Raelis Vasquez Translates His Family’s Emigration Story into Tender Paintings
Portrait of Raelis Vasquez, 2021. Courtesy of the artist.
Raelis Vasquez does not recall being drawn to art prior to his family’s emigration from the Dominican Republic to the United States in 2002. “I don’t think I would be an artist if we hadn’t immigrated,” he told Artsy during a recent video interview. “There’s no reason to be creative unless you have a problem to solve. Immigrating gave me a problem to solve.”
In his current solo show “As We Were”—on view at Sakhile&Me in Frankfurt, Germany—Vasquez tends to the matter of memory as it enables and embattles translation. The exhibition, which features several figurative paintings of his family prior to emigration, transgresses temporal boundaries by situating his family’s past at the center of his contemporary work. For the paintings, Vasquez studied old family photographs—moments captured and safekept to combat the fleeting nature of time. In his masterful artistic recollections of his own life and history in the Americas as an Afro-Dominican artist, Vasquez is earnest in his efforts to represent the Afro-Latinx experience while prizing clarity and realism.
Upon his family’s arrival to the U.S., where they settled in New Jersey, Vasquez first started drawing as a way to remap the world and portray it as he understood it to be. Reflecting on his family’s life before and after immigrating, the young artist’s early task was to make the ineffable intimately familiar. What began in those earlier years as a passion for drawing soon fostered an interest in the craft of painting. Vasquez considers his adolescence as the time he became an artist, but credits his later art education with teaching him how to “start thinking of [himself] as an artist.” He received a BFA in painting and drawing from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and went on to earn an MFA in painting and drawing from Columbia University. As a painter, Vasquez took to oils and committed to the figurative in his compositions.
Attentive not only to the narrative conveyed in an image, but also to the scene’s affect and atmosphere, Vasquez paints the past as portals to scenes of warmth, care, and wonder—relatives wade through rivers and pools; parents embrace their children; babies rest on shoulders; dinner is complicated by distraction; and cacaos await capture and the impending slice of a knife. Environment is not forgotten either. Nature flanks all outdoor scenes, and even a shot of an indoor domestic moment in Padre y Hijo (2021) features plants as a fact of life. The textures, accessories, and patterns of the past are rendered with their history—wrinkles and folds that imply a world in motion, now momentary and memorial.
As memory and personal narrative inform Vasquez’s art practice, so, too, does the political and historical question of representation. To be in the position to represent his community is thus not an opportunity that he takes lightly. “It’s a huge privilege to be able to do this and make a living,” Vasquez said. Drawing on the history of the Dominican Republic as well as his own experiences, Vasquez carries himself with an “overpowering responsibility (or calling) to the arts and towards [his] Black, Latinx, and immigrant communities,” he said.
Naming his identity as a Caribbean immigrant, an American, and a member of the African diaspora, Vasquez understands himself to be situated at a meeting ground for several histories. When it comes to the particular convolution and complexity that continues to shape Dominican life, politics, and culture—on the island and in the diaspora—Vasquez is unafraid to confront the contradictions of self-representation as it comes up against narratives of nationality.
As an artist, Vasquez does not run from the complexity of his background, but instead relishes it. “It’s kind of a scramble for me, but I like to live in that,” he said. On representations of Blackness within Latinidad, he is adamant that the portrayal of real families and communities, such as his own, can push back against the erasure of Afro-Latinx people in popular imagery and visual culture. “It’s really important for me to say: This is what a Latino family is,” he explained. “It is also important for Dominicans to look at themselves represented and reflected in these works.”
With “As We Were,” Vasquez’s paintings bring the Dominican Republic to Germany. Unsure at first of the local exposure and engagement with Dominican culture prior to his solo exhibition, Vasquez was pleasantly surprised to learn of the ways that migrant communities in Frankfurt embraced the work despite the rarity of Dominican immigrants in the country. The 2010s gave way to massive immigration to Europe, during which asylum seekers—primarily from countries such as Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Eritrea, Nigeria, and Libya—were met with widespread closing of European borders, hostile refugee policies, and xenophobia. This recent history has dramatically reshaped countries including Germany and raised crucial dialogues about the function of nationality and the role that representation plays in both the perpetuation and alleviation of violence. In this way, Vasquez’s work finds itself in a country shaped by colonial histories as well as contemporary immigration narratives that prime its residents for the exhibition and the questions it seeks to inspire.