Memoir VIII: All Things Bright and Beautiful

All images pertaining to the artist have been provided courtesy of them

If we look at plants, they just sit there, respiring, and photosynthesising. And if we look at other animals, they just mate, and eat, and survive. Even the sun has it easy, it just needs to do nuclear fusion and boom! Supernova.

Being human on the other hand can be so complex. Let’s take the average day, as humans we need to be aware of our finances, our tone etc.

Do you ever just look at life and think, where is the pause button? Or the fast forward button? Well if you don’t? I do. Life is this complex thing, you think you’re ahead, and then life humbles you and says, “Nope, I’m in charge now”.

I remember growing up, and around the age of 8 I started to become fat, my body was not like the other kids – I was tall for my age but big too. By age 11, I was a large kid and I think my shoe size was a UK size 9 – so a US size 8. And I’ll be honest, during childhood, I never felt comfortable in my skin, what made it even worse was being ridiculed by my family and family friends, and I think an experience such as this morphed my perception of my body, you could say, I developed body dysmorphia. By 15, puberty kicked in, and I became taller, and as I put it, “my body distributed the fat”. But even then, I still faced commentary from some family friends.

If we fast forward to now, I am happy with my body – ish. But the annoying is this, whenever I look at pictures of myself between 17 and 19, I always say to myself, “Body Dysmorphia is a b***h”. Because It didn’t allow me to love my body. I always saw it as this abnormal shape.

Body dysmorphia is something some of us will experience during our lifetime. But we must remember: our perception of our bodies cannot dictate and ruin our lives. Life is meant to be lived and enjoyed – all things bright and beautiful.

An artist whose works challenges this very idea of perfect bodies and anatomy is the Dominican artist Bony Ramirez. His figures are unique and they each tell a story about his home – the Dominican Republic. So with that being said, let’s explore the life of Bony Ramirez.

Bony’s story begins in the Dominican Republic. As a child, he admired religious iconography – he would spend his free time drawing them. “I was born and raised in the Dominican Republic, the Caribbean. It’s a very religious country, so most of the things I used to look up to or draw were different saints; I would just draw for fun. My mother liked what I did, so I was like, ‘Okay, let me make this for her’. So I would draw these icons and give them to her and her friends from the church”.

The influence of religious iconography can be seen in Bony’s earlier paintings such as Salome (painted 2019).

Salome (painted 2019) [Mixed media on Wood panel, 24 x 30 inch]

The piece Salome is based on the biblical character Salome. Salome plays an important role in the beheading of John the Baptist.

Salome’s mother, Herodias, had remarried King Herod, Herod Antipas. In the beginning, their marriage was met with criticism. John the Baptist was a massive critic of this marriage; he criticised King Herod because of his divorce and remarriage to Herodias, his sister-in-law – Herodias was married to King Herod’s half-brother, Phillip. But as well as that, she was the daughter of King Herod’s other half-brother, Aristobulus. So in fact, King Herod’s new wife was also his niece.

The public discourse created by John the Baptist enraged Salome’s mother. Both the public discourse and other acts put John in prison. During King Herod’s birthday banquet, John the Baptist was still in prison, and on the night of this banquet, Salome performed for King Herod. So pleased with her performance, Salome was granted a wish. So shocked by this wish, she asked her mother for advice, and the advice was John the Baptist should be beheaded. So, Salome appeared before King Herod and asked for John the Baptist to be beheaded. King Herod was shocked by this wish, but he honoured this wish and beheaded John the Baptist. To prove that this was done, he delivered the head of John the Baptist to Salome, and it’s this depiction we see in this piece.

In my opinion, Bony’s version portrays Salome as this sinister person, someone who knew the repercussions regarding that wish. Bony presents Salome as this person who wasn’t coerced by her mother but someone who simply played her role in achieving her mother’s wish from the beginning. As the famous saying goes, eyes are the windows into a person’s soul, and the eyes in this piece say it all in my opinion. If we compare other versions of this scene with the likes of Salome (painted 1899) by Jean Benner, Salome with the head of John (painted 1510) by Sebastiano del Piombo and Salome with the head of John (painted 1527) by Bernardino Luini, we can see differences across the pieces; Luini’s version shows Salome as this naïve person, whereas Benner and Piombo portray Salome as this heartless and cold person.

