditions and religions. My way of doing so is through my art and research. With my sewing abilities and designer’s eye, I conceptualize pieces that are activated when worn by people who possess the characteristics of specific deities. All the subjects of my photographs are members of my community, creative individuals who highlight the African diaspora in a positive light. The people I photograph are part of my extended family, and I want to commemorate them in my work as higher beings.
My work also explores how architectural and ancestral memory converse. Architectural ruins and nature harbor memory. As a visual artist, I can add to that story line by constructing works that speak directly to the legacy of slavery and that honor my Afro and Indigenous roots and their diaspora. Many of the sites I photograph have a historical significance for African and Indigenous diasporic communities, a significance that could be lost to time if they are not cultivated in the present.
Like my childhood, composed of mixed experiences, my artistic practice is a mixed bag of historical accounts, fragmented truth, uprootedness, survival, and thriving. Una hierba mala (a bad weed) that refuses to die no matter how much it is suppressed, diminished, or left for dead.
Yelaine Rodriguez (she/her) is a Bronx-born interdisciplinary artist and curator who specializes in reflecting Afro-spirituality free from stereotypes and the colonial gaze. She received a BFA from the New School in New York and an MA from New York University. Rodriguez has exhibited her works at Photoville, Mexic-Arte Museum, the American Museum of Natural History, El Centro Cultural de España, Centro León Biennial XXVII in the Dominican Republic, and at Estamos bien: La Trienal 20/21, El Museo del Barrio’s first national, large-scale survey of Latinx contemporary art. Her works have also been featured by CNN, Artsy, EnFoco, Hyperallergic, Vogue, Aperture, and Elle. Her writing has appeared in ARTnews and academic journals like Latin American and Latinx Visual Culture. Rodriguez is currently an adjunct instructor at the New School and NYU. Photo courtesy Yelaine Rodriguez.
SUZY GONZÁLEZ is a Xicanx artist, curator, and zinester based in Yanaguana, also known as San Antonio, Texas. She creates mestiza media works combining corn husks and paint to consider our connections to the land and complexities of identity. She publishes Xicana Vegan zine, co-publishes Yes, Ma'am zine, co-organizes the San Anto Zine Fest, and is half of the collective Dos Mestizx.
In 2022, Suzy is collaborating with Ofrenda Magazine as a consulting art editor.
Ofrenda Magazine™ explores Xicanx and Latinx spiritualities, earth-centered wisdom traditions, and healing arts. Our mission is to inspire holistic wellness, ancestral connection, social and ecological justice, and spiritual creativity.