Based on research, an interview with the artist, and biographical information, this text presents a reading of Daniel Lind-Ramos’s work in relationship to the historic events of the 1797 British invasion of Puerto Rico. The article highlights the importance of history, memory, syncretic practices, and Afro-Caribbean identity in Lind-Ramos’s growing body of work which draws from the material economies of his home city of Loíza.
In April 2017, I received an invitation to participate in a happening in Piñones, a neighborhood of Loíza, a historically Black town in the northern coast of Puerto Rico. The event was planned to commemorate the 220th anniversary of the victory by Black and Brown Puerto Ricans over the British in the invasion of 1797. Convened at Corporación Piñones se Integra (COPI), a non-profit organization that serves as a cultural and eco-tourism center, the event was structured in three parts: a talk by historian Juan Giusti Cordero, followed by the communal painting of dried coconuts in the colors of the British flag, and a procession to the nearby beach, accompanied by the sounds of a military snare drum. At the beach, we were instructed to throw the coconuts to the sea, then pick them up as they were washed ashore, and hand them over to a man who would dehusk them with a spike. The resulting pile of coconut husks on the beach served as a metaphor for the defeated and retreating British troops that invaded Puerto Rico between April 17 and May 3, 1797.
The event was conceived by Daniel Lind-Ramos (b. 1953, Loíza), an artist who has made the historic and symbolic importance of 1797 a recurring subject in a growing body of work that encompasses paintings, drawings, video art, installations, and assemblage sculptures. Initially trained in painting and drawing, Lind-Ramos began incorporating three-dimensional objects into his paintings in the early 1990s. By 1996, Lind-Ramos had started to create installations and assemblages using materials commonly found around his studio in Loíza including dried coconuts, parts of palm trees, and boats. He also commonly uses all kinds of work or cooking tools in his pieces, as well as masks and musical instruments that he either makes himself or receives from friends and neighbors. In fact, on the July morning that we met for an interview in front of his family home in the neighborhood of Colobó, he had plans to purchase a couple of hammers so that he could exchange them for used ones to add to one of his pieces. Hammers—and metal tools in general—are one of the symbols of Ogun, an orisha, or deity in the Yoruba tradition, making these objects important images in Afro-Caribbean religions. This inclusion of tools honors the area’s day laborers, musicians, cooks, and artisans that constitute the cultural backbone of his native town of Loíza, one of the bastions of Black culture in the Puerto Rican archipelago.
Lind-Ramos grew up in Colobó surrounded by mask and furniture makers, wood workers, seamstresses, and artisans, including many in his own family. He often helped his uncle Luis make masks and accompanied his mother Isabel to gather Sansevieria, or snake plants, whose leaves she would transform into fibers and braid into placemats and coasters decorated with colorful flower motifs. His affinity towards art started in his home and grew through association with his neighbor Castor Ayala, a renowned mask maker who took his own creations and those of people from his community and popularized them by marketing them in the capital of San Juan. As a child, Lind-Ramos won accolades and a $2 prize for a drawing of a sugar cane field after harvest season; his drawing was even printed in a national newspaper. Later, in high school, as Lind-Ramos naively contemplated joining the military at the height of the Vietnam War, a teacher who was also a veteran convinced him otherwise, setting him instead on a journey towards an art education at the University of Puerto Rico. There he met his mentor, the well-regarded artist Félix Bonilla Norat, who was in tune with contemporary art trends and artists, and whose lessons still resonate with Lind-Ramos. Under Bonilla Norat’s influence, he stepped away from traditional folk scenes, indulged in retinal painting, color theory, became interested in Arte Povera, and studied the work of Wifredo Lam, among many others.
During his studies, Lind-Ramos searched for references and expressions closer to his lived experience and eventually became interested in the possibilities of objects and their imbued properties. After a brief stint experimenting with abstraction during his graduate studies at New York University, Lind-Ramos returned to figurative work during the 1980s. He created oneiric scenes related to ancestrality and the universal notion of womanhood, while also exploring Yoruba religious imagery through the inclusion of orishas, their attributes, and related colors. Even though he is not initiated in the Yoruba religion, these elements continue to be important influences and images in his work. Loíza is a space filled with all kinds of syncretic practices, yet it remains a deeply Christian town. For Lind-Ramos, listening to the lyrics of salsa songs by Richie Ray and Bobby Cruz was the gateway to this new frame of reference anchored in Afro-Caribbean religions. Exploring these references, in turn, provided key insights into Loizan traditions and aesthetics, particularly in the Fiestas de Santiago Apóstol, or the festival of St. James.