Salome (painted 1899) [Oil on Canvas] by Jean Benner

Salome with the head of John (painted 1510) [Oil on Panel] by Sebastiano del Piombo

Salome with the head of John (painted 1527) [Oil on Panel] by Bernardino Luini

Moreover, compared to the other pieces we will see in this memoir, Salome is completely different – fewer materials are used. But you can still tell that this is a piece by Bony Ramirez. If we look at the hands, we can see how the colour of the skin varies. As Bony states, this was done during a different moment in his life; after pieces such as Salome, the artist wanted to tell his story and the story of his people within his art.

If we go to the year 2009, this was the year that Bony, his mother and his younger brother migrated to the US. Even with a new life in the US, Bony still had his sights set on a creative career, but this was not championed within his household. “In Dominican culture, and even just Caribbean culture in general, it’s not promoted as much to become an artist. It’s either a lawyer or a doctor… you know… something like that. So even though I was passionate about art, there was a part of me that was like, ‘maybe it’s not gonna happen’”.

Bony would go on to complete high school in the US, but would not go on to study at university/college. “After I graduated high school, I wasn’t able to go to art school or college. I didn’t want to put that burden on my mother with like… The money. As someone who recently came to the states at that time, it was just me, my mother, and my little brother. I really had to think about it and the cost. So at that moment, I was just kind of like, ‘Okay, maybe later’. Even though I don’t really need it now, at that moment I thought, ‘Maybe I’ll wait a couple of years when I’m more established, and then I’ll go to college’”.

With his mind made up, Bony decided to hone his artistic skills. “When I made that decision to become a self-taught artist, I knew it was going to be difficult, especially as a recent immigrant. Also, I didn’t have that institutional background; I didn’t have teachers that introduced me to people in the art world”.

Although the road was tough, Bony was resilient and continued to create more paintings and form connections within the art world. “I just kept on making work. I was just telling myself, ‘I believe in my work, I believe in myself, and if it happens, it happens. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t, but I’m not going to stop doing art’. The last thing I was gonna do was lose faith in myself”.

When it comes to people who supported him in the beginning, Bony stated his high school art teachers, “My art teachers in high school saw something in me, and I think that’s what pushed me to believe in myself. Even though I couldn’t go to art school or college, I wanted to find another way to make them proud”.

In terms of people who are supporting him now in his career, Bony stated it is every artist, curator, and gallery owner he has encountered: “Once I got my feet wet in the art world, I sort of like surrounded myself with people who just truly believed in me. My work is a little weird, it’s a little uncommon, but the people who supported me when I started, I still appreciate them even now”.

With regards to his family, Bony stated that in the beginning and even now, his family don’t fully understand his career and the art world, but regardless, they still support him, as he explains: “Like I said to you earlier, the arts are not promoted like that in the Caribbean. So I sort of understand why my family didn’t get it. They know I’m an artist; they know I’m making money from my work. But when they see me appear in magazines, or when I have shows, they don’t understand the importance of that stuff, or the importance of those accomplishments to me – I was able to break into this world without that institutional background. For them, it’s a completely different world. But you know what? I understand why they see it like that because the art world is difficult to understand and get into”.

In terms of that moment when Bony felt like an artist, he said it was his first major solo show which happened in November 2020: “I’ve shown my work in group shows and other spaces; I’ve had smaller solo shows. But this was my first major solo show at like… A major gallery. So that was the moment when it felt like, ‘Woah?! Is this even real?’, you know what I mean? Even though the opening was during COVID, and everything had to be done in a COVID format – so limited entry and other stuff. It was just amazing to see people who believed in me gathered in one space. Also, people who didn’t know me personally or who had never heard of me saw my work, and that was amazing too – just seeing how people related to the work felt good. The show was like that… Extra salt”.

