Living in a universe held by the ocean with Devin Osorio
A letter from Devin Osorio
Hi Mysticeti family,
My name is Devin Osorio, a first generation Dominican-American from the bombastic area of Washington Heights in NYC. I come from a lineage of “flourishers” as I like to say. A family of individuals that help other people and/or things grow through education, farming, and landscaping. I would like to think that I am in some ways continuing the legacy of that lineage with my practice by creating paintings and textile works that are personally cathartic, allowing others to heal alongside me. I actually began to create work with this emphasis in 2017 after a WhatsApp conversation with a shaman/guide from South Africa. During our call, one of the points he made was that my purpose in life was to help others learn how to live – something I found hilarious because at that moment in my life I was extremely depressed and even more so lost. Yet, because of my practice I was able to confront and productively reflect on past traumas and outline how they were affecting the actions of my present.
Of course, I am no expert at anything besides fucking things up, but I am extremely proud of the works and explorations I was able to achieve for my first solo show, Who Am I But a Heights Kid. Through this exhibition, I attempted to introduce myself through a metaphorical description of Washington Heights as more than an invisibly guarded set of concrete streets and buildings but as an allegorical vessel that contains a delicious marinate of Dominican American culture, focusing on practices by those individuals and comparing them to those of gods because those acts are nothing short than remarkable when visualized. Divine acts such as connecting with dead people by sharing alcohol and healing physical wounds with a song are beautiful ways in which the human species has been able to create rituals in order to create some sort of control when there is none. While working on this series I listened to the entirety of Happiness Lab by Dr. Laurie Santos, A Slight Change of Plans by Dr. Maya Shankur, Well-Read Black Girl by Glory Edim, and parts of Cautionary Tales by Tim Harford which beyond putting me into my emotional bag, provided me vocabulary and articulations for human activities and sentiments that I did not fully grasp. They provided a deeper understanding of the correlations between humanity and our emotional reflexes, such as when I used to go to therapy and began to understand the connectivity between my wounded past and how important they were to the development of my character and sense of self.
Most of my work and most especially the pieces in this show pull inspiration from Hindu, Los Misterios (aka Dominican Voodoo), and Catholic mythology and iconography to visually depict rituals and my family lineage through the creation of altars, symbolic objects, and conjured proverbs in order to dramatise aspects of contemporary Dominican-American culture in the Heights. Three pieces from the show that I would love to highlight are, Alza La Oreja Hacia Dios, Gotas Para Las Fallecidas, and the Sana Culito de Rana Quadriptych.
“Alza La Oreja Hacia Dios”
Acrylic on Linen
43.1 x 60.2 Inches
Inspired by a game in which my uncle, Jesus, would ask me if I wanted to see god; both of us would cackle and giggle as he tugged on my ears. In this composition, I am the young boy who is being pulled upwards by the ear, off the globe and towards the heavens. In this piece, I have visualised what it would look like if humans possessed the ability to transport themselves or others through simple kinetic acts.
I am being lifted off an egg-shaped globe that houses what to me would have been the entire world at a young age: the Washington Bridge seen outside from my window, the neighborhood of Washington Heights, my great grandmother's home in the small town called El Desvio de Caobanico in San Jose De Las Matas, Dominican Republic, and the universe held within the ocean.
This depiction of the globe alludes to a painting of the Samudra Manthan (The Churning of the Ocean of Milk), a momentous event in Hindu mythology in which gods obtained immortality by consuming Amrit, the elixir of immortality. This narrative is paralleled to the game I played with my uncle, thus comparing ear-pulled transportation to that of gods and demons churning gifts from an ocean of milk.
Additionally, I venerate the ability of reproduction and nurture. This is represented by portraying my parents at the bottom of the composition, both holding the world on their shoulders thus supporting the earth for me as the tortoise Kurma did during Samudra Manthan when Mount Mandara was sinking.
To me, ritualistic acts such as reproduction and this children’s game reminds me of deities and superheroes who can travel the entire length of the globe in seconds. I find the human necessity to adopt such powerful practices based on joy and laughter in order to understand the mysteries within their life and extremely limited understanding to be remarkable and delightful.
“Gotas Para Las Fallecidas”
Acrylic on Linen
46 x 60.2 inches
Inspired by the ritualistic act of “pouring one out for the homies,” a symbolic practice in black and brown communities to represent a sip for a departed who would have taken it if alive, is visualised occurring literally. Depicting myself sitting on a foldable picnic chair on the grass in J. Hood Wright park pouring streams of the Dominican rum, Brugal, for both my mother, Maria Lucia Checo de Osorio, who passed in 2018, and aunt, Elsa Checo, who passed in 1986.
The women sit either underground within the tree roots or above-ground laying on the clouds which alludes to the Aztec belief of the dead undergoing nine challenges in order to reach Mictlán, the final resting place. In this depiction, these women show progression according to the time of departing. My mother, being the most recent to pass, is closer to the earth while my aunt is farther along and closer to rest.
The cyclicality of this artwork is inspired by a 13th Century depiction of Varuni, the Hindu goddess of wine, for its strong stance and water-like fluidity. I created a circular arrangement to represent the continuation of shared space, communication, and love with those who have passed through the simple act of sacrifice. This ritual fascinates me because it taps into acts of divinity; the ability to share tangible items with those who are no longer alive reminds me of deities and superheroes who can speak and interact with the afterlife. I find the human ability to build ceremonial practices that allow me to connect with those I have lost while still alive to be powerful and very much restorative.
