How can we navigate the dangerous waters of colonial histories and unravel the threads that string together national myths? Scherezade Garcia’s paintings in “Stripes, Fireworks, and Other Stories” invite us to reconsider the common narratives that shape our world. By appropriating and transforming old and new national symbols—the Statue of Liberty, the portrait of Ulises Heureaux, Mickey Mouse ears—her paintings function as a suggestive map upon which we can reconfigure our experience of the Americas.
The artist’s map is “suggestive” in that it does not adhere to traditional cartographical principles. Garcia, recognizing the symbolic character of any representation, rejects the straight lines of parallels and meridians and adopts a baroque approach to depicting sea and land that has its origins in the artist’s native Caribbean. One of the genealogies of the word “baroque,” a style that espouses convoluted lines, traces it back to asymmetric pearls; and seeking pearls was itself one of the motivations that led Columbus to take to the sea, ultimately reaching Hispaniola.
If the etymology of baroque situates the Caribbean Sea as a place for colonial enterprises, Garcia’s installation Theories of Freedom: Sea of Wonder (2010-2018) (Figure 1) approaches the sea as a territory of diaspora. The title of the work transforms the oceanic realm into free space and so inverts the colonial encounter with the Caribbean Sea premised upon the riches to be derived from the “discovery” of inhabited lands, pearl farming, and the slave trade. Garcia’s work presents the sea itself as a “liquid highway” driving the diverse composition of the American hemisphere, in which indigenous, African, and European bodies commingle. This diasporic trajectory evokes the artist’s own island-to-island dislocation in which she moved from the Dominican Republic to Manhattan.
The scale of Sea of Wonder exceeds the limits of the visual, overflowing the viewer’s gaze. Installed vertically on the gallery walls, the artwork reorients the horizon so that it no longer lies comfortably at eye level, shifting the physical boundary where sky meets land and water and re-shaping our vision of the world. In this ever-expanding sea, everything is located at the center; there are no margins. Adding to the uncertainty of this uncharted territory, the color of the meandering waves (are they grey or silver?) tricks the eye and welcomes what Caribbean intellectual Édouard Glissant, refers to as opacity: an antidote against a transparent eye that searches for absolute truths and reduces people to binaries.
Garcia’s depiction of the skin tone of her characters also employs this concept. The cinnamon-colored figures, painted in grisaille, contrast with the saturated backgrounds of golds, pinks, reds, and crystalline aquamarines. The artist arrived at this ambiguous hue by mixing all the colors in her palette, making it the color of inclusiveness. Escaping reductive binary classifications, Garcia’s racially ambivalent figures in Blond Mulata (2015) (Figure 2) and Paradise According to the Tropics: Sunburned Jesus Christ (2016) (Figure 3) revise the classical genres of portraiture and religious painting by inserting the mixed-race heritage central to the formation of the Americas. The artist thus works both within and against predominant artistic conventions, unsettling the meanings of well-known histories by mixing Jesus Christ and the airplane, halos and Mickey Mouse ears within a tropical setting.
The dark-skinned, light-haired female figure in Blond Mulata, for instance, is nestled into a lifebuoy, placidly navigating turbulent waters—her dangling necklaces the only clue of the violent uproar that the journey entails. One of their small medallions portrays the Statue of Liberty, hinting at a possible destination. Yet that icon of America as the land of opportunity is also depicted as a cinnamon-color woman—an iconography that reappears in Talking the Talk, Walking the Walk II (2017) (Figure 4) and some of its preparatory drawings (Figure 5). By presenting this symbol as a mixed-race woman, Garcia refuses to endorse claims of US exceptionalism and reminds viewers of the diasporic nature of the country and its place within the Americas. Garcia’s work thus represents the United States as not immune to the diversity that is a consequence of travel and migration, of objects and people in constant flux.
