Scherezade Garcia’s Las Aguas Libres - Waters of Freedom
Scherezade Garcia’s multidisciplinary work focuses on the struggle of many Latin Americans who continue to
experience the historical and ongoing impacts of colonization, persecution, and migration. Her sculptural
installations, prints, and paintings explore religious salvation and paradise in a contemporary and historical
context. Garcia builds seductive installations by repurposing and reconfiguring familiar objects such as inner
tubes, suitcases, tents, and newspapers as symbols of religious iconography. Through her luscious surfaces
and haunting drawings, she evokes memories of home, religious icons, and the stories of migration from
many Latin American families.
A Floating Altar
Garcia’s installation at the College of Staten Island, Las Aguas Libres - Waters of Freedom, centers on a
buoyant, monumental altar made of golden, stacked inner tubes. As a reference to a raft or boat, it recalls
contemporary immigration between Central America and North America, but it also conjures up historical
journeys made by waves of immigrants to the Americas, particularly during the late 19th century on hundreds
of slave ships from West Africa. The pyramidal structure calls to mind the horrors of the Middle Passage, and
images of famous shipwrecks and catastrophes at sea, such as Théodore Géricault’s triangulated form of the
Raft of the Medusa (1819), in which the few remaining survivors resorted to cannibalism to withstand their
perilous journey. The gold color of the sculpture and the plastic electrical ties bind the gold inner tubes
together. They reveal the fragility of this system and evoke shackles, reminiscent Cover: of the hands and feet bound by chains in J.M.W. Turner’s The Slave Ship (1840). As a means of transport, this impractical structure
conveys the desperation of its travelers, who are willing to risk their lives for the promise of possibility.
Garcia’s Las Aguas Libres builds upon her previous explorations of the themes of rescue and salvation.
Sabana de la Mar (City of the Drowned) (2002) was a project in which she constructed flotation devices for
people leaving the Dominican Republic. Sabana de la Mar is the village in Hato Mayor, Dominican Republic,
where, every month, there are reported tragedies of drowning and death as Dominicans illegally try to reach
Puerto Rico through these shark-infested waters on small ill-equipped rafts and boats. Garcia describes the
seas that these Dominicans cross as “liquid borders” that separate them from a world of opportunity.
Garcia spent time with the communities living in Hato Mayor to gain a deeper understanding of why local
Dominicans risk everything to cross the liquid frontier. She interviewed individuals who travel back and forth
from Hato Mayor to Puerto Rico, often paying a hefty price for their tickets to seek economic opportunities
and a better life. She soon realized that they were traveling on poorly equipped boats with no life vests or
inflatables. Garcia created the life vests that she asked young people to wear, and discussed with them the
importance of safety measures against the dangers of the sea. Like a shaman, Garcia hand-painted the vests
with images of the sea, angels, and prayers to symbolically protect these young people and their families,
therefore integrating hand-painted images, sculptural elements, and the performance of wearing these life
jackets in her documentary film.
Garcia employs a similar integration of paint and inflatable materials in Las Aguas Libres by including her
silkscreened images of loosely drawn icons in her installation. She adorns Printing The Liquid Highway in the studio, 2015 the sculpture with meticulously printed suitcase identification tags that feature an image of the saint-like Lady Liberty. Liberty is cinnamoncolored, the result of mixing all colors. She represents the blend of ethnicities, races, and cultures that characterizes the United States population. Garcia comments,
The cinnamon character is a constant in my work since 1996. In the case of the Statue of
Liberty, I was inspired and enraged by the endless talk about “diversity” and the “melting pot”
…our statue should portray that by being the results of the mixing of all the colors in a color
palette…an inclusive action. Also the Catholic iconography with my mixed race warrior/angels
is my way of colonizing the colonizers...by appropriating, and transforming, I create new icons.
Garcia negotiates the history of United States immigration and comments on the blended identity of most
Americans through the symbolism of Liberty’s warm brown skin. She centralizes the significance of slavery in
the Americas and critiques the idea of a pure, White U.S. identity.
Cathedral, the central component of Las Aguas Libres, represents a sacred space or an altar in Catholicism
where one could take shelter in the way that worshipers are meant to use their ritual and prayer as a type of
life raft. Its accumulation of gold circles suggests the halos of the saints, the Madonna, and Christ. Moreover,
the printed labels with images of Lady Liberty refer to Milagros, or Latin American folk charms. As with the
earlier angels painted on her life vests, Garcia decorates the sculpture with these images as if they are amulets. Garcia’s Liberty is reminiscent of the protective, maternal presence of the Madonna in Latin American
Christianity. The cinnamon color may also refer to images of a brown-skinned Madonna, such as the Virgin of
Guadelupe, who has special meaning for many Catholics in Mexico and is more accessible to them than a
blonde and blue-eyed Madonna. It also invokes the Black Madonnas of Medieval Europe that some scholars
believe represent an ancient Earth Goddess transformed in Christianity. Garcia reinvigorates the iconography
of the Statue of Liberty and its current relevance, particularly in a time of contentious border and immigration
issues in the United States. Lady Liberty represents freedom and the United States as she greets immigrants
arriving from abroad. However, in Garcia’s version, Liberty holds no torch, and her diminutive scale makes her
more accessible and delicate. Her swirling robes and gentle face are no longer neoclassical, and she is
draped like the Madonna. One could say that in Las Aguas Libres, Garcia reconceptualizes the civil symbol of
Liberty into an accessible, gentle Madonna.
