Abil Peralta – Insignias Of Power

Insignias Of Power: The Symbolic And Ritual Statute Of The Paintings Of Jean Girigori

By  Abil Peralta Agüero. aica*

“Being able to see a work by Jean Girigori is like having the entire Caribbean in one’s hand.”

**Frank Marino Hernández **


It is not possible to establish a theoretical construct on the pictorial production of the Curacaoan artist Jean Girigori, if one doesn’t explore the dramatic historical and social sources of its magical and fantastic origin, so close to the theoretical proposals of Alejo Carpentier on the dominance of magical realism as aesthetic substratum of Caribbean art; which related to his artistic and personal life, may well seem to be fantastic fragments of  the text of a novel and not segments of a latent personal, emotional, and spiritual reality which sketched the course that would guide her along the paths of a great artist who walks today as a witness to the most living aesthetic events of modern and contemporary art in Latin America and the Caribbean.

With a Curacaoan father, Hilario Steve, and a Dominican mother, Altagracia Oliva, the painter Jean Girigori (1948), was born at deep sea, in a fragile boat built by her father to undertake a voyage whose route would be Curazao-Santo Domingo, for the purpose of installing themselves in the Dominican capital as immigrants.
The anguish, drama, and pain revealed which we perceive in the faith and rich pictorial gestures of Jean Girigori are not foreign to her magical and heart-rending origin, nailed by hammer blows in her artistic and personal history from the very moment when at the age of 1 2 3 4 5 she was sexually raped, since then leaving in her memory a writing of pain marked by a mystical and creative stigma in the depths of her body and her soul. Abil Peralta

In order to understand the scope of our reflection, one has only to read some of the texts which the artist has written as a philosophical-existential testimony, as an interior response to the trembling of her creative gaze revealed in a powerful, furtive, and at the same time indulgent work.

“I mean, that since I was born, it was written in the stars for me, that I would have to live my life consciously; and living wounds conscious.  This really hurts, but I know that a great moment will come……”

It is as if since her very childhood, the artist had listened to the philosophical breath of Nietzsche when in “Thus spoke Zaratrusta” he tells us as if in dialogue with the painter:

“Brother, behind your thoughts and feelings there is a powerful sovereign, a wise unknown called I myself.”

It is  that mystical “I or self”  that we see and feel how it vibrates on each one of the canvases that Jean Girigori has been presenting us throughout her successful and fruitful professional career.
That affirmation of the “inner self,” the reader-spectator will always feel in her art, because on each canvas she impresses that “insolent security” that Nietzsche himself speaks to us of, because certainly the artist must transmit in her work security and passion; nothing humble, because personal humility must never be a reason to retreat in the integrity of the creation.

Her link with art would seem to be a premonitory act, a ministry, a holy mandate, because from the time she was very young, and as part of her almost inexplicable wandering over the seas and lands of the Caribbean, she established herself in Haiti where she has been living for 13 years, and where she heard about and joined the workshop of the famous Haitian painter and writer Paul Georges Héctor, with  whom she has been working for several years and with whom she subsequently established  a brief marriage relationship.

The paintings which Jean Girigori creates from her inner consciousness are authentic insignias of power, bound within an organization of perceptive stimuli  which reveal the content of an expressive cabinet of great stylistic and conceptual diversity in its pictorial nature, able to confer  the degree of Master on one of the most outstanding creators  in modern Caribbean painting.

As if at one time her mind has received the philosophical and existential thought of the immense Austrian painter Egon Schiele, when he wrote as in stone: “I will be the fruit which after its decomposition will leave behind eternal beings,” Jean Girigori assumed the profession of art as a ritual commandment, as an act of commitment to life, to roots, to her dreams and the dreams of millions of breadless and homeless girls who today  wander the streets of Latin America, Africa, and the Caribbean; and also as an act of commitment with the dreams of millions of women who have been forbidden the gift of word, whether they be Caribbean, Latin American, North American, European, Afghan, or African.  As a metaphor of a poetic and living rebel, all of them are there, beating each second on her canvases, revealed in the imposing and seductive beauty of her art.

It is the reason that each one of her paintings is a dramatic inner  impulse7, an unpublished act of her being, because she, her life and her loving solidarity are deposited as a magical blow which illuminates in each canvas and in each space where sweat, her tears, or her own blood are alchemistically materialized like pictorial pigments which through her imagination find in her discourse a semantic structure for the word in the name of all: Black Caribbeans, white Caribbeans, mestizo Caribbeans, mulatto Caribbeans, Caribbeans all and Caribbeans nothing, because the immensity of being is everything, and everything is simply nothing, because nothing is the absolute: GOD.

