Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Multi-talented teacher brings art to all she does

By Sarina Trangle
An array of beaded jewelry.
Dio de la Cohoba is a papier mache sculpture of a Taíno deity who carries hallucinogens for the shaman.
Artist Mercedes Polanco shows off her handmade bracelets in her Bailey Avenue apartment on Monday.

Each time Mercedes Polanco, 58, molds dirt into textured drinking jugs, rolls cornmeal into dolls, or crafts sculptures of shamans out of phone books, the Dominican Republic’s first artwork is reincarnated.

Ms. Polanco, an internationally recognized artisan, says her pieces build on the legacy of the Taíno people who carved, painted and sculpted gods into the landscape of her native Dominican Republic long before Spaniards sailed to the Caribbean. The Cemi, more than 80 Gods revered by the Taínos, cover the four-foot tall papier mache sculptures, bangles and island maps in Ms. Polanco’s Bailey Avenue apartment.

“This is our origins. When Columbus showed up to the islands this is what they found existed there: our art, our culture. This is what you see written on the walls of caves in the Dominican Republic,” Ms. Polanco said in Spanish. “I do it creatively, but I’m not inventing anything.”

The orange walls of Ms. Polanco’s apartment are covered with dozens of Taíno symbols. Above her leather coach, dozens of symbols for gods, including a sun, fish skeleton,  monkey and mask mark a beige, gold and brown map of the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Shelves full of sculpted water jugs rest behind her kitchen table. And near the kitchen, hundreds of jewelry pieces are showcased under the glass layer of her office desk. Though there are no walls, Ms. Polanco said her young niece and nephew pretend to knock or ring a bell near the corner where she works, seated at a leopard-print chair stitched into the shape of a high heel.

She said she began studying Taíno heritage and mythology in America and keeps a nearly 1,000-page book full of symbols and stories in her apartment for reference. 

Ms. Polanco chides merchants across the Caribbean for altering symbols by adding tails, heads or ears to deities to make them more attractive to tourists.

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