In the early 1990s, Lind-Ramos started to approach his painting as objects. “There came a time when painting—for what I wanted to express—was a bit limiting,” he recalls.1 He began to insert other elements into his paintings, moving away from the pictorial surface. Historical references also began to populate his works. He noticed that researching historical events generated many images in his mind, and he was particularly interested in the history of the Antilles. As he explains: “I read Black Jacobins and about Toussaint Louverture and I wondered about the relationship between Puerto Rico and the Haitian Revolution, the musical connections between bomba [a musical genre from Loíza], and certain refrains in Creole. Then I started talking to specialists, and I learned that news of the revolution had reached Puerto Rico and that there was an intention to disseminate it throughout the Caribbean.”2
The 1797 attack on Puerto Rico by British forces has proven to be a historical event with lasting significance for Lind-Ramos. This affront could have been a turning point in the history of colonization and the expansion of slavery in the Americas. Coinciding with the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804), the invasion signaled the British desire to capture and create another Caribbean base for sugar production. By the end of the 18th century, Spain was an empire troubled by succession struggles and wars in Europe. The British, on the contrary, were an empire in expansion. They planned to attack Puerto Rico—then a Spanish colony—in order to take advantage of the diversion of Spanish resources to Hispaniola in support of France’s suppression of the slave revolution in Haiti. General Ralph Abercromby was entrusted with the task of conquering more territories in the Caribbean, eventually capturing the islands of Trinidad, Saint Lucia, and Saint Vincent before making his way north. On April 17, 1797, sixty-eight ships, containing between 10,000 and 14,000 British soldiers, German mercenaries, and thousands of forcibly recruited troops from Trinidad, Barbados, and Martinique were sighted near the coast of Loíza. They anchored along the coast of Punta Cangrejos in Loíza and Cangrejos Arriba, now known as Isla Verde in the town of Carolina, and disembarked the next day with some 6,000 men. After initially losing ground in Cangrejos to the British, the Creole forces carried out four offensives over the next two weeks that ultimately sent the British back to their ships. While the Spanish and Creole forces held on to the San Juan islet, machete-wielding militias of freed and enslaved people from Cangrejos and Loíza carried out stealth attacks at night, using the nearby mangroves as cover. According to research by Giusti Cordero, Black and Brown people from Loíza, Cangrejos, Río Piedras, Guaynabo, Cataño, Palo Seco, Toa Baja, Toa Alta, and other towns were instrumental in the defeat of the British forces. It is this victory that some historians consider to be the first direct expression of a collective Puerto Rican identity—a defining moment in which the common people, Black and Brown Puerto Ricans, became protagonists in their own history.3
Over the centuries, other stories emerged to obscure the role that these Black and Brown Puerto Ricans played in this important victory, a prolonged event that prevented Puerto Rico from becoming a British colony. Lind-Ramos first learned of the 1797 British invasion of San Juan in 1997, after hearing about a bicentennial celebration commemorating the attack. Organized in Loíza, this celebration was put on by a local committee made up of neighbors, cultural workers, and historians. Since the late ’90s, Lind-Ramos has created a body of work that frequently references 1797, often connecting it to the past and present struggles of the people of Loíza. He approaches history with the intent of “filtering” contemporary events through a historical lens, creating allegories that address issues like the defense of the ancestral home, the environment, local histories with global implications, and the syncretism that connects his community in Loíza to the Caribbean and the wider African diasporas. “What I do is practically aimed at my community,” he says. “I talk about contemporary situations through materials that have to do with our experiences, and connect them with the historical event [of 1797] to facilitate the formulation of questions in the viewer, placing the participation of our community in the context of the history of Puerto Rico.”4 In the creative world of Lind-Ramos, 1797—much like the masquerade characters of the Fiestas de Santiago Apóstol that are part of the syncretic traditions of Loíza—has become a prism through which to reinterpret history.
