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Maxine Schur

Caribbean Connection
Painting Puerto Rico's Soul
The Art of Cristina Emmanuel

I discovered the art of Cristina Emmanuel one glorious morning while strolling through Old San Juan. When I stopped by the FosilArte Gallery on Cristo Street, I was startled by a haunting oil portrait titled "Eyes of the Soul." Its subject, a veiled woman with a garland of red roses atop her head, stared straight back at me. I was entranced.

Emmanuel is a native Puerto Rican whose cliff-side home in El Grande is wrapped in the mysterious earthbound clouds of the El Yunque rain forest. Perched there above lush jungle, the artist visualizes her Puerto Rican heritage and puts it to paint.

For more than a decade, Emmanuel has created ornate paintings and collages that evoke contemporary Puerto Rican life. In much of her work, she uses the reliquary box form, inspired by Spanish Colonial retablo paintings --the Baroque style that swept the New World in the early 16th century. Blending two dimensional painting with three-dimensional objects, retablo paintings functioned as both art and icon. Today, Emmanuel's paintings do the same. By contrasting the sacred and the profane, they serve as altars that reveal her island's values and traditions through her childhood memories.

A graduate of the Boston Museum School of Fine Arts, Emmanuel exhibits throughout North America. Her inspiration, however, remains uniquely Puerto Rican. Years ago she became fascinated by old family photos which she calls "miraculous frozen bits of time." She displayed the photos throughout her house like the home altars of traditional Puerto Rican families. Soon, she started picturing them as art and incorporated them into devotional imagery that mixed Spanish Baroque and African-Caribbean religious elements.

In Emanuel's works, fragmented mementos and homely objects combine to convey powerful messages about cultural dominance, personal passions and collective memories. Puerto Rico's pre-Columbian past, Spanish heritage and its contemporary American subculture sometimes blend and sometimes disconcert. Images of Roman Catholic saints, for example, incorporate West African symbols, both of which metamorphose into Caribbean deities.

And though she often fuses junk -- discarded parts, torn and broken items and tacky souvenirs -- in her art, it is beautifully composed.

Through a profusion of objects and bright color, she evokes the tropical and conveys the ornate spirituality of Baroque art. "Made in Taiwan" doll limbs become traditional Latin American milagros, or healing amulets of gratitude. Themes of piety and transgression, healing and violence, ordinary and supernatural, past and present, connect with and comment on each other. In one painting, the African-Caribbean goddess Kali stands naked in a supernatural aural, festooned with hibiscus in an iconic pose, suggesting the Virgin Mary.

One of her retablos, "Aqui me quedo" (Here I Stay) is bright with pearls, painted cloth, flowers, photos and lace (she borrowed the title from a series of kiosks and small grocery stores in the mountains of Puerto Rico). The painting recalls her love for an old Puerto Rican woman in California who celebrated her son's birthday with a mother-son photo every year. The woman longed to return to her homeland but never did. The retablo symbolizes a longing for both home and a return to rural life after a sojourn in the industrialized U.S.

By combining ordinary elements in unpredictable ways. Cristina Emmanuel's art sanctifies aspects of traditional Puerto Rican life, the island's multicultural roots and its people.

Galeria FosilArte 200 Cristo Street (corner of San Francisco street) San Juan Puerto Rico 00901 787-725-4252

In addition to oil paintings, the artist also creates inexpensive wood reproductions with embossed, painted frames.

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Articles from the Caribbean
  Dionisio Blanco
  Candido Bido
  Sharon Wilson
  Dennis Valentine
  Don Dahlke
  Maria Henle
  Amos Ferguson
  Paradise on Earth
  Cristina Emmanuel
  Omeilia Marshall
  Giving the Devil His Due
  Euphoria in Eleuthera









Paintings by Cristina Emmanuel:
Taino Adam and Eve,
Here I Stay,
Eyes of the Soul.


©Maxine Rose Schur 2015. Reproducing or copying photos and articles is strictly prohibited unless expressly granted by the owner. All photos are by the author unless specified.



Maxine Rose Schur  :    Author, Writer, Speaker, Actress

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