The seductive gold surface of the centralized Cathedral pays homage to many European and Pre-Colombian
art historical precedents. The accumulation of gold brings to mind the lavish materials employed by the
Catholic Church for architectural details, reliquaries, and embellishment of paintings celebrating Christ, the
Madonna, and saints. The circular forms of the inner tubes also invoke the golden halos of Christian art, as
well as what would later evolve into flamboyant arabesques of the late Baroque and Rococo. Further, the
gold color points to pre-Colombian art made of gold, such as that of the Maya, Inca, and Aztec cultures, a
major incentive for colonial expeditions into the Americas. Garcia says that she was inspired while listening to
a priest being interviewed about important monuments in the Caribbean. The program featured the Catedral
de la Inmaculada Concepción in La Vega, Dominican Republic. She says, “It was built in that location due to
the discovery of gold in that area, and is believed to be the site for the first rites of baptism in the New World.
The crossing of the Atlantic Ocean, the unplanned discovery of the American continent, the expectation of
riches, the gold, and the presence of religion started to compose scenarios in my mind.” Garcia’s use of gold
references that usurping history of colonization, and the glorious decorations and architectural grandeur of
Catholic churches. Although it is makeshift and temporary, her altar inspires a similar sense of awe because
of its grand scale and gleaming surface.
At the same time, the synthetic, mass-produced materials of Las Aguas Libres point to the postmodern
sense of kitsch. It is reminiscent of inflatable metallic artworks such as Jeff Koons’s stainless steel Rabbit
(1986) that epitomizes capitalism’s conspicuous consumption and challenges ideas of good taste in fine art.
The gold surface of the inner tubes is also part of a preference in much contemporary Latin American art for
shiny, consciously gaudy materials as in Miguel Luciano’s Pure Plantainum (2006), a series that includes an
image of a tough pre-teen wearing a platinum-coated plantain hanging from a chain, an emblem of his
Puerto Rican identity. Similarly, Garcia’s use of gold to coat something perishable adds decorative toughness
to the surface, and responds to the ways that gold represents surface value in many capitalist societies.
In spite of the beauty and bravado of her gold structure, Garcia’s Las Aguas Libres invites the visitor to
experience a watery borderland full of danger and hardship. She challenges audiences to identify with
immigrants and diaspora cultures, and to imagine the hopes and dreams particular to those seeking refuge.
At the College of Staten Island, Garcia exhibits 20 new silkscreens to cover the walls and to serve as a “liquid
highway” for her installation. Each print is associated with a different migratory story, honoring individual
experiences in her artwork and memorializing these stories with the altar.
Garcia incorporates identification tags with Liberty to introduce interactive engagement for visitors. The public
is invited to fill out the tags and respond to the questions, “where are you from? What are your life
expectations or dreams?” Participants are then encouraged to attach their cards onto the piece. The
accumulation of answers reinforces the idea that we are all travelers in the journey of life, searching for
fulfillment and sanctuary. In this way, Garcia includes the public in defining Las Aguas Libres as a collective
condition of individual and communal hopes and dreams.
Inherent in this journey is a sense of being at a crossroads, always in transition. Gloria E. Anzaldúa describes
To live in the Borderlands means you
are neither hispana india negra espanola
ni gabacha, eres mestiza, mulata, half-breed
caught in the crossfire between camps
while carrying all five races on your back
not knowing which side to turn to, run from …
To survive the Borderlands
you must live sin fronteras
be a crossroads.
At its current location in the Gallery of the College of Staten Island, Garcia’s Las Aguas Libres acknowledges
Staten Island’s diverse communities and the vibrant cultural life provided by the Gallery. It offers a point of
focus for themes of immigration and salvation, and celebrates the struggle of so many immigrants who have
carved out a sacred space in New York City. Las Aguas Libres serves as a mobile memorial to these different
experiences of border crossing and acknowledges the migratory histories of so many Americans. Garcia’s
work not only expresses this overarching concept of borderlands, but it emerges on the borders of a range
of art historical, aesthetic, and formal concerns. Her buoyant utopia invites us to imagine these journeys and
to appreciate the universal need for freedom and possibility.
Sophie Sanders, PhD