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The complex spiritualities of syncretic beliefs

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New devotions at the Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural and Educational Center brings together six artists from Puerto Rico and the Diaspora, exploring their relationships and experiences with different traditions, including popular Catholicism, African diasporic religions, indigenous rituals and spiritualism, and the connections between them.

Due to religious hierarchies imposed by colonial powers for over 500 years, the interchange of spiritual beliefs and their material components saw the formation and evolution of syncretic doctrines. While candles, images of saints, and other idols are common in Puerto Rican households, the meanings owners attribute to them can be unexpected. In a statement for the exhibition, curator Laura Rivera writes, “Syncretism creates new spiritual imaginings that would not exist without the exchange of different cultures. She adds: “Growing up, my aunt had a picture of Saint Barbara, but when I asked who it was, she said ‘Shango'”.

“If I Was Ever Holy” (2023) presents the personal cosmology of artist Kiván Quiñones-Beltrán. He adapts wooden drawers found on the street, as his ancestors did, to create an altar that contains various portals: in one drawer is a photograph of a black child holding an image of Jesus and a collage of children at the Calvary, while images of “David holding the head of Goliath” by Caravaggio, a revival of lost paradise, and found items are in others. Quiñones-Beltrán also incorporates elements of his research into divinatory rituals from Congo, Ghana and Mali, such as an Nkisi figure, an object inhabited by an ancestral spirit. By putting them in dialogue with each other, he questions the Christian belief systems anchored in him from an early age, while considering his links with these African regions that shape his practice.

In the video “La Ruta” (2018) by Natalia Lassalle-Morillo, the artist documents her travels through the Scenic Route, a connection of several highways that stretch from coast to coast through the chain of Puerto Rico’s central mountains, invented as a tourist attraction by the island’s government in the 1960s. The artist explores the road as a preconceived ideal of progress and beauty, confronting its now-abandoned infrastructure and the current situation of communities along of these roads. The video uses oral histories to uncover narratives that have been lost or obscured in Puerto Rican society as well as the syncretic experiences that are presented in the show: At one point, near the start, a woman talks about a Marian apparition that would have taken place in his city. ; later, a group of older men talk about their rural town of Cayey being stuck in time. Ultimately, the work paints a picture of a region where people are perpetually awaiting validation from the Catholic Church and the US government’s intentions with federal assistance and future plans for island sovereignty.

The works in the exhibition offer insight into how these artifacts and beliefs arose and permeated organized ideologies and religions. The artists share a search for unknown pasts and traditions to better understand their own spiritualities. They, in turn, tap into the deities and intangible forces that inform their artistic endeavors and guide their intentions as they move in and out of an island colony filled with doctrines, myths, and legends. both spiritual and political inconsistencies.

José Luis Vargas, “Paracaídas” (2023), installation, variable dimensions; and “Espíritu” (2023), photography and enamel (photo Sebastián Meltz-Collazo/Hyperallergic)
Natalia Lassalle-Morillo, still from “La Ruta” (2018), single-channel video. HD with sound (courtesy the artist)
Kiván Quiñones Beltrán, “If I Was Ever Holy” (2023), collage and found objects on wooden drawers, variable dimensions; and “Danza I” (2021), acrylic, bleach, column on theater velvet, 180 x 0.5 x 114 inches (photo Sebastián Meltz-Collazo/Hyperallergic)
Miguel Otero-Fuentes, “Rose of the Messiah / Rosa del Mesías” (2019), concrete, pigment, paper, red candle, 2.5 x 14 inches, dedicated to Saint Michael the Archangel (photo Sebastián Meltz-Collazo/Hyperallergic)

New devotions continues at the Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural Center (107 Suffolk Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through April 15. The exhibition was curated by Laura Rivera.

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