When it comes to his art and how he would describe it, Bony stated: “My work has many layers to it, and sometimes people don’t see it – they only just scratch the surface. I would say the aesthetic of my work is Caribbean luxury with a touch of social justice in a contemporary setting if that helps. I’m a contemporary figurative artist, and I know these figures are anatomically incorrect, but I see my work as something specific to the Caribbean; I use different motifs, and I use different elements of symbolism to represent my people to give them something to identify with”.

Some good examples within Bony’s catalogue that explore the Caribbean and its richness are No Me Olvides (painted 2020) and El Gallo Ganador (painted 2021)

No Me Olvides (painted 2020) [Acrylic paint, Colour pencil, Soft Oil pastel, Oil paint bar; Paper figure on Wood panel, 60 x 48 inch]

No Me Olvides is Spanish for Don’t Forget Me. The piece explores the idea of holding on to your roots, and in the case of Bony, it was about him holding on to his Caribbean roots. “I came to the US when I was like… 13. When someone that young leaves their country, it’s like you’re holding onto your roots. You’re holding on to who you are before you move. At that age, I felt like I was gonna you know… Forget who I was, forget my culture, and forget my friends”.

The message of this piece is so powerful, and I think using a child further emphasises that message. If we look at the child’s facial expression, the child looks sad, but there’s more to this sad exterior because beneath it lies other emotions such as trepidation and anxiety. What cements this idea of fear even further is how Bony intertwines the child’s hands along the tree – it’s a physical representation of how the child is trying to cling to their roots. Bony could have just drawn the child hugging the tree, but to have this child with such unique anatomy interwoven with this tree creates a nuance. Another thing I noticed, and I don’t know if this was done deliberately by Bony, is the colour of the sky. In the next three pieces in this memoir, you will notice a clear blue sky appearing in all three pieces, but in this piece, you don’t. We instead have this grey bluish sky which in my opinion, is reflective of the child’s mood.

Additionally, if you focus, you will see a creature drawn using a colour pencil, this is a bull. During the creation of this piece, the artist was thinking about the harvest period in the Dominican Republic: “You can see all the different trees in the background. I thought a lot about the harvest in my country. In the Dominican Republic, and in some countries too, bulls are still used for harvesting or preparing the land instead of tractors. So I wanted to show that part too”.

When I first encountered Bony’s paintings, I was immediately intrigued by his figures’ anatomy. I wanted to learn more about this, so I asked Bony during our interview how these anatomies came to exist within his work, Bony explained: “It all started when I was in high school. I would have these art classes, and I would always struggle with proportions. So after I graduated high school, I was trying to think of how I was going to develop my style, and I just thought about how I wasn’t good at proportions and just embraced it. Embracing that side of my practice allowed me to make my pieces bigger, I didn’t have to follow certain rules, so it kind of allowed me to develop these pieces with crazy limbs and extensions. Also, during that time, I came across some work by Francis Bacon, and he was someone who didn’t follow any rules, just like Picasso (smiles)”.

El Gallo Ganador (painted 2021) [Acrylic, Oil pastel, Colour pencil, Oil paint bar, Bristol Paper on Wood Panel, 72 x 48 inch]

El Gallo Ganador is Spanish for The Winning Rooster, and it examines rooster fighting in the Caribbean. If we look on the right, we can see two roosters – a brown rooster and a white rooster. Bony stated that in the Dominican Republic, it is very common to see roosters fight, “Rooster fighting is a very common yet violent sport”. By having this added context, we can tell that the brown rooster is the winner, and unfortunately, the white rooster is the loser. To understand how violent this sport is, look at the brown rooster’s legs, and you can see metal claws. “They put those things on their legs so they can kill each other even faster”.

If we turn our attention to the owner of the winning rooster, we see this figure stand tall with this robust presence and confidence – look at how he holds the machete, he holds it by the blade. “By him holding the machete like that, it amplifies this idea of strength, it’s almost like he’s saying, ‘I’m so tough that I don’t need to hold it by the handle’”.

Bony said he deliberately wanted to create a character which such a confident personality, as he explains:  “I really wanted to exude that idea of presence, strength and power. This piece was shown in a group show, and it was about people of colour taking up space. So, when I was making this piece, I thought a lot about presence, and how I can show that strong presence in a piece”.