Jean Girigori´s painting is based stylistically on an inner architecture structured in color, lending  always  to the heavy stroke a sensation of freedom and autonomy which transcends reality; thus accenting her rhythmic expression and the structural syntax of her work, almost bordering the best North American expressionist tradition, without belying in her visualization and plasticity the constructive proposals which she creates as photo grammatical structures which allow her to expose the enigma of time in the rhythm and movement of the scenes which define the emotional content of her pictures.

Her girls, the girls who populate a representative part of her pictorial production: those ant girls, as she calls the virgin creatures of her art, have in her painting achieved the stature of authentic icons of modern and contemporary Caribbeanness.

As of now they already form a part of the aesthetic and iconographic repertoire of the visual culture of the contemporary Caribbean; and that is how it should be subscribed by the non-programmatic critical gaze, by the new look of the history of art and culture on our lands, perversely named culturally as peripheral by culturologists that bet on savage globalization of economic, social, cultural and political thought patiently designed by the laboratories of the intelligentsia of North America and the West.

The perceptual characterization which we see during a de-constructive reading of the visual discourse which defines the expressionistic figural proposals of Girigori, proposes pictures created through a series of linking  images  and summary symbols in which woman prevails, extended to the iconography of the woman-girl-red lips, in which are conjugated a metaphorical expression of anguish and sensuality of gesture, and a kind of fear and innocence, expressed through a mime not dominated by silence, although without reaching the limits of visual aggression, placing itself within the linguistic parameters of a discourse which runs between resistance and provocation; projected conceptually and structurally within a symbolic statute enriched plastically by a series of halo-like ornaments which provoke in the spectator a passionate perceptual enjoyment, creating in the onlooker a magical attention and an attraction which translates into a kind of magnetic pscyhologism of great sign value in its communicational relationship with whoever contemplates her work.


Those images, born of the spheres of intuitive power about which the artist speaks to us as part of her modes of apprehending reality, of her reality, both infant and adult-social-anthropological and cultural, of the Carribean, are expressed in her work through the codes of a black nationalism, philosophically translated into the category of militant and testimonial neohumanism , which from its most elemental formulation, denies every link with pathological aesthetics, in order by contrast to approach theological postulates close to rastafarism8 as a discourse of resistance and faith which affirms hope and passion for the perpetuity of blackness as a noble expression of the universal collective being.

The multitudes, children’s toys, popular games, fish, birds, popular architecture, faces, mountains, or the sea that Jean Girigori paints on the smoothness of her canvases are not an hypothesis based on an axiology of reason; they constitute a reflex action of her critical consciousness, of her sensitive capacity for religious, emotional, ideological, existential, and mental reflection; but above all, spiritual reflection, because her paintings are a flame which burns and does not hurt, because it fuses the  illumination and the reflection of the person who observes and feels the intimate mystery palpitating in her art.


Few Caribbean artists have created a piece of such symbolic transcendence as the work entitled “Ghost in a children’s refuge,” 1989, a true masterpiece in which, based on a dramatic configuration of grays and blues, the artist transmutes the legendary cry of Edvard Munch and materializes it as a personal emblem in the face of one of the ant girls who symbolize the exalted poetry of her canvases.

Here there is a proposal in its semantic and lexical structure which ritualizes  its interest in the recuperation of what is sacred in art, as occurred in the formulations of primitive art, both western and in the aesthetic expressions of our aborigines engraved as pictographic signs in the numerous caves of the Caribbean.

Those girls, whose gestures exalt their red lips, seem to proceed with “dramatic eloquence”9 between pain and pleasure. The magic of their expressions speaks of the millions of little girls who inhabit the solitary soul of the artist, those to whom she gives birth to on her canvases as part of a magical religious rite so human that we feel that we live it in each one of the scenes of her works.

The stain, the accident, the chromatic intervention, the brush stroke in the form  of a short cane, and the gesture of the broad brush stroke are only some of the technical and stylistic resources that the artist employs to expose her mastery and application of the materiological and the texturological in her paintings, as Jean Dubuffet states so well as a theoretical observation on the process of production of his Art Brut.

