Requiem, 2011, oil on canvas, 24" x 42"(diptych), (Collection of the Artist).
Raúl Villarreal's painting alludes to the Middle Passage to the Americas, which began around 1518 and where an estimated 11-13 million Africans were brutally imprisoned into slavery. While millions survived, a very large percentage perished en route, due to the horrible and inhumane conditions aboard the slave ships, and many others hurled themselves overboard, bravely welcoming a sure death over captivity. Today, more than five hundred years later, many "immigrants" world over attempt to cross bodies of waters and borders to reach a better way of life. The United States is no stranger to this 21st century condition; with people from neighboring nations risking their lives for an opportunity at the "American Dream." As in the journeys during the Middle Passage, many reach their destination, while others perish along the way.
For several years, Villarreal's art has dealt with issues of identity, transculturalism, and postcolonialism. The left panel of the painting shows a sculptured Pieta embracing a dead rafter, while a sculpture of weeping angel absolutes the trinity of tragedy and despair against a blood-red sky. The balsero (rafter) Christ-like figure could be a native of Africa or from anywhere in the Americas, perhaps a global immigrant. Villarreal fuses Catholic and Afro-Caribbean symbolism and imagery to epitomize the syncretism that occurred in the Americas during centuries of colonization. A colonization, which first began with the Spanish and Portuguese, followed by the French and the British, and even included the Netherlands. The second panel with a glowing green background and an image of a skull, along with a white rose alludes to José Marti's struggle to unite the Spanish speaking countries in the late 19th Century, as well as his martyrdom. The white rose is a symbolic reference to one of Marti's most significant poems: Cultivo una rosa blanca (I Cultivate a White Rose), where the last line of verse echoes with these profound words:
"And for the cruel person who tears out the heart with which I live, I cultivate neither nettles nor thorns: I cultivate a white rose."
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