In his first solo exhibition in 1984, Dominican painter Enriquillo Amiama sealed his lifelong marriage with his art. In a small gallery in Santo Domingo’s UNESCO-listed Zona Colonial neighborhood, the then 22-year-old performed a wedding ceremony with an actress whom he hired to play not only the role of a muse but also an embodiment of painterly determination. One critic described it as “a happening,” but most viewers thought they were at a real wedding. In the 38 years since then, around 700 works have emerged from Amiama’s marriage.
Despite exhibiting in France, Canada and the US, Amiama is only a household name in his home country. After starting with geometric abstractions inspired by his engineering background, he focused on still lifes full of mangoes, which would eventually define his visual lexicon. With two mangoes in the foreground, each painting opens a portal to backgrounds rendered as narrative potentials, some depicting distant landscapes or the occasional abstract composition. After seeing Mexican painter Martha Chapa’s depictions of apples, Amiama thought that the fruits, which represent the Dominican experience, needed to be tropical, but also sexual and colorful.
“After some experimentation, I decided on mango – it has many colors and a ritual for eating,” says the artist. “Coupling them is coupling—a balance and an invitation.”
The fusion of meticulous hyperrealism and non-figurative experimentation grew out of a duality in Amiama’s training in the early 1980s. During his studies at the National School of Fine Arts in Santo Domingo with abstractionists who had fled Europe, the artist, who describes himself as a “terminal learner”, also took lessons from the Dominican painter Alberto Bass, who after studying figuration went to the New York Arts Students had returned to League.
The pairing of tropical fruits over lavishly draped Dominican flags in Amiama’s work speaks both of the exoticism afforded by the colonial gaze and of a cheeky homage to the symbolism of still lifes in European painting. Along the way he has also painted Jasper John-influenced pop abstractions (“I went mad,” he recalls the first time he saw John’s work reproduced in a book), wall-sized juxtapositions of dense color, and portraits of women. Two years ago his path ended with a return to still life.
Despite his rich body of work, artistic career and star status in his homeland, the 60-year-old is not well known outside the Dominican Republic. He has personally sold the majority of his paintings without gallery endorsement, maintained relationships with collectors, and rarely left his hometown of Santo Domingo, where he paints about ten hours a day. This lack of visibility was the main reason when New York-based consultant and curator Maria Brito took on the task of organizing Amiama’s recently opened retrospective in the Museo de Arte Moderno of Santo Domingo.
After connecting via Instagram, the artist ordered Brito’s recently released book How creativity rules the worldwhich eventually led to an invitation to curate Amiama’s first exhibition in his home country in 14 years.
“The art market has two obsessions: fresh talent from MFAs and long-overlooked discoveries — but what about mid-career artists?” asks Brito. “There are many ways to be successful, and introducing an outsider is always exciting and challenging as long as the work is done wisely,” she adds. “The posthumous discovery of an artist like Amiama would be a shame.”
Built in the 1970s in a Brutalist style, the Museo de Arte Moderno is among the largest dedicated to modern art in the Caribbean and also houses the National Biennale of Visual Arts, which Amiama participated in in 1983.
The journey was divided in two for the artist and the Venezuelan curator. In selecting the 65 paintings for the exhibition, Brito discovered that her great-great-grandfather was the Dominican painter Leopoldo Navarro, whose fame in the late 19th century led to a street a few blocks from the museum being named after him was named where Amiama’s work is now kept in court.
- Enriquillo Amiama: XXIto August 25, Museo de Arte Moderno, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.