From that conscious textural and fractural application and manipulation of Girigori´s there emerges the atmosphere of strong emotional and spiritual sensation which we perceive in her canvases, because it permits her to dematerialize all of her energy, to give herself completely, to become just another entity on the canvas; like interpreting Jean Dubuffet himself when he correctly stated that “a work of art is interesting only if it is a very immediate and direct projection of what occurs in the depths of a being.10

Her paintings do not allow a reading which will place them as an idea-reflection of concrete reality, they are not a replication of the social referral and nothing more.  They are a profound emanation of the not visible images and events  of that reality, and for that reason her paintings are “tántricas” (?), mystical, mysterious…….. sources bearing a conductive energy of peace, not of disquieting images able to assault the spectator, because they are images for song, for reflection, for silent prayer, and for peace. They are the voice of an integral and solemn word in his ability to speak in the name of freedom and in the name of a critical consciousness for the Caribbean.

And it is as Pierre Abrahán so well warns us, “every human expression can be addressed both in its documentary aspect and in its emotional content.  What is characteristic of art is that it offers, intimately amalgamated, both document and emotion.”11  Precisely inside that theoretical statement is inscribed the mystical phenomenon which defines the essential aesthetic statute of Jean Girigori´s paintings. Her works are a reserve-reflection of her being, of her soul, and of her history/story, nothing more than reason to feel them as parts of each one of our bodies.

The  rational anthropology inserted into social science and socialist realism required of aesthetics a theoretical discourse which would explain art as part of the laws which define daily life and the axes of social production; but Jean Girigori´s painting cannot be seen from that ideological and dogmatic sociologism, because her art is closer to the fertility rite that demands introspection, a review of conscience, pardon, indulgence, and especially peace for the ant girls not to remain with their subterranean smiles forever.

The images of content in her work are inserted into the social conscience and not in the topography and social thought.  The semantics of her visual linguistics transcends the story/history and immediacy of the political discourse in order to associate itself with more noble patterns, understanding that in the end the most tangible result is the vigorous beauty of her works, which as Plotino said so well: “have their archetype within the beautiful soul.”


The corrosive emblems which we feel and see in her paintings as transcendent and memorable actions are based on a compositive spatial ordering inscribed in the most authentic discourse of North American abstract expressionism, basically associated with the alphabetics of Willem de Kooning and energy as matter formulated by Jackson Pollock.  It is the appropriation of the eye in a savage or wild state.

Jean Girigori in a wise association of styles finds her own thought, her own personality in painting, valuing the contributions of German expressionism, North American abstract expressionism, and the best symbolic and ritual tradition of Haitian art12, basically in reference to the painting of Philomé Obin and Préféte Duffaut, of whom she  values the sensitive ability to mesh souls, plastically conceived of as multitudes of winged bodies gifted with a subtle collective spirituality.  The multitudes on her canvases are parts of her expressionist climate and temperament, which she has managed to define as sensations not contaminated by the triviality and expositional theatricality in their expression.

Her art, which is not anarchistic, nor very idiomatic, is guided by an energetic vocabulary of archetypes, myths, symbols, signs, creatures, and legends from which the nostalgic gaze of a fish or the toy of a child who has never known the face of spring does not escape.

The rhythm, the energy, and the integrity with which Jean Girigori addresses in the language of her painting the caligraphy of Caribbean color and the iconography of negritude, give  a character of great dignity to their expression associated with the modes of observation of blackness as an ideological proposal, because from the discursive realms of her plastic syntaxis, she disintegrates the narrative illusion in order, on the other hand, to propose philosophical anthropological-conceptual formulations of a heavy symbolic value, directly linked to the most worthy vindication of the most authentic humanistic values of negritude as an ideology of thought beyond simple ethnic vindication.

That present painting, not at all rhetorical and totally associated with the most advanced events of contemporary thought which now shape the discourses of international painting, is celebrated by the Caribbean as part of the mental and creative process of Jean Girigori, due to the fact that her art  encourages in the viewer a  feeling of solidarity, excluding her images from all phenomenology associated with otherness as a psychological state which one denies, likewise in order to be the  other.  Jean, on the other hand, experiments n her work a transmutation experience in the relationship of her “self” with her art.

