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Multihued Merengue

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Visual Rhythms' Examines Dominican Dance, National Identity

For Washington denizens beaten down by cold, snow and gale-force winds, there’s no need to repair to a Caribbean isle. A springtime tonic awaits you at the Organization of American States (OAS) Art Museum of the Americas. It’s a lively and joyful restorative from the Dominican Republic guaranteed to make winter-weary art lovers sway their hips and lift their faces to the sun as they witness the music and dance of merengue in visual form.

“¡Merengue! Ritmos Visuales/Visual Rhythms” is an eclectic exhibit of more than 40 works—including oils on canvas, ink drawings, mixed media, sculpture and photography—that depict and celebrate the Dominican Republic’s national music and dance heritage.

There couldn’t be a more welcoming venue for this display than the Art Museum of the Americas, established in 1976 in the former residence of the OAS secretary-generals. Built in 1912, the inviting Spanish colonial structure features white walls, iron grilles, a red-tile roof and a loggia decorated with colorful tiles in patterns modeled after Aztec and Inca traditions. Polished wooden floors and a curving staircase add to the intimacy of the venue, which has been enhanced by the many lively images of Caribbean musicians and dancers on display.

Merengue was created in the 1920s and promoted by president and dictator Rafael Trujillo in the 1930s, eventually becoming a part of the Dominican Republic’s national identity. In this exhibit, viewers see how the music and movements of merengue have been interpreted visually through a variety of modern artists in a period spanning from 1933 to the present.

Many of the paintings—encompassing a range of styles from cubism to post-modernism—depict trios of musicians with accordions, drums and other instruments, while others focus more on the dancers themselves. The African influence is strong in some of these works—as it is in the Dominican Republic—but what keeps the viewer moving with interest from piece to piece is the omnipresent sense of national culture, history and identity.

If merengue is a “validator” of identity for Dominicans, as the show’s curator writes, then this exhibit offers the opportunity to view more than 40 different identities of joy and expression. The merengue culture is, after all, a celebration of life, and who could lose interest in seeing so many variations on that theme?

Thus, we view Yoryi Morel’s richly hued “Rural Celebration” from 1959, complete with a merengue trio, dancers and a group of villagers roasting a pig over leaping scarlet flames. Putarco Andújar’s paintings from the 1980s and 1990s portray musicians and dancers in the soothing blue-green hues of the sea that surround his island nation.

Leaving realism behind, the viewer encounters Dionisio Pichardo’s three brown and black figures in a mixed-media-on-paper work. This 1966 rendering, simply titled “Musicians,” looks more like three robotic prototypes than human beings who could produce beautiful music, but it serves as an illustration of the range of styles in this exhibit.

In celebrating the merengue life, a couple of the artists chose to focus on death. “Deceased Musicians” from 1987 portrays three skeletal musicians still happily going at it on their instruments. Are they, perhaps, in merengue heaven? And Raúl Recio’s “The Death of Merengue” is a tribute to famous accordion player Tatico Henriquez. However, there is nothing somber about his work. Rather, a vivid yellow wall-size canvas depicts brass horns and vinyl records flying through the air as partygoers shriek and clutch their red hearts.

There’s really a mood here for everyone, and the more traditional pieces are just as captivating as the abstract ones. “Dominican Folklore” by Nidio Cuervo is dazzling, with a line of men and women dancers in brilliant white costumes against lush tropical vegetation. Likewise, revelers in a rural community dance on the hard-packed earth in their Sunday best in “The Celebration of the Centennial” by Alfredo Senior. If only one could step into the painting and join them.

The movement continues with two videos—one of which shows merengue musicians playing their instruments and the other demonstrating a merengue dance step. Overall, this exhibit features a huge mix of not only different artistic styles, but of history, politics, culture and identity—and it may take more than one visit to experience this warm balm and say goodbye to Washington’s winter.

¡Merengue! Ritmos Visuales/Visual Rhythms through May 27 Art Museum of the Americas at the Organization of American States 201 18th St., NW For more information, please call (202) 458-6016 or visit www.museum.oas.org.

About the Author

Rachel Ray is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999