Cielo Felix-Hernandez’s Pink-Hued Paintings Are Awash with Diasporic Nostalgia
When Cielo Felix-Hernandez returned from a trip to Puerto Rico in 2019, she brought back a jar full of amapolas—hibiscus flowers endemic to the archipelago and often mistaken for Puerto Rico’s national flower, the flor de maga. “My mom and I traveled throughout the island together and everywhere we went, I would find just one flower by itself,” the 23-year-old multidisciplinary artist told Artsy. “I thought it was really strange but very beautiful.”
For two years, the amapolas sat in a jar on Felix-Hernandez’s altar in Brooklyn desiccating, their scent and color growing stronger and more potent, waiting to be used. When steeped in water, dried amapolas bleed their signature magenta hue, which colors Felix-Hernandez’s latest body of work. The vibrant shade—achieved through the use of hibiscus wash, hibiscus dye, and hibiscus tea—sets the scene and occasionally physically frames Felix-Hernandez’s semi-autobiographical works in her current solo exhibition at Sargent’s Daughters in New York, on view until February 5th. Titled “nieta,” which means “granddaughter” in Spanish, Felix-Hernandez’s New York debut tells a tale of diasporic nostalgia.
In Agua d Jamaica, Bendiciones del Piso q Camino (2021), everything is pink—from the Tweety Bird pajamas to the floor cleaner being poured into a mop bucket, and the satin fringe framing the canvas. The decision to tinge the works in “nieta” in hibiscus-flower pink was intuitive, according to Felix-Hernandez. “[The flowers] provided a lot of warmth for me,” the artist explained. In Mami’s Honda-Civic (2003) (2021), the right side of the work is lined with a fuschia satin fringe resembling the exhaust trails of the car depicted on the canvas. “I’m having a dialogue with very diasporic materials,” she said. The act of incorporating objects that migrate with the diaspora prompts us to think about the self and the homeland bleeding into each other, like a dried flower in water.
A lot of the paintings in “nieta” are set in Felix-Hernandez’s grandmother’s home in Guaynabo. The artist remembered the childhood house was “bright as hell,” but the one she saw in Puerto Rico seemed to have been drained of its color over time. In revisiting scenes of her upbringing, Felix-Hernandez can’t help but review Puerto Rico’s past. During their most recent visit to Puerto Rico, the artist and her mother spent a good portion of their time in and out of courthouses, helping Felix-Hernandez’s grandfather defend his Río Piedras home from the rising wave of neocolonialism threatening locals. As the artist put it, the works in “nieta” create a “fantasy dreamscape around my childhood.”
In Tight-knot (Cold Rain) (2021), for example, a nude figure squats in flip-flops in the backyard of a country home, bathing in the rain with the help of a small bucket. A bright pink beating heart pulsates in the background. “It’s the smallest thing, but I learned to swim in a bucket there,” Felix-Hernandez shared. “And I remember cleaning my clothes outside.” In High heat, Café Molido (2021), a woman resembling the artist and clad in Betty Boop pajamas sprinkles salt over an egg-and-sausage scramble large enough to feed a family. Beside her, a coffee percolator pipes birdlike plumes of smoke on the adjacent burner. “These moments of scent would travel and stick with me,” Felix-Hernandez added.
It’s this sense of deep nostalgia that inspired Felix-Hernandez’s exercise in time travel. As a diaspora child’s humble effort of preserving her homeland, “nieta” both remembers and dreams. “It takes place in multiple spaces all at once, both here in the mainland of the United States and in Puerto Rico,” she said of the work. “But it also takes place spiritually in other universes outside of both those lands, in a place that may not exist yet.”
Thumbnail image: Cielo Felix-Hernandez, detail of “Mujer Cómoda, Mujer Divina,” 2021. Courtesy of the artist and Sargent’s Daughters.