Darkness as Canvas

November Reflections on the second anniversary of eye surgery and on the opening of my new art space in Mayagüez: CucubaNación. I’ll return with more on CucubaNación. First, with this new space, rematriation, my body, art and writing converging more deeply, I release these full moon reflections.

Darkness is a whole mood. One we’ve been conditioned to fear. Yet, as an adolescent, when I felt most vulnerable, I gravitated towards darkness. It was empowering to dress all in black, read The Vampire Chronicles, listen to death metal. My family talked to dead people. Darkness wasn’t scary. It felt familiar. Darkness as entry point, the womb, the place we returned to, the source. Over the years I abandoned the dark clothes, trading them in for dark backgrounds. Ever fascinated by what pulsates in darkness, by what emerges when we gaze into it.

Fast forward several decades, I received my eye diagnosis on October 30th, 2020, the anniversary of the 1950 revolution in Puerto Rico. A shitty closing to the year that opened with earthquakes and a global pandemic. The doctor confirmed that I already had what they call la cortina, a brown curtain covering one part of my field of vision in the eye that had spent the whole month flashing. I was given several days to be operated or Iose my vision. It’s a procedure I don’t like to talk about since learning about it revolted my stomach. Regardless of what my body felt, it was an incredible advance that rescued my sight.

Today I am in deep gratitude for being physically sighted. My vision is different. I’m not an avid reader like I used to be. Where reading was one of my greatest joys, it is now the place that I am most aware of the differences in my seeing.

Since 2009 I was painting light on dark backgrounds as a deliberate, aesthetic practice inspired by Boricua bioluminescence. All my screens and devices too had been set to black backgrounds. The morning of my diagnosis, I had been reading a piece called The Eye. Though I had written it a few months before, I didn’t remember having done so. It was about the eye of the hurricane as a symbol for seeing and being. A symbol for maintaining inner calm and tranquility, a clarity within the chaos—the chaos of the storm, the chaos of colonialism, the chaos of our lives. That clarity is a strategy for navigating darkness, navigating chaos in whatever form or from whichever source.

The news about my eyes broke me. Then I thought back to that piece, The Eye, and realized that I had long been prepared for that moment. Sometimes we embrace things so vividly that we manifest them, come to embody them eventually. Had my fascination with darkness forced my eye to go dark? Or is it that something in our path is already ensuing, unbeknownst to us? Would this then naturally redirect our path towards the discovery of our own medicine? One thing that I am clear on is that Boricua bioluminescence has been and continues to be my medicine on my path, my journey.

As an art student for eight years, I was taught to create shadows, develop darkness and form from a flat, white surface. On a moonless night in 2006, Vieques flipped my visual script. Contemplating an illuminated spectrum of blues from the vastness of a black bay blending horizon with dark heavens. Like my indigenous Antillean ancestors saw our worlds flipped at night, black sea becoming sky, cosmos covered in sea-creature constellations, I too learned to see the inverse. To draw, paint, render light. Pull light from darkness as we are forced to do daily as children of conquest, colonialism.

Beyond an aesthetic practice it has become a life’s purpose. Taught to me in Vieques, developed on the cold side of el charco. Here on the rematriated side, it crystalized as a lesson that I have had to embody day to day to survive rematriation in these times. Bioluminescence resounds as a natural site of wisdom for transcending and thriving in these trifling times. Times of so much colonial shit coming to a head in Puerto Rico. The lived intensity through continued corporate capitalist ravaging. The disasters that persist, their effects sustained by substandard services and power outages that keep us in perpetual darkness.

Darkness is symbolic.
From the space of the womb, place of entry, to the perceived state of our exit: Darkness is natural. To the incessant threat of climate change and our electricity corporate-claimed: darkness it literal.

Darkness is space, infinite, expansive. I meditate on transcending the confines of colonialism, the small boxes of inferiority they want to condemn us to. Projecting my vision outwards, as my grandfather would say, tirar tu pensamiento al infinito, teaching “Throwing [our] thoughts out to infinity” as a spirit practice. I am ever envisioning beyond this Earth. Contrary to colonial conditioning, I understood since childhood that I, we, are not just of this Earth, this colony. We are boundless spirits.

Art is a strategy. Earth is a school surrounded by space. In the vastness of that space, darkness becomes canvas. Instead of drawing the shadows, I want to highlight, visibilize. I want to center light, envision and celebrate us as transcendent light beings!

From las luciérnagas, los cucubanos, los dinoflagelados of three bioluminescent bays in the archipelago of Puerto Rico, to the vastness of bioluminescence down in the abyss of the Puerto Rico trench, these illuminated creatures are our teachers. They want us to see our own light like we see theirs. Some of us are conditioned to only see darkness, to go through life finding shitty shit everywhere wondering why shit is so shitty. Colonialism recalibrated our eyes to be blind to vibrancy, vitality, abundance, and joy.

Hurricane Fiona delayed the opening of CucubaNación to November, the time where I remember this eye surgery. Expecting to get electricity there first, it didn’t return at the space till after light returned at home. The CucubaNación reception scheduled for 11.11.22 was not supposed to be my opening. This was gonna be a celebration of sight using the quote of Eugenio María de Hostos: Para ver ciertas cosas se necesitan otros ojos, los ojos del espíritu. His quote on spirit sight appears on my CucubaNación mural, painted in 2018, first piece of this series. This concept that existed in my daily practice and in my paintings, expanded and manifested as an art/ community space in Mayagüez.

This space found me, claimed me, not the other way around. I didn’t go in search of a space, at least not consciously. I did pray on being back in community. In response, the space emerged directly across the street from the mural, its front door perfectly in-line with the image. The CucubaNación mural was the first time that I created a bioluminescent-based work not inspired by the dinoflagellates of our beautiful bays but by the green light of the cucubanos and fireflies that lit up those dark post-Irma/ María nights. The image of a schoolgirl and a woman in gasmasks, glowing, speaks to the children that were tear-gassed when their families showed up in San Juan on May 1st 2018 to protest the closure of hundreds of public schools post-María. Glowing green, wearing gas masks speaks to the chemical warfare on protestors, but their true weapon is their light, their “Sho’nuff” glow like the cucubanos they are.  Another quote on the mural reads:

Seamos cucubanos
Emitiendo nuestra luz
Iluminados de amor
Repelando enemigos

(Lets be cucubanos
Emitting our light
Illuminated with love
Repelling enemies)

Alternating between “headlights” and “taillights” cucubanos use their glow to communicate, to attract mates or repel predators. I stay studying these lit creatures. Though some are one-cell organisms, they are giant, wise, liberated, infinite to me,  and those are all wonderful qualities for us to follow and walk in.

Brooklyn-born and raised, Yasmín Hernández rematriated to her ancestral homeland of Borikén in 2014.  Her practice as an artist, writer, activist is rooted in these islands and their Diasporas, our suppressed histories, healing, and liberation. CucubaNación in Mayagüez is Yasmin’s art/ community space dedicated to Boricua bioluminescence. She shares her art at yasminhernandezart.com and chronicles the journey home at rematriatingboriken.com .

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