"Sana Culito de Rana Quadriptych"
Individual artwork titles:
“Sana Sana : Enfermedad”, “Culito de Rana : Guallandome”, “Si No Se Sana Hoy : Correazos”, and “Se Sanara Mañana : Abuso Sexual”
Acrylic on Linen
40.125 x 30.50 Inches
When a child is wounded, guardians usually sing the three-stanza poem, Sana Sana Culito de Rana, while rubbing the hurt area with either two or four fingers. The act is meant to make the child feel both seen and lighten their emotional state through laughter. I wanted to explore this performance by healing heavy traumas such as sexual and physical abuse and insignificant ones such as hurt knees and upset stomachs by visualising myself performing this ritual during these moments.
In each composition, I represented myself as both the victim (the main subject of the composition) and the healer (the large arm that is decked in large jewelry). Through the creation of these compositions, I was forced to relive these traumatic events, using this practice as an opportunity to envision a world in which one can heal their trauma as they are occurring.
The composition is divided into four scenarios alluding to the Hindu god, Dhanvantri, the physician of the gods who emerged from the waters during Samudra Mandara. Dhanvantari is depicted in Hindu iconography as a human vessel with four arms. I made a parallel between the god and the performer of the ritual in order to reveal how the act of using song to heal is quite spectacular and comparable to deities and superheroes.
“Masculinidad No Verbal”
Acrylic on Canvas
48 x 50 inches
This artwork was inspired by the ritualistic act of nodding as a nonverbal method to communicate a greeting that allows access to individuals of the LGBTQ+ community that otherwise may not be possible. As a gender non-conforming individual, I appreciated this nonverbal language because it allowed me to share space with the ‘macho men’ that I grew up with. The triangular organization of this composition is inspired by Raja Ravi Varma’s depiction of the Hindu goddess Saraswati, the goddess of communication and knowledge, focusing on her elegantly relaxed pose and opulent dress. I used this formation to emphasize the connectivity between the subject and the two men on the bottom of the canvas, depicting this with orange strands that emerge from the individuals’ eyes.
The relationship between the genders and their roles according to their hierarchal stance in society is juxtaposed on the floating altars at the top of the composition. Comparing gender and the performance of them within humans and plants; I have created altars dedicated to three genders: male, female, and trans through the design of flower vases in the shape of anamorphic creatures. The male altar has a vase the shape of a cock with a man’s head housing a male gingko branch and the female altar has a vase the shape of a brahman cow with a woman’s head housing a female gingko branch bearing fruit. Unlike within Western societal norms for humans, both of these plants are considered imperfect due to their dioecious methods of reproduction meaning that their reproductive properties are not housed within the same plant making it so that they cannot self-reproduce. The third altar placed in the center of the composition exhibits a vase in the shape of an iguana with an androgynous head that has a large beard and long hair with a bundle of petunia which are considered hermaphrodite plants, the perfect plant. Floating in space, these altars express my view on gender, hoping that society would view the trans community in a similar light as with plants; wise individuals that have experienced both genders and thus have more knowledge to share rather than creatures of otherness.
To me, the ability to use actions rather than words to speak with others is comparable to the telepathic powers used by many super heroes and even deities. I find the human necessity to connect through the adoption of signage and expression in order to communicate in ways other than verbal, beautiful and powerful.
“El Mundo Entero Se Encuentra Aqui”
Acrylic on Linen
45 x 54 inches
Inspired by a game in which my uncle, Jesus, would respond to any of his young sobrinos’ (nephews) pleas for things by pulling down the lower lid of his left eye and claiming it was in there. Although funny, this game alludes to the fact that Jesus holds the entire universe within his eyes. In this piece, I visualized what it would look like if Jesus were to actually pull down his eye lid and release the contents of the entire universe, pouring down onto the living room that I grew up in.
The fantastical qualities of this game are paralleled with the Hindu narrative in which infant Krishna was wrongfully caught by his mother Yashoda for chewing earth. Krishna was asked to open his mouth and revealed the entire universe to his mother rather than dirt.
In this composition, Jesus stands in for Krishna, revealing the entire universe to me at a young age: the towering projects in Washington heights, the apartment buildings on my block, my aunt’s home in El Rubio in Dominican Republic, and the beautiful lake found in my great grandmother town in El Desvio de Caobanico in San Jose De Las Matas, Dominican Republic.
This game created by Jesus is fascinating to me because it taps into the human need to create rituals in order to understand the mysteries of our shared experience. Jesus could not provide everything that his nephews requested and instead taught them that they did not need it because they already possessed it within themselves. It’s a long way to deny them these gifts, but it reveals a narrative that assists with coping and replaces economic lacking with lack of needing.
When I was a child, I came across Faith Ringgolds’ Tar Beach and for the first time saw my community and myself depicted in something important, a book, thus making me feel as though I was important. Ever since I began creating work that was dedicated to my neighborhood I’ve hoped to make Ringgold proud and if lucky, make someone else feel as I did when I stumbled upon her book and devoured its beautiful and joy-inducing contents.
This may sound very much like a retired old woman response, but I hope that this letter brought a few smiles to your face and ultimately poured a bit of joy into your heart!
Con Mucho Amor,