She is totally there, lit and in flames to speak from the mystery of her iconography in the name of the childhood of her 1 2 3 4 and 5 years, and in the name of woman as a semantic axis in the greater production of her paintings.
Like the grand masters of North American abstract expressionism, Jean Girigori believes in and bets in her work on a painting which will value the severe characteristics of primitivism present in the gestural violence of her expression as signed corresponding to the essential primitivism Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottieb talked to us about, as a  way of being sufficiently vital to make of art an entity of action in the chaos of the story/history or in the chaos of life itself.13

Above all, when one looks and sees the pure gesture and the action of attacking the canvas as a generating act of eternal symbols, although in their images of liquid sensations and in their sacerdotal expressions there  is written, carved or tattooed  the grace of tenderness….. or the painful critical legend, “Jamá Sabactamá”:  “My God, my God. Why hast thou forsaken me!”14  Jean Girigori as mystic claimant, seized the shudder of that christological cry and carried to her canvases as an act of petrifaction the abandonment of millions of girls and women whose souls clamor beaten down at their painful condemning to forgetfulness, vindicated in her work under the seal of the aristocracy which art grants as recuperation of the collective conscience/consciousness.


Jean Girigori, as part of a phenomenon linked with the post-modern and contemporary proposals which seized an honest philosophical-aesthetic current which proposed resistance and the contestatory-existential  as a discourse of creative action, associated herself with these proposals in the decade of the 1980´s, producing a series of stagings based on a dramatic rituality whose impact is still remembered today with reflexive sensation by the spectators who were witnesses to that phase of her creative work, performed both in Curazao and in other countries where the artist has made public the symbolic spectrum of her work; reminding those who made contact with her art of action in the 1980´s of her memorable performance of 1985, entitled “Slavery-no,” in which under dramatic expression she exposed with theatrical vehemence and ritual ecstasy her concern for the genetic slave memory which still today beats in the most intimate spaces of the black race of the Antilles.

Under the proclamation of a dramatic NEVER!….. NEVER AGAIN!….. the artist demonstrated heart by exposing her body transfigured within some levels of scenic excellence which were so pathetic and vigorous that they place her exposure within the most authentic tradition of the great creators of the environment and the North American and English happening which used to be produced at that time as an event of philosophical and existential gain in favor of the universal vanguards.

That link of Girigori with the languages and vanguardist tradition of Joseph Beuys, Gunter Brus, Hermann Nitsch, Paul Thek Claes Oldenburg, Yves Klein, Jim Dine, Gina Pane, or Yayoi Kusama, the Caribbean artist did not articulate  within a conduct of arrogance and modish hypocrisy; she did it because in the visceral level of her critical consciousness she felt the need to expose the weight and energy of her body at the service of her emotional expression as a ferocious language at the service of her art.

It is evident as Gombrich says, that Jean Girigori seemed to feel inside the need to let shine through the “spirit of dematerialization of art and the desire to integrate creation with life.”15  Her relationship with the languages of vanguardist, post-modern, and contemporary art was sincere, very sincere, the result of a strong need to expose the direct relationship of her pictorial work with that aesthetic occurrence of the S-XX art which like her painting is a ritualized gesture which projects before the viewer a load of authentic expression, not limited in its visualization to a simple mimicking ritual act, but rather extended to something more…… a symptom of her own being, thus evidencing her interest in expanding the frontiers of her work to other sensorial fields as an expansion of her extraordinary accuracy of pictorial creation.

 *Art Critic and Curator.  Member of the International Association of Art Critics, Aica-Unesco. Secretary General of the Dominican Association of Art Critics and Correspondent for the Caribbean of the magazine Arte al Día Internacional.

**Sociologist, collector, and cultural promoter.  Past President of the Governing Foundation of the Museum of Modern Art of the Dominican Republic.

