Issue 002  |  Spring 2021 | Profile


I’m Not Here For You



 Joiri Minaya’s “tropical” interventions
by Dessane Lopez Cassell








Joiri Minaya, Container #4, 2020. Image courtesy of the artist.




There’s a certain current of mischief that runs through Joiri Minaya’s work. Whether employing collage, installation, or performance, the artist often tackles several weighty isms simultaneously—racism, colonialism, exoticism, extractive capitalism—but with a delivery that evinces a sly humor.

Take, for example, The Cloaking (2019), a public art project commissioned by Fringe Projects Miami, for which Minaya covered statues of Ponce de Leon and Christopher Columbus in brightly patterned fabric of her own design. There’s something deeply funny about the sight of these two notorious conquistadors—each genocidal in their own right—sheathed completely in lush florals. Each grandiose statue and violent legacy reduced to sort of a blob on a Miami street, accented by awkward bulges. The irony turns prophetic when you consider the timing of Minaya’s project: mounted in December 2019, her artistic intervention was in some ways a bellwether of the monument toppling and defacement that would continue amid the uprisings of 2020.

In projects such as this one, Minaya wields the veneer of “tropical” beauty skillfully, with a full awareness of its ability to attract and disarm. Her art traffics in bright hues, verdant foliage, and coquettish fantasy, luring the viewer like a Venus fly trap. Yet rather than snap the jaws shut, Minaya’s objects and images invite you to squirm a little in your own complicity, instilling an awareness of the raced and gendered dynamics of consumption that underpin much of contemporary image production.

Ironically, Minaya didn’t start out trying to be funny, not with The Cloaking or many other projects, though she’s always admired the bite of stand-up. Humor is a strategy she’s come to embrace more recently. “It’s also [a way of] making the monuments more ridiculous. I feel humor can also work like beauty,” she explains, as we chat about the allure of each quality—the way they can provide appealing entry points to ideas that might otherwise feel daunting.



Minaya wields the veneer of “tropical” beauty skillfully, with a full awareness of its ability to attract and disarm. 


Minaya’s work is certainly replete with visual pleasure. The aforementioned patterns, for example, feature hand-drawn castor plants, manchineel trees, and yaupon holly set against fern green and sky blue backgrounds. Each leaf rendered in lush color and detail. The artist has been designing her own fabrics for several years now, perhaps a natural consequence of a childhood spent surrounded by the brightly hued prints that line the aisles of her mother’s clothing store in Santo Domingo. Yet Minaya’s designs reflect an intentional pivot from the ubiquitous hibiscus flowers that have long been co-opted for the “tropical” patterns of souvenir shirts and fast fashion—a method of commodification that the artist sees as an extension of the legacy of colonialism. Heavily influenced by her ongoing research into ethnobotany, Minaya’s patterns feature what she terms “plants of resistance,” flora that are local or endemic to the Caribbean, with long histories of traditional or medicinal use by Indigenous and Afro-diasporic peoples.

Her performance-turned–photo series Containers (2015-2020) utilizes these patterns for satirical ends. In these images, Minaya and her collaborators don vibrant handmade bodysuits that contort the wearer into physically awkward or uncomfortable positions, their poses recalling the odalisques of art history or the ubiquitous crouch of your tia’s vacation photos on Facebook. Shot on beaches or amid lush foliage, each image mocks the fantasy that underpins those picture-perfect renderings of the tropics. Paradise to Minaya is always fake, a reflection of the “economic, political, and social relations of power that keep postcolonial countries and the Global South bound to the Global North,” as the Caribbean scholar Angelique V. Nixon writes.1




Joiri Minaya, Photo by Simon Benjamin.



This deployment of pattern and tropicality to decolonial ends has been a running theme in Minaya’s work for years now. “I just like messing things up whenever I can, in a critical way,” she grins. We’re chatting about labels, specifically the one she prefers for herself as a “Dominican United Statesian” multidisciplinary artist. Born in New York to Dominican parents, Minaya grew up in Santo Domingo, the Caribbean city that was once the capital of the first Spanish colony in the Americas, and thus the gateway to the “New World.” It’s a place that maintains a complicated relationship to its own colonial history, perhaps best illuminated by the fact that the Dominican Republic is the only country in the region that officially commemorates its independence from a neighbor, Haiti, and not from a European power.2


In 2021, Minaya’s work hit this nail of contradiction on its head. She cloaked a particularly famous Dominican colonial monument—the Columbus statue in Santo Domingo’s stately Parque Colon—in one of her signature fabrics. Fittingly, the cloth employed to cover the popular tourist stop was blood red and adorned with bixa, guao, tobacco, guayacan, cassava, aji, and ceiba—plants historically used by enslaved Taínos and Africans to both nourish their communities and actively fight colonizing forces. (Guao, for example, also known as carrasco, is poisonous to many and can inflict a rash akin to a chemical burn.) 

