In Conversation with

Eliazar Ortiz Roa: Connecting Antillean Society and Botany

Eliazar Ortiz Roa’s material syncretism plays with the trajectories of Antillean flora, shedding light on the role of the environment within the consciousness that a people has of their history. Informed by nature, the artist’s work expands upon connections between botany and society by reimagining historical narratives.

C&AL: Your current construction uses the process of assemblage to a great extent, but in nature there is more growth/reproduction. Taking the functionality of ancestral knowledge into account, how can natural construction systems be brought to the present?

EOR: In the Caribbean and Antillean experience, one part of our identity is destruction because the season that really affects us is hurricane season, and that speaks to ephemeral identity. Indigenous constructions were ephemeral. They were always attentive to that phenomenon–the hurricane. They would go take refuge in the Cacibajagua (cave), and afterward they would return to reconstruct their buildings, taking into account how easy it was to assemble them. It is not the permanent postcolonial structure made of concrete and bricks. That is not the Antillean idiosyncrasy. It can be seen in the color, for instance, jagua leaves its pigmentation on the skin for a week and gradually fades, which provides me with many analogies of a custom based on something that disappears. There was this connection with nature, and we knew that we had to rebuild because at some point the paint would fall off.

C&AL: Nature makes us think of connections, but there is also the part of disconnection and destruction. What has it taught you about the act of releasing and letting go?

EOR: I love observing the processes of decomposition. I recently made a pigment from a fungus that had grown in a mangrove that had become dislodged during a tropical storm. The processes of destruction after a hurricane or an earthquake are inspiring. There is a cleanup after the hurricane season. You see how the earth cracks, with everything destroyed, and afterward, things emerge from the ash. Consequently, the question of community returns, and that brings us closer together. When there are fires or hurricanes, the first plants to sprout are the pyrophytes, most of them medicinal. When we think of destruction, we also have to think of the healing the earth provides.

C&AL: Regarding the topic of dreams and the Paiz Biennial in Guatemala, what excites you most about the transformation and reinvention of human beings?

EOR: When I am at the Memorial ACTe in Guadeloupe, where there is very strong material connected to slavery, I understand that my ancestors are telling me to “wake up, it’s up to you to talk about this.” For the Paiz Art Biennial, the theme I am proposing is that of the Dominican-Haitian border. I am mortified that they are starting to build a wall on the border, and that is something that gets me moving and worries me. Dominican-Haitian markets are very unique and inspiring. What I represent figuratively are women, those who run the economy. And there is a relationship between money and women. We see that in our culture, that we depend on one another, we depend on economics, because like it or not we have to negotiate because it is important to have that dialogue. Money forces us to be kind. And botany also exists because we sell fruit, we sell staple foods, because we eat the same things. That is something that must remain very clear. People say that we are very different, but we all like roots, cassava, sweet potatoes, yams, bananas. Those are what we sell the most. It is that botanical relationship that I want to portray at the Paiz Biennial. I am making a map with a leaf, called Haitian mesh–or wild pineapple–(Bromelia pinguin), which isn’t even native to the Antilles; it’s more from Abya Yala and Meso-America. It’s a kind of pineapple/ananas that has spikes, and it is tremendous. And notice how the idea of calling something that is impenetrable “Haitian” is about using something to make a separation. I borrowed that allusion and use it as paper to make this botanical map of the separation between the Dominican Republic and Haiti, thinking in a utopian way that I prefer that it continue being a landscape that is naturally separated because there are so many natural separations, for example, language. Why put up another wall? That is only going to harm nature–the mangroves that are being cut down, the living beings that have to cross paths –more than it will harm humans.

Eliazar Ortiz Roa (1981, Dominican Republic) is a painter and botanical researcher. Their work explores maroon processes, Afro-Antillean identity, the land, the corporeal and the decolonial through the manipulation of their natural environment working with pigments and other material syncretisms.

Sheila Ramirez (2000, Santiago de Cuba) is a Cuban-Angolan designer and researcher. She explores the affective relationship between people and objects in their environment through visual and sonic files. She is currently presenting her research through The Archive Room.

Translation: Sara Hanaburgh