1.-  “For more than 30 years, this dedicated Curacaoan artist has come to  achieve a vast and suggestive pictorial production in  which she addresses nature, essences, the wonders of the landscape, memory, and the tragic circumstances which determine the daily life of the peoples of the Caribbean.”  Jean Girigori.  The Caribbean transfigured.  Amable López Meléndez.  Hoy Newspaper.  Santo Domingo, 2002.
2.-  Document:  “Jean Girigori, a biographical note.”  Frank Martinus Arion, Curazao.
3.-  Document:  Cited, Note 2.
4.-  SCHIELE.  Reinhart Steiner.  The Midnight Soul of the Artist.  Taschen.  GmbH, 2001.  Cologne, Germany. Page 12.
5.-  “In the year 1972, Jean Girigori installed her workshop in Curazao.  Between 1977-79 she held four individual exhibitions in the Libertas Gallery, Centro Pro Arte, and in the Cultureel Centrum Curacao.  From 1978 to 1980 she studied in the Art Students League of New York, under the tutelage of the renowned North American artist Knox Martin.  During that last year, she exhibited her work in the Art Students League and in the Women´s Art Gallery of New York, to receive lessons in sculpture under the orientation of professor and sculptor José de Creft.  Jean Girigori has lived  in Haiti, the United States, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and Holland.  Hers could be one of the most intense and complete experiences any artist woman from the Caribbean region has lived in the last three decades.”  Amable López Meléndez.  Text cited, Note 1.
6.-  Ob. Cit., Note 4. Page 65.
7.-  Document:  “Her work is an extension of her being.”  May Henríques Alvarez Correa.  Curacaoan author, collector, and student of Jean Girigori´s work.
8.-  Annals of the Caribbean.  “Rastafarianism in Jamaica.  A new contribution from Africa to the Caribbean: between histories, politics, and religion.”  Juan M. Riesgo.  Ed. Casa de las Américas.  Center for Caribbean Studies. 1995.  Pages 123-124 and 125.  “For Jamaicans the use of geez (an extinct ligurgical language of Ethiopia) had a religious-secret veneration nature, by following faithfully rites with incomprehensible words, which lent the liturgy a sense of the even more mysterious.  This powerful black church, in a legendary empire, was extraordinarily attractive for Afro-Americans.  When Marcus Garvey was deported from the United States in 1927, his arrival coincided with that of some 20,000 Jamaicans who were returning after having completed their work contracts in Cuba and Panama.  With the depression, it was hard to find perspectives for a better life.  For that reason Garvey´s  religious-political predictions  fell on fertile ground.  Garvey said:  -Salvation would be possible only through a return to Africa, look to Africa, a black King will be crowned because the liberation is near.-  The Ras Tafari was crowned Emperor in 1930.  In addition, Garvey said that the decisive decade would be the years of the sixties, just when Nigeria, Somalia, and the former French, African, and British colonies of East Africa en masse reached independence. (…..) There, in addition to the solemnity of the religious liturgy, they were impressed by the hairstyles of some Ethiopians, especially the Gallas or Oromos, who braided their hair with string and ringlets, simulating the mane of a Lion.  And in some cases like that of the Oromos and Amharas horsemen warriors, it was a headdress made from the mane of a Lion.  The Lion of Judah was the animal which represented the courage of the Ethiopians and the power of the Emperor. (…….) Fortunately, the pacifist branch of the rastas prevailed thanks to an original music which within the Reggae movement triumphed around the world in the same decade as independence and Garvey´s move to his native land.  Robert Nesta Marley was born on February 6th, 1945, Santa Anna (Garvey´s city), the son of the white man Normal Marley and the Jamaican Cedelia, so that with the Rastafarian hairstyle he looked like a true Ethiopian (….) Rastafarianism has four basic principles: 1.-  Recognition of the divinity of Jah Rasta, – the spirit which dwells in all-; 2. The idea of repatriation in order to return to the lost paradise and recuperate in Africa true freedom; 3.-  The superiority of the black race, as God’s chosen people, descendants of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, so that it assumes the historical inheritance of the children of Israel; 4.-  The conduct of fear, which is a rebellious posture, in the face of white aggression which also extends to some black governors.  In the basic doctrine are combined aspects of ethnic awareness of the African tribes, with principles from the Old Testament (like the Falasha Jews of Ethiopia) and of the New Testament.  It has special consideration for the chapters Ezequial 30-1, Timothy-6, and Apocalypse 17 and 19.  It attempts thereby to demonstrate the divinity of Haile Salassie and that the invasion of Ethiopia by Italy was foretold and prophesied.”
9.- Document:  La muy esperada Jean Girigori.  Marianne de Tolentino.  Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.
10.- Escritos sobre arte.  Jean Dubuffet.  Barral Editores.  Barcelona, 1975.  Page 104. 
11.- Estética y Marxismo.  Several authors.  Pierre Abraham.  Ed. Martínez Roca, S.A., Barcelona, 1971.  Page 13.
12.-  Peintres Haïtiens.  Gerard Alexis.  Editions Circle dárt, Paris, 2000.
13.-  “In 1943, in a radio transmission and in a letter to the New York Tiomes (in which Barnettt Newman collaborated), Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottieb proclaimed their commitment to the eternal symbols – their affinity for primitive man and their conviction of the expressive power of the myth and their insistence on the primacy of the subject.”  Conceptos del Arte Moderno.  Nikos Stangos.  Ed. Destinos.  Singapour, 1994.  Page 194.
14.-  Ob cit. note 13, Page 200.
15.-  Gesto Ritualizado y Expresión en el Arte.  La Imagen y el Ojo.  New Studies on Psychology of Pictorial Representation.  B.H. Gombrich. Ed. Debates, S.A., Madrid, 2000. Page 63.