A collaboration with independent curator Yina Jiménez Suriel and local council member Mario Sosa, the intervention invited passersby to “reflect on which figures and events we monumentalize and which we do not, and more specifically—why do we have a sculpture denigrating our cacique [chief] Anacaona at the feet of Christopher Columbus in one of the most important places in our city?”3 Indeed, the partial cloaking of the monument does highlight its positioning of Anacaona—literally at Columbus’s feet. With stunning efficiency, the monument’s composition enshrines both patriarchy and Western supremacy in national myth: back turned to the viewer, Anacaona is shown writing, her words extolling the “enlightened” colonizer above her. No mention is made of the Xaragua massacre in 1503, when she and hundreds of her people were slaughtered by the Spanish government.4





Joiri Minaya, Encubrimiento, Parque Colón, Santo Domingo, 2020. Photo by Sofía Marcos.




Minaya’s incisive project prompted a bit of a reckoning on social media. It drew praise and support from many who are likewise invested in peeling back the colonial veneer of dominant Caribbean histories. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Santo Domingo Cloaking also drew the ire of those Trumpian sectors of Dominican society invested in “protecting” such monuments from “los progres.” Their condemnation of the intervention as an assault on Dominican history underlines the fraught dynamics of empire and erasure that underpin Minaya’s own rejection of the term “American” in relation to her identity, and her broader approach to art making. She favors a more inclusive conception of the Americas—and thus “American-ness”—as plural, though she readily admits the futility of trying to rehabilitate a colonial term.

Much of Minaya’s work picks apart ideas of “tropical paradise”—that myth of an idyllic, exotic elsewhere first peddled by British colonial administrators and their conspirators in Jamaica and the Bahamas in the 1880s, at a time when the colonial imagination equated the Caribbean with fatal disease. Employing photography, often disseminated in postcard form, their campaigns to sanitize the islands’ public image would produce a “tropicalization” effect, a set of visual systems that imaged, packaged, and promoted the region for the purpose of touristic consumption, picking up right where the plantation system left off.5 As the art historian Krista A. Thompson notes, “A very particular concept of what a tropical Caribbean island should look like developed in the visual economies of tourism.”6 Sweeping vistas and picturesque, civilized “natives” promised a safe, sunny getaway for those looking to spend tourist dollars, pounds, or francs
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Joiri Minaya, Container #7, 2020. Image courtesy of the artist.




Minaya’s work is steeped in the aftermath of such myth making. As we chat over video call on a blustery winter afternoon, she sits surrounded by a sea of pixelated limbs, remnants of her 2016 installation #DominicanWomenGoogleSearch adhered to the walls of her studio. First installed at Wave Hill in the Bronx, the project skewers the very notion of the exotic “other” as it has long been imposed on the bodies of Black and Brown women—that neocolonial gaze that imagines us as simultaneously sexy, submissive, and available, as well as always arching our backs. Sun-kissed shoulders and stray limbs crossed ever so sensually hang floating in space, swaying from clear wire to reveal the vibrant floral patterns printed on their reverse. Sourced from the image results of the titular search terms Minaya began typing into her browser, these parts of poses index popular (read: fetishizing) perceptions of Dominican femininity. Like so much that circulates online, there’s a flattening effect—a formula of café con leche skin, hourglass figures, and dark curls that feeds into stock image repositories and sites like hotlatinbrides.org.

#DominicanWomenGoogleSearch is one of many works that grew out of the awkward yet formative experiences the artist had when she first moved back to New York in 2013. After earning an associate’s degree from the prestigious Altos de Chavón School of Design in DR, Minaya continued studying fine arts at Parsons. In classes and moving through the city, she became increasingly aware of how frequently people would associate the Dominican Republic—and by extension Dominican women—with ideas of paradise and vacation. (For years now, the country has ranked among the most popular tourist destinations in the Caribbean, making it perhaps unsurprising how deeply campaigns promising “fun in the sun” have infiltrated foreign perceptions of Dominican culture.7)

“Especially as a woman of color,” Minaya explains, “there’s this expectation of a certain type of pleasing attitude […] all of these things that kind of boil down to entertainment.” Her brow furrows a bit as she mulls the lopsided dynamics of power and privilege that persist between “locals” and tourists, both on and off the island
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Like so much that circulates online, there’s a flattening effect—a formula of café con leche skin, hourglass figures and dark curls.



