In indigenous cultures around the world, the spirit medium is often charged with seeing beyond the material world and bringing the messages of the ancestors back to the living. The medium is messenger and guide, seer and seeker. He or she uses their gift to traverse the fine line between what exists and what has been or what will be. In this way, they help the living to carve out new possibilities, with the blessings of all of those who have come before. When deeply gifted, they even help to birth the new world that they have seen before them. As the stewards of their community’s collective and individual stories and struggles, they are also the healers who attack sickness and misfortune head on, so that new stories of promise can be born.
Puerto Rican visual artist, Yasmin Hernandez, is such a medium. Widely celebrated for her poignant depictions of Puerto Rican freedom fighters and her lush renderings of the divine feminine in Afro-Caribbean culture, Yasmin is a medium with a cause-- or many causes. A Brooklyn-born daughter of Puerto Rico, Yasmin’s art is a living dialogue on freedom that explores the narrow spaces between struggle and survival, death and creation, transformation and liberation.
“I am inspired by quests for liberation. I recognize that after all these years of working with cultural, political and spiritual themes, they all speak to the same thing and that is a search for liberation--freedom to believe, freedom to be oneself, freedom from oppression and suffering.”
In her most recent bodies of work, Luz (Light) and Linea Negra (Black Line), Yasmin departs from themes of cultural and political resistance against colonial oppression in Puerto Rico (which she calls her “nationless-nation”) and its diaspora, to explore the ubiquitous line between life and death and the freedom narratives that live there. While her dual roles of artist and activist have always inspired her to use her work to teach about important social issues, her most intimate trials and triumphs were not often represented in her work. Luz and Linea Negra represent a rich and ever changing dialogue with herself and her community, precisely about those things.
“I became pregnant two months after my brother's cancer diagnosis. [He] ended his battle with Multiple Myeloma just two weeks after [my son’s] first birthday… Becoming a mother and watching my brother sick and dying at the very same time helped me understand that liberation comes in many forms.”
Yasmin was forever changed by the death and birth in her life, as she was forced to become intimately acquainted with deep suffering, profound joy, and the limitations of the American healthcare system. Both experiences forced her to demand dignity for the dying and the living. Like the line between life and death, the relationship between personal freedom and broader struggles for human rights and social justice was blurred. Only the act of creating art helped her to slowly unravel the layers of experience.
While she wrestles with the language to explain why this deeply personal work might have social significance, the relationship swiftly crystallizes as she speaks.
“Most of us are just battling to survive, to live free of sickness [and] pain, to have a certain basic quality of life... In [organizing] circles people talk about the ‘masses’ but if you break that down, you have to consider the preciousness of one life. [As activists] we have to work to make one life better because every large political struggle is really driven by a these ‘little’ human experiences.”
Luz and Linea Negra, are these very “little human experiences” come to life in mixed media works which also challenge her tradition of single medium works on paper or canvas. Luz, simply stated, celebrates not only her brother’s life, but the dynamic dance between life and death which actually gives meaning to all of our lives. Honoring pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood, Linea Negra honors a timeless strand of feminine power not unlike the ancient, water goddesses of her early collections. Jovial yet purposeful, Yasmin elaborates on Linea Negra, which seems to emerge as the treasured fruit of a bitter-sweet seed:
“At the present moment I am particularly inspired by the radical or controversial notion of liberation through birthing. It may seem to run counter to a mainstream feminism that has heralded birth control as a source of liberation [for American women]. However, as a Puerto Rican woman who knows of the mass sterilization campaigns on our women in the 20th century, I have this provocative notion that birthing more Puerto Ricans somehow becomes an act of resistance.”
She chuckles. “I am not staging a protest in which I birth 50 children. I am passionately preoccupied, however, with the need to help all women who do want to birth find a way to do so in a safe and dignified manner... Linea Negra arose from the experience of having birthed my son at home with a midwife [and] turns to my spiritual upbringing to consider the sacred elements of birthing intended, practiced and taught by our ancestors… the black lines that many of us still carry [on our bodies], become a metaphor, a marking of a rite of passage.”
With a seemingly relentless stream of personal change urging her to tell a new story, Yasmin’s commitment to social change is unwavering.
“I do not subscribe to the idea of art for arts sake. I prefer to work with the concept found in indigenous communities globally that art is utilitarian or ceremonial. Throughout our history it has been fundamental in resistance struggles for survival… Art is where I channel. It is where I can connect with other human beings. Right now I am looking for healing for myself and for others, an affirmation or validation for people, an opportunity to celebrate that life goes. We don’t do that enough these days.“
Indeed, we do not. It takes a good medium to see that.
For more information about Yasmin Hernandez, visit: http://www.yasminhernandez.com
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future a program of World Pulse that provides rigorous new media and citizen journalism training for grassroots women leaders. World Pulse lifts and unites the voices of women from some of the most unheard regions of the world.Voices of Our Future 2012 Assignment: Profiles