Culture In Flux

“harlem: Per(il)locution” by Artist Jose Rodriguez Flux Art Fair in Harlem

Since the 1970s, New York-born, Harlem-bred artist Jose Rodriguez, has drawn upon his Cuban and Puerto Rican heritage to create decades of work based on ritual objects and ceremonial traditions. He has toured the world showing everywhere from the Musee du Louvre in Paris to the Studio Museum of Harlem. “harlem: The Per(il)locution,” a site specific installation of a Yoruba inspired ceremonial shrine pays homage to Harlem, and serves to address the emotional impact of gentrification across generations of community. It is an offering to the displaced people, culture and traditions. It is currently on display at Harlem’s inaugural Flux Art Fair at The Corn Exchange Building until May 17th. The installation is a spiritual summons, inviting viewers into Rodriguez’s very public, private, transient, sacred space. Perlocution refers to the impact or result of the prayer, offering, sacrifice. Whatever happens as a result is left up to the receiver.

“This is not merely an art installation,” says Rasu Jilani, Flux Fair Guest Curator, “it serves as an invitation to the viewer to engage in the experience of community ritual.”

Through “harlem: The Per(il)locution,” Rodriguez continues to express himself as both a traditional cultural practitioner as well as a contemporary artist, merging an authentic aesthetic with a contemporary urban experience all the while reaching towards the universal themes that connect the human experience. Spending half of his time in Okinawa, far away from his East Harlem based studio, he continues to draw upon influences from Asia and beyond. For instance, a light curtain shrouds the installation inviting visitors to pause in ritualistic reverence as they approach the shrine:

“There is a threshold you have to pass through, you have to duck down to look into it,” explains Rodriguez. “The idea behind it is something that I get from my time in Japan. They have curtains in front of doors there and you have to bow down to get through doorways, you have to humble yourself before entering a space.”

And it is the space between spaces that most interests Rodriguez, the space that one passes through to get to the other side of somewhere or something.

“The threshold, the space between, to pass through to get to the other side, the curtain that you look out from behind into the world, the window that my mother sat and gazed through.” He pauses for a moment. “For me, I had to traverse that plane. I had an English speaking world outside and a Spanish speaking world at home.” Often translating for his mother during trips to the welfare office he often felt in between worlds. “Not really here, nor there, between the material and the spiritual, that is what my work is speaking about.”

It is a very intimate thing, this transitional shrine placed in a very public place. It includes pieces from the artist’s own shrine, pieces from his personal experiences. Additionally, it is in the doing, the making of the shrine that is also sacred. It is essentially art as prayer through ceremony, and the meticulous use of one’s hands, the resulting art allows for communication between the physical and spiritual worlds.

Along with the dedicated assistance of his wife Noriko Rodriguez of Okinawa, Japan, Rodriguez has painstakingly placed hundreds of individual cowry shells and beads by hand. Through this artful creation, the Rodriguez’s pay homage to the artist’s matriarchal lineage.

“It’s apropos that she created the beading of the throne,” he says of her contribution. “It’s very intentional as the shrine is very feminine.”

Above the throne is a mathematically woven world map formed with red thread. The map is inspired by a recent asian story that the artist held dear: “The red thread of fate that connects us all together. We’re all interconnected we are one system within the system,” he says of it.

Below the shrine is a series of Yoruba inspired markings formed with copper pennies and coins, a departure from the traditional cornmeal markings that you may find in African diasporic ritual. Rodriguez is matter of fact about taking liberties with strict tradition, informed by his own visionary approach to ceremony, rules and boundaries. Boundaries and that he hopes we will all one day transcend.

“I’m really not an Artist,” he whispers as he leans in. “I’m making things as a spiritual being and I’m using that work as my magic and none of it is permanent, it’s done in the nature of Navajo sand painting, nothing is permanent. The work is an invocation, a live visual prayer and once the prayer is finished it’s silenced. It will once again become just a loose bag of cowries, it will disintegrate.”

Imani Powell-Razat is an Artist and Writer who lives in Harlem. She has covered Books, Art and Culture for Essence Magazine and beyond.

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