A collage from her postcard series Vacation Stories from Online Dating Catalogues (2015) critiques these “expectations” directly. Here Minaya lampoons the unending stream of white dudes that flock to the Caribbean for sex tourism, via the very medium that has historically played such an outsized role in promoting the region and its people as things available for (mostly) white European and US consumption. Appropriating a photograph from an exoticizing online dating site—also found via Google image search, a core source for the artist—Minaya’s version of the image converts the four women’s bodies to blank silhouettes. They’re no longer the focus here. The lone middle-aged male figure in the background stands out in sharp relief, the sight of his sunburnt smirk rendered all the more comical in isolation.

To be clear, Minaya’s critiques are not directed at sex workers or anyone who employs their body to make a living. She’s more interested in probing the metrics that feed these economies of desire—that formula that dictates what a certain type of gaze finds attractive and therefore consumable: that arch of the back or flip of the hair that’s been repeated ad infinitum, an embodied echo of the classic palm tree motif bowing toward the horizon.

We chat at one point about her affection for Tokischa, a queer Dominican trap artist who’s become notorious for her acidic freestyles and explicit, trippy music videos—joyous, rhythmic odes to her love of pussy, molly, and weed. Like Tokischa’s, many of Minaya’s works revel in a brazen form of femme sexuality, thumbing their nose at that other suffocating gaze of respectability. More recent collages like Continuum (2020) likewise reflect an interest in complicating the tired “exploitation vs. empowerment” binary. Superimposing an image of a bikini-clad Black woman over a sepia-toned ethnographic photograph, Minaya’s print blurs the distinction between present and past. Framed by palm fronds, the woman’s figure is slick and erotically posed. Arms behind her head, her contrapposto hips meld into a pair of disembodied legs from another era, tracing a direct line from anthropological and touristic images that froze Caribbean people into timeless “natives” and more contemporary gazes that flatten us into exotic vacation companions
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Joiri Minaya, #dominicanwomengooglesearch, installation view at the SunroomProject Space at Wave Hill, Bronx, NY, 2016. Photo by Stefan Hagen.




As in #DominicanWomenGoogleSearch, the contemporary image in Continuum is grainy and pixelated, blurring individual features (a means of shielding individual identities) and breaking down distinctions between consumer and producer, author and audience, á la Hito Steyerl’s “poor image.”8 This “blown out” aesthetic, as Minaya calls it, is one the artist gravitates toward for its almost painterly qualities. This makes sense, given the fact that she originally trained as a painter. It was when Minaya got to Parsons that she shifted gears to focus on “everything that was not painting,” taking advantage of the interdisciplinary program that she credits with pushing her practice in new directions. During those early years, she started working in performance and video, soon after creating works like Siboney (2014), a performance for the camera that exorcises both the art historical baggage of painting and the exoticism often mapped onto bodies like hers.

Clueless phrases like “Where are you from?” appear as subtitles while Minaya sets up and executes an elaborate egg tempera painting of a tropical pattern on a gallery wall, a harbinger of her later work. As Connie Francis’s rendition of “Siboney” begins to play, another subtitle reads, “I’ve seen the way you look at me,” as Minaya gazes back at the viewer. “But I’m not here for you.” Dousing herself in water, she employs her own body to wipe away her elaborate handiwork, sliding unceremoniously from side to side. The artist and her evocations of the tropical are not meant for your consumption, neither then nor now.


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Dessane Lopez Cassell is a curator, writer, and editor based in New York. Her work focuses on artists’moving image, documentary, and experimental film practices concerned with race, gender, and decoloniality, with a particular interest in voices from the African and Caribbean diasporas. Currently, Cassell is the reviews editor at Hyperallergic and sits on BlackStar Film Festival’s programming committee.


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FOOTNOTES

1.  Angelique V. Nixon, Resisting Paradise: Tourism, Diaspora, and Sexuality in Caribbean Culture (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2017).

2.  For more resources on understanding the way in which dominant histories have unjustly maligned Haiti as an occupying force or threat to Dominican sovereignty, see Milagros Ricourt’s The Dominican Racial Imaginary (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2016) and Anne Eller’s We Dream Together (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016).

3.  Instagram post by Joiri Minaya, January 18, 2021 (translation by the author).

4.  Ricourt 2016, 79.

5. Krista A. Thompson, An Eye for the Tropics: Tourism, Photography, and Framing the Caribbean Picturesque (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007), 5.

6.  Thompson 2007, 6.

7.  “UNWTO World Tourism Barometer Interim Update” (PDF). 2013. UNWTO World Tourism Barometer. UNWTO.

8.  Hito Steyerl, “In Defense of the Poor Image,” in The Wretched of the Screen (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2012), 39.