Another aspect I love about this piece is its background – it’s colourful and transports you to this sunny and warm Caribbean scene. Additionally, another feature I haven’t touched on yet is the use of durags. As someone from the diaspora, I have seen many people wear durags. But to see it in art… It’s a fantastic addition, and it was something that immediately captured my attention. So, like any curious art blogger, I still asked the question, why the durags? Bony explained: “Durags are pretty common in the Caribbean, the US and different parts of the world. So, when I use them with male figures, it allows me to relate the art back to the Caribbean. It lets the person seeing this know that this is somebody from the diaspora since we use durags for the type of hair we have”.

I should also mention that Bony’s practice doesn’t just consist of paintings – it also has sculptures: “With my sculptures, they are these little kids – I call them the Caribabies. They’re like two-foot-tall with fabric bodies and hard heads. Whenever I have like… A show or a few pieces in a show, I always check if I can include at least one of the sculptures, so people get familiar with them. It’s that familiarity that helps people become more familiar with my practice too. It lets them know I’m more than just a painter – not that I am saying it is bad to be just a painter, but personally I don’t want to be put in a box”.

Caribaby: Verde Esperanza (created 2021) [Apoxie clay, Tin foil, Styrofoam, Glass doll eyes, Aluminium armature, Velvet fabric, Polyester fiberfil, Oil pastel, Acrylic, 24.5 x 15 x 14 inch]

With regards to what his art means to him, Bony’s answer was the following, “I would say my art means everything to me. I wouldn’t be alive if it wasn’t for the idea of art or just making art in general. Like literally, art is what keeps me alive. Any artist can tell you your brain is constantly creating ideas: like 24/7… Every single day… 365 days a year. Art gave me a purpose to live and to just keep going. When I knew I couldn’t pursue higher education, I still thought it was possible – it wasn’t going to be easy, but I knew it was possible. I don’t think I could have thought that way if I wanted to become a doctor. A doctor without college? No way. So yeah, my art allowed me to become somebody and do what I love (smiles)”.

Since this is The Maverick Series, I asked Bony what makes his work different compared to other artists? Bony’s answer was candid, delving into the visual and technical aspect within his practice: “That’s a good question. I think being different is important to me. As someone who started as an outsider in the art world, I thought it was important that I stand out. I saw so many amazing artists, and I thought to myself, ‘How can I stand out?’. How do I raise my hand and say, ‘Hey! I’m here!’. Because the art world is very competitive – everyone is super talented. So that’s why I developed a unique style and technique. If anybody saw my work, especially my figures, they would know it was me. So that’s the visual side, but there is also this technical side. The final pieces are a mixture of different materials. If you look at some of my work, they look like regular paintings, right? But the figures are made on paper, and I use this acrylic wash – it’s this very diluted acrylic paint. After that is done, I paste them on a wooden panel. In some pieces, I use colour pencils which are blended with oil pastel. And in some pieces, there are swords attached to the wooden panel. So to be able to use materials like the way I do is something that not many artists do. But I mean, don’t get me wrong, I still do my research, but I barely see it”.

Bony also expanded on how the incorporation of his Caribbean heritage has also made his work unique: “As someone who is from the Caribbean, I feel like our lives, our narratives are not represented as much in contemporary art. I feel like… I and along with other Caribbean artists from the Diaspora have been trying to put the Caribbean on a bigger pedestal. We’ve been trying to put it on that pedestal it deserves to be on, and I think it’s that desire which also makes my work stand out. I’m trying to show the Caribbean in a different light. I’ve used my childhood and these things I grew up with, and I’ve put them in these fantastical scenes”.

La Boda Del Cocodrilo {The Crocodile’s Wedding} (painted 2020) [Acrylic, Colour pencil, Oil pastel, Oil paint bar, Pastel paper; Bristol paper on Wood Pane, 60 x 48 inch]

As of January 2021, The President of the Dominican Republic, Luis Abinader signed a new bill that banned child marriages, the bill stated that no individual can be married under the age of 18. This was a massive win for the country because if we look at some of the statistics before this new bill, they were quite harrowing, with one statistic even reporting that girls as young as 15 were marrying men who were 20 years their senior. What’s even more heart breaking, is in some instances the child’s consent would be given by their parents, and this agreement of consent would be transactional.

