The Art of Daniel Lind-Ramos


    I often remember big museum roundups of new art for a single standout entry. In the case of the 2019 Whitney Biennial, the memory of a regally enigmatic sculpture titled “María-María” by the Puerto Rican artist Daniel Lind-Ramos won’t let go.

    At a little over six feet tall, it was of half- abstract, assemblage-style female figure, her body draped in a sea-blue cloak, her head a blank-faced oval, her long, thin arms curving downward as if open for embrace. The materials she was composed from were unusual, certainly in a Whitney context. The head was a lacquered coconut; her oceanic cloak was a plastic FEMA tarp.

    All of this, along with the echoing title, suggested a weave of clashing cultural and political references: to the benign Christian figure of the Virgin Mary, to the moody Afro-Caribbean sea goddess Yemaya; and to the murderous storm that had desolated Puerto Rico two years earlier.

    Whatever the work’s meanings, the Whitney curators accurately gauged its potency. They set it apart from everything else, as if on an altar, in a niche-like west-facing window, with open sky and the Hudson River as backdrop.

    Now, four years later, the artist’s work is again on view in a New York City museum, this time at MoMA PS 1 and in full solo force in a fantastic terrestrial and celestial mystery tour of an exhibition called “Daniel Lind-Ramos: El Viejo Griot — Una Historia de Todos Nosotros (The Elder Storyteller — A Story of All of Us).”

    The show opens with a boat — a full-size salvaged wooden prow of one. Becalmed on a blue-tarp sea, it’s packed with freight — coconuts, conga drums, plastic buckets for storage or bailing — and swamped under piles of burlap cargo bags.

    The boat’s name, El Viejo Griot, refers to a mythical character, a keeper and teller of histories, who appears in masked Carnival-like performances staged annually in the Puerto Rican coastal town of Loíza, where Lind-Ramos, 70, was born, lives and works.

    Some 20 miles from San Juan, the town was originally settled by free Blacks and escaped slaves. It remains a politically marginalized community of Black Puerto Ricans, Afrodescendientes — Lind-Ramos is one — and a vital center of Afro-Caribbean culture on the island.

    Exactly what the boat’s cargo bags carry, we don’t know. But each is stamped with a date significant in the island’s five centuries under colonial rule, from a revolt by the Indigenous Taino population against Spanish intruders in 1511; to a thwarting of a British attack in 1797; to the United States invasion in 1898; and finally to the 2017 hurricane which left the island, a U.S. Commonwealth, to fend for itself.

    The crippling realities of the storm, which was followed in 2020 by a series of earthquakes and Covid-19, pervade much of the work, some of which is composed from debris left behind. A recently completed sculpture called “Ambulancia,” alludes to all three disasters. A ragged, hand-pushed juggernaut of a vehicle it incorporates auto parts, emergency lights, discarded shoes, a mattress stripped to the springs, and a wheelbarrow to carry the dead.

    The effects of colonialism can be piercingly specific. (“Ambulancia” is, among other things, about meeting repeated emergencies when resources are scarce and humanitarian aid withheld.) But they can also be global and deep, as is suggested in the artist’s series of Marian-themed sculptures.

    The 2019 Whitney Biennial’s example isn’t in the show, but three other “Maria” pieces are. One, “Baño de María (Bain-Marie/The Cleansing)” focuses on the industrially produced global warming that is generating freakish storms and raising seas to island-drowning levels. A second piece, “María Guabancex,” is named for the tantrum-prone Taino goddess of wind and chaos, whose destructive ire, sparked by climate change, is expressed as a furious sculptural whirl of ropes, cables and palm branches.

    The title of a third work, “María de los Sustentos (Mary of Nourishment),” seems to allude to the Mother of Jesus. But the sculptural image Lind-Ramos has come up with feels far less a Spanish Catholic import than a local domestic invention, meticulously assembled, as it is, from pots and pans, fish nets, farming tools, sustaining instruments of daily life in the Loíza community.

    This community, which began as, and remains, a refuge for African-descended migrants who found scant welcome elsewhere, is the bottom-line source and subject of Lind-Ramos’s art. He has periodically lived elsewhere — he studied art in New York and Paris — but has always returned. And the sculptures in the exhibition are, in fundamental ways, about it.

    This is certainly true materially. Every example of this brilliantly conceived monumental art is composed of fragments of that world. This is true of the show’s earliest work, “Armario de la Memoria (Cupboard of Memory)” (2012), in which hard-used hoes and machetes flank antiquated but lovingly preserved entertainment hardware (a TV monitor, a DVD player. And it’s true of the 2020 piece called “Figura Emisaria (The Emissary)” which enshrines, among other objects, an old-style yucca grater, a gift to the artist from an elderly neighbor.

    In all of this Loíza, and Black Puerto Rico, are present.

    In a reversal of earlier critical takes on Lind-Ramos’s art the tendency now seems to be to view it insistently as “political,” which, of course, it is, and to avoid, even disparage, the idea of calling it “spiritual,” which it also is. We’ve come to think of these descriptions as somehow mutually exclusive, but they aren’t in the culture that Lind-Ramos is so assiduously recording. And how could they be in any art that is, above and beyond all else, a celebration of genii loci, spirits of place?

    And speaking of place, the work looks terrific at MoMA PS 1. There the exhibition organizers — Kate Fowle, guest curator, and Ruba Katrib and Elena Ketelsen González of MoMA PS1 — have given the sculptures plenty of space and arranged them on a processional route that maximizes an idea-rich art’s power of sheer visual surprise, which is what pulled me to that piece at the Whitney five years ago, and has kept it alive in my mind.

    Daniel Lind-Ramos: El Viejo Griot — Una Historia de Todos Nosotros

    Through Sept. 4, MoMA PS1, 22-25 Jackson Avenue, Long Island City, Queens, (718) 784-2084);

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