The paintings produced by Garcia during a residency in New Orleans in 2017 present the city as emblematic of a diverse America that is constantly downplayed by mythologies of cultural homogeneity. In works such as América: About Stripes and Fireworks (Figure 6) and American Sacrifice (Figure 7), the artist deconstructs motifs drawn from the “Stars and Stripes” of the US flag. The works combine these symbolic elements, along with fireworks and festive strings of beads evocative of their US setting, with visual references to her native Caribbean: golden baroque ornamentation, a nearly transparent aquamarine, and racial ambiguity.
If this combination of varied elements challenges the fantasy of unity, it also erases the illusion of irreconcilable difference. Garcia’s juxtaposed iconography highlights the similitudes that populate spaces such as the Dominican Republic, Manhattan, and New Orleans. By placing a bicorn, the famous “Napoleon” hat, on the heads of the figure portrayed in American Sacrifice and of Ulises Heureaux in Lilís Caressing the Goat (Figure 8), for instance, Garcia exposes a common hemispheric penchant for dictatorial figures and scapegoats.
By employing multiple signifiers that compose a larger América, these works also evoke a skeptical view of nationalism. In American Sacrifice, a sacrificial pig denotes the ancient practice whereby autocrats gave away food during celebrations to perpetuate oppression. In Lilís Caressing the Goat, the kid held tightly by the dictator appears between the Taíno words Quisqueya and Ayiti, standing as a painful reminder of the only islander able to freely circulate within the territory divided between the Dominican Republic and Haiti.
By referencing past and present myths and personal and political travel histories, the work breaks with the hegemonic view that conflates the US with America and locates the Caribbean as an exotic other. By highlighting the mutability of stories, Garcia thus creates an option of agency.
The paintings Tignon Collection: Stripes of Resistance I and II (Figure 9 and 10) (also produced in New Orleans) embody what the artist calls “quiet resistance.” Painted in a palette of hot pink, these canvases juxtapose cinnamon-colored women wearing elaborate headdresses against stripes reminiscent of the US flag and baroque decorations. Garcia visually reinforces these figures’ agency by expanding the tignon into floating cascading waves echoed formally by the golden baroque décor. Side by side with imagery that suggests US nationalism (the flag and fireworks), the two canvases compose an expanded vision of América.
The headdresses worn by these figures allude to Louisiana history—specifically to the sumptuary laws of 1786 that required women of African descent to cover their hair so as to keep them from adorning their hair with jewelry and beads and thereby attracting the attention of white suitors. Imposed as a means to maintain class distinctions, the law mandating the tignon backfired: its ingenious wrapping techniques using the finest materials actually enhanced the beauty of women of color. The tignon exemplifies how a mark of denigrated otherness can mutate into an act of self-empowering affirmation.
By navigating the turbulent, baroque paths of national and continental histories, the work of Scherezade Garcia reveals that the meaning of a story is rarely fixed, for it can always be opened to different endings. By so doing, Garcia’s art, like the water deity Yemayá (Figure 11)—who migrated from the rivers of West Africa to the shores of Haiti, Cuba, and Brazil—covers vast territories.
 Camila Maroja (Ph.D., Duke University) is an art historian and visual culturist specializing in modern and contemporary art with an emphasis on Latin America. She is currently the Kindler Distinguished Historian of Global Contemporary Art and assistant professor of art and art history at Colgate University.
 For a comprehensive analysis of the neobaroque in Scherezade Garcia’s work, see Abigail Lapin Dardashti, “El Dorado: The Neobaroque in Dominican American Art,” Diálogo 20, no. 1 (Spring 2017): 73-87.
 For a study of the pearl as a main source of Spain’s maritime enterprise in the New World, see Molly A. Warsh, American Baroque. Pearls and the Nature of Empire, 1492-1700 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018).
 Édouard Glissant, “For Opacity,” in Over Here. International Perspectives on Art and Culture, ed. Gerardo Mosquera and Jean Fisher (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2004), 252-257.