With the introduction of this new bill, it seeks to criminalise those who engage in child marriages. “When that law was passed, that was a big victory especially against older men that wanted to take advantage of little girls in the Dominican Republic, it was a big win for my country”.

Bony created this piece when the bill was initially introduced into the Dominican government, and certain elements of the piece are symbolic of certain ideas. If we start with the jaguar, this is used to represent justice, and it is here to protect the little girl. Its other purpose is to defeat the crocodile who represents the previous system. “It’s called the crocodile’s wedding because that was the crocodile’s wedding – that old system. The jaguar is here to interrupt that”. 

La Boda Del Cocodrilo was the first piece I saw by Bony – I saw it on Instagram. What captured my attention was the young girl in this piece, she clutches the bouquet of coconuts, and tears roll down her face. As I said in No Me Olvides, its elements such as this, that effectively create such nuance, and in this case too, capture the girl’s innocence. “This was the first time I’ve actually spoken about this particular piece – people don’t know the story behind it. They just see these tropical coconuts, and the jaguar and crocodile fighting, but there’s this deeper story… Most of my paintings have this underlying social theme that is not too literal in the work”.

Moving on to inspiration, when it comes to artists who have inspired Bony, starting with the past, Bony stated names such as Pablo Picasso, Francis Bacon, Peter Paul Rubens and Louise Bourgeois: “Back when I was developing my style, some of the artists that definitely helped me get to where I am now were the artists that explored the human anatomy. So artists such as Francis Bacon and Picasso. It’s their style along with Renaissance Italian mannerists like Peter Paul Ruben, that inspired me. So I would say… My work is a fusion, or you know, a blend of Picasso, Francis Bacon and Peter Paul Rubens – those three names from the past are my biggest influences. Also, Louise Bourgeois is another influence. I like the way she pushes the material she uses; she keeps her own language but in different mediums. Also, when it comes to sculpting, I took inspiration from a lot of Roman sculptors and African sculptors. When it comes to African sculptors, they were the original people that came up with distorting the human body and having different body types in art. They were the ones who were like the human finger doesn’t have to be anatomically correct in art, if you know what I mean. So those were the people and areas I looked into a lot to develop the style that I currently embody.

If we look at his contemporaries, Bony states that he isn’t inspired by his contemporaries per se, but he admires their work: “A lot of people ask me this, but when it comes to inspiration, I try to stay in the past because we are… You know… Contemporaries… I don’t want to get inspired by your work if you’re alive and making it, you know. So I’ll definitely say I admire a lot of artists like Damien Hirst. Who else? (Thinking) I love Christina Quarles too! So yeah, there’s a lot of great artists making amazing stuff and doing great things, but I purposely try to stay in the past”.

Beyond the artists from the past and the present, Bony also said his inspiration comes from his personal experiences, the environment, interior design and of course, his culture: “My personal experience is a big one, my work in general uses that experience of being a Caribbean immigrant in The United States. What else? The environment around me – I look a lot into nature. I also love interior design – that was one road I almost went down; whenever I am creating my pieces, I think a lot about the interior of the space it will be shown in. So I’m conscious about where it’s going to be exhibited, and how it’s going to look in that space. And lastly, and of course, my culture”.

El Tiguerazo! (painted 2020) is another piece that explores Dominican culture, specifically Dominican colloquialisms.

