Las Caras Detrás de las Máscaras: Interview with Afro-Caribbean Artist Juan Pablo Vizcaino Cortijo
Juan Pablo is an Afro-Caribbean artist who grew up on the banks of the Rio Grande Loíza and it’s estuaries, an area known as Puerto Rico’s Capital of Tradition. One of the principal cultural symbols of his people and a focus of his art is the picturesque and symbolic character of “el vejigante.” In 2006, Juan Pablo began carving vejigantes and has continued to practice this art ever since, following in the footsteps of master craftsmen Castor Ayala, Raúl Ayala, Samuel Lind, Juan Luis Sánchez, and Carlos Ayala Calcaño.
How did you get started as an artist?
Apart from solo exhibits and collaborations with other artists, workshops with school children is how I got started in the arts, with the community, with Afro-caribbean culture. I do them mostly for free. I just ask for help with materials. Our Afro history in this country is really important in these workshops. They're really interesting, the results that come about and how the kids feel when they are feeling and hearing this: 'We all have African influence… all of us have that side of our history.'
What motivates you to do the work that you’re doing?
I started doing art when we were fighting against what a lot of people believed was going to be progress in Loíza, one of the purest towns in Puerto Rico. And those in power wanted to bring ‘progress’ not considering what a natural disaster it would be to the area.
It’s a segregated, black, poor community, and they considered our land our only value. So they built this hotel. They wanted to give us jobs cleaning the pool, and of course there were manager positions, but we wouldn’t be included in those manager positions. This disaster brought me closer to understanding the culture of the area.
Art stays alive by bringing our culture to the kids because we’re culturally rich already, even if not economically. In the search to show kids what we all knew, I learned more about myself as an Afro-Caribbean person. I grew and felt empowered. Authenticity as a human is what the colors in my work represent, and I found them, and it was great to learn in the process.
Do you ever separate your art from your activism?
They are absolutely one and the same—art and activism. I haven't managed to pull them apart. When I make a piece, it's hard even to sell it. I sold a piece to guy in Boston—the first one for good money. I was so happy so I sent him another piece, one for his office and one for his house. I always have problems putting a price to my work. My art is a symbol of resistance, of a culture denied, one meant to be killed, denied, relegated to die. So yeah, they are fully together, art and activism, no questions asked.
What do you say to Afro-Latinos who deny being Black in any way?
That’s a really unfortunate way of thinking. When I hear this, I make a link directly with the people who say that those who are in the ghetto want to live in those conditions—that people who are poor wants handouts. That’s not them. That’s generations of colonialism. When Spaniards arrived to America, lead by Christopher Columbus and others that came after, they didn't come here giving kisses and hugs. It was kinda like a coup. Now we are acting, eating, dressing, and praying how Europeans wanted us to. The colonization of a whole continent made us want to be like them. This realization is a process you have to go through to encounter yourself and who you are. And when that disappears, it's up to the individual to look at who they were and how they were and it’s hard. It’s easy to look and say that’s in the past. My dreadlocks are like looking through my roots, the way I act and look, how my hair is... Decolonization is something that's really hard, and on top of that, we have all these modern things: how you have to dress and look, be blonde, with straight hair. You're expected to be a certain way that you are not.
All these things come with decolonizing yourself. It takes time and it’s tough, and it’s work that is individual. The media is not going to tell you that because they are making money off of your ass having a complex.
How do you suggest we address that decolonization, since it is such hard work?
Stand up to it. People are gonna judge and do the 'light racism' thing. 'How do you wash your hair?' This perception—this belief—that I cannot wash my hair, that I don’t wash my hair... Stand up. Let them know. Decolonize yourself.
What is The Tribe?
It’s an event I created two years ago. The third time we held it was this year, with my Vejigante masks and Afro-Caribbean art. The idea was to resaltar la cultura Africana, la musica y la ropa. There’s an Afro-American girl that designs modern clothes with an African theme. I think it's cool-looking because we do not wear the same things we wore 200 years ago. It was a great idea to get them involved. I called artists that I admire, Fernando Mora and Edgar Rodriguez Luigi, and told them my idea. They were like ‘Let’s do it!’ Both times it’s been a success. Everything was full, both times. Really cool stuff. We were screaming out loud how we feel about certain stuff. Last year’s was more simple, this year we had two bands, two DJs, hopefully next year is bigger.
Tell us a story that means something to you:
I was out with my masks, my coconuts and my knife, carving in the park near my house. While I was carving, I saw police coming my way. They started asking questions and touching my shit, being not so nice, saying the park was closed. I was like ‘I see some guys over there.’ The cop was like, ‘uuuhhhhh’. You know, the same shit, like always. I defended myself until they didn't know what to say. I was not gonna go on about my rights, though. They could suddenly decide to say that I took the machete and you know… in a black neighborhood, I’d get shot. That got me fired up for the event. The next day, some cops killed this kid. There were 2 to 3 weeks of murders by police. They always had an excuse, always acted like they didn't do anything wrong. Because I have more experience talking to them, I was fine. I’m glad to have lived to tell the story. It inspired me a lot because there are different ways the police can do this. They’re killing us. They kill Black people. What's more, they kill these people's names. It’s easy for them to control the narrative.
What materials do you use and what meaning do they hold?
I use coconuts as the base, the tigueros (those branches that attach the coconuts to the tree) for the horns, the shell from the inside of the coconut, and urban stuff that I find. I live in a rough and poor neighborhood in Miami. Drug addicts steal stuff, break washers, or whatever to find things to sell. I run every morning and when I find these things, I grab them and use some of them in my art. The base is the coconut, acrylic, and sand—mostly natural stuff. The first people that started to use the Vejigante masks with the coconut base were from Loíza. The masks that reportedly came from Spain were made of other materials. Later, when they arrived to Loíza, we didn't have those materials at hand. And because one of the main fruits in the area is the coconut, someone figured out that it worked for the carnival. Then another did it and then it became the thing. It was good because of how it happened—it was like a phenomenon. Every person that did it used their own skills and knowledge, like fishermen with knives. No matter where you are, when you see that mask, you know it’s from home.
What’s it like, making the masks?
It’s like letting go of a baby. You love them and you talk to them. When you don’t have inspiration at the moment, you say 'I’ll be with you in a few days,' and when you're done you're done.
Tell us about your first big show.
My first art show was done with this co-artist who gave my masks to 22 different Puerto Rican artists. She chose them based on their knowledge, experience, and style. We opened that show together in Santurce, Puerto Rico. When I got there and I saw all these pieces—the transformation of these masks—I thought it was so beautiful how they went from raw objects to pieces of art. I just wanted to cry. It was too emotional for me.
Then I saw one floating mask in the air. It was by Mirna, an artist who took the mask to New York with her, came back, went to Loiza, then offered the mask to the ocean. Mirna went back and forth for months with the mask, but couldn't do anything to it. Then she got some huge helium balloons and let it go until it hit the ceiling and that was her piece. She said it was finished how it was: she let it go. It was amazing and really touching for me that she did that. She just said, ‘I cannot do this, bye bye.’