El Tiguerazo! (painted 2020) [Acrylic, Coloured pencil, Oil pastel, Oil stick, Paper on Wood Panel, 40 x 60 inch]

El Tiguerazo is Dominican slang, and the connotations behind this phrase can be good or bad. When it is used positively, the speaker considers the person to be wise and/or street smart – someone who will take advantage of the situation, be it good or bad. But when it is used negatively, it is inferred that the person is either a prankster, a troublemaker or a thief.  “Dominican dialect is so unique to the Dominican Republic. Even though it’s Spanish, we have our own sayings. That phrase ‘El Tiguerazo’ if we translate it, literally means the tiger. So if someone calls you a tiger, depending on the tone and when they say it. It could mean you’re very wise, or you’re a criminal. So I wanted to give a physical representation to that word. This tiger man that looks very wise, but also has the look of like… somebody you meet on the streets, somebody who is up to no good”.

Bony’s decision to make this piece ambiguous is a good choice because after receiving the context behind this piece, I’m also undecided about this figure too. Is he thinking? Hence this blank look? Or is he up to something shady, so instead of assuming it’s a blank look perhaps it’s a dubious look? The ball is truly in the audience’s court and is open to different interpretations.

Another feature that captured my attention was the red underneath the figure. I initially thought it was blood, and it symbolised the figure’s criminality – it’s a bit of a stretch, and I know. But I genuinely thought it was Bony’s way of subtly telling us that the use of El Tiguerazo in this instance was bad. But I was wrong, completely wrong – it’s the figure’s shadow. Bony stated he chose the colour red due to composition purposes: “I didn’t want to make it dark because I feel like the whole figure would stand out too much. So by making the underneath red, the figure can blend into the background”.

When I asked Bony the question, what message do you want your art to give? I loved the answer he gave. It was phenomenal and empowering; Bony wants us to appreciate our bodies, and he wants to give the Caribbean the attention it rightfully deserves within contemporary art: “My message… my mission… Is all about representing my people and where I come from. I want to give the Caribbean the spotlight it deserves. I want my work to tell the viewer, ‘Look at us! Look at how diverse we are. Look at our culture and appreciate it’. The Caribbean is this colourful and amazing place, and it has been overlooked for hundreds of years. Also, my figures… They are distorted. I really want the viewer to look at the bigger picture of what it means to be a human being, and how we can accept people who are different. I want people to leave and think of how we can make a better society and make everyone feel welcome. Also, if you look closely at my work, do the figures look like they have a gender? That question of gender is open to the audience. This unanswered question about gender is to make the viewer appreciate a human without considering other things because concepts such as misogamy and racism are real and exist within our society. So my figures explore that idea of existing within society”.

So, what can we expect from Bony Ramirez in 2021? As of the release of this memoir, the artist has some of his paintings in New York’s Frieze. Bony’s work is being shown in a two-person booth under the Terry Goldberg Gallery alongside Sydney Vernon. In terms of June, Bony will be part of a group show which will be happening in Albertz Benda Gallery. After that, it is all top secret, but what he can say within this memoir is he is very excited for those opportunities to be confirmed and booked.

In terms of Bony appearing in London. Well, he can’t confirm anything yet, but he did say, “You may see a Bony Ramirez in London”.

With regards to his practice, Bony wants to continue working on his sculptures and make some more sword pieces. When it comes to his paintings, we should expect to see more interiors and more animals appear in his work too. Furthermore, we should expect his pieces to be much bigger in size, “You can expect the work to get bigger. I’m currently working on something even bigger than my biggest painting”.

With this being my 8th Memoir of Volume III, I truly look at the story of Bony Ramirez as the most inspiring. Bony’s story really gives me hope that anybody who dares to dream can make it in this art world. Make no mistake, it won’t be easy for anybody coming from the outside, especially an artist of colour. But I think with the right support and backing, and most importantly, faith in yourself, you can make it. So the way I see it, Bony is categorically a maverick! Because that determination and self-belief are what make a maverick. “In the beginning, it was just me, myself, and my head, and I’ll be honest, it was difficult at times because I had to be the one that pushed myself when nobody was around. Some artists had parents who took them to museums or who kept up with the art world. But in my case, I didn’t have that. But that was okay because I just needed my family to say, ‘Okay, do your thing’”. So with that being said, be optimistic and dream, but most importantly keep your eyes peeled on the talented Dominican artist, Bony Ramirez.

To see more of Bony’s work follow him on Instagram at @bonyramirezz

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