Over the years, Lind-Ramos has created works in a variety of media, including assemblage sculpture and rather epically sized charcoal drawings that directly reference 1797, as well as a myriad of other works that hint at it through images of anthropomorphic crabs, cannons, and epic battles on the coast. Lind-Ramos is certainly not the only artist who has referenced the 1797 victory over the British troops in his artworks. The great Puerto Rican painter José Campeche (1751-1809), who was the son of a formerly enslaved man and a woman from the Canary Islands, was also part of the militia that defended San Juan. The year of the offensive, Campeche painted Exvoto del sitio de San Juan por los ingleses en el año 1797 (Ex-Voto of the Siege of San Juan by the English in the Year 1797). The piece depicts a landscape of Cangrejos at war from the point of view of a resident of the fortified city in the San Juan islet. It also includes a text that attributes the victory over the British to Our Lady of Bethlehem, which was a popular assertion at that time. Other legends have attributed the triumph over the British to St. Ursula and the 11,000 virgins, and the rogativa: a procession of praying women carrying torches led by the bishop of San Juan that supposedly scared off the British by simulating a multitude of incoming soldiers.5 These legends downplay the reality of the resistance by Black and Brown militias in a space where they were the predominant population. The racial categories of the time classified people according to their Spanish, African, or Indigenous lineage, and the overlap of these heritages. According to these measures, more than 80% of the population of the affected region at the time was “non-white,” including 26% Black and enslaved “morenos,” and 57% free “morenos” and “pardos.”
In 1797 (2012), Lind-Ramos utilizes traditional Loizan masks, trades, and crafts, as well as the machete, to reference the British invasion. In this work, he incorporates a coconut dehusking spike—a tool that can also be deployed as a weapon—surrounded by dried coconuts painted in the colors of the British flag. The central figure of the assemblage is also part of the imagery of the Loizan masquerade. Known as a Viejo or Old Man, this character is the one the artist has always identified with even from a young age witnessing the Santiago Apóstol festivities. For Lind-Ramos, the masks allude to the cultural legacy of Loíza, but his use of them in his works stem from what they reveal rather than what they hide. His other assemblages, Centinelas (Sentinels) (2013) and Guarda Costas (Coast Guards) (2012), use palm tree parts, construction tools, and pots, among other elements to depict strong, defensive figures standing guard. These figures are as much a reference to past invasions as they are to contemporary threats of evictions, development projects that prioritize tourism over the communities, and environmental concerns regarding contamination and coastal erosion. In part of a series of charcoal drawings, Elegia a la Gran Vejiganta (Elegy to the Great Vejiganta) (2010), Lind-Ramos includes a woman holding a sign reading “No se vende” (not for sale), drawing connections between the contemporary struggle against land grabs and evictions along the coast for the sake of development and the plight of their enslaved ancestors.6
Another work that alludes to the events of 1797 is a series titled Vencedores (Victors). In the process of developing works in the series, Lind-Ramos creates assemblages and then dismantles them, reutilizing materials in other pieces, until finally arriving at the desired outcome at the right time. Vencedor #2, 1797 (Victors #2, 1797) (2017-2020), a piece that was recently acquired by the Pérez Art Museum Miami, is a prime example of this working method. This Vencedor is an equestrian figure, a classic representation of power in Western art. Looking significantly closer to home, it is also a reference to Santiago Apóstol and existing images of the Haitian revolutionary Toussaint Louverture. The militias that fought against the British invasion used whatever instruments they had at hand, so Lind-Ramos uses this sculptural form to speculate about what kind of tools they might have used, incorporating them into the assemblage sculpture. The sculpture consists of materials like palm tree branches and tree trunks, dried coconuts, burlap, blue tarp, sequined fabric, ropes, a burén (a circular metal slab used to cook over an open fire), a cast aluminum pot, a machete, and a single boot. Many of these found objects have been varnished. The figure itself is constructed using all kinds of fibers and knots, borrowing from forms used in the construction of homes when he was growing up, those of his mother’s braided natural fibers, and that of cargo sacks used to carry merchandise aboard ships—a metaphor for the Transatlantic slave trade.
In Vencedor #2, 1797, the symbolism of avictorious figure on horseback cuts two ways. It is said that, in his retreat, Abercrombie left his horse in Puerto Rico so, in Vencedor, Lind-Ramos imagines a Black victor riding on his horse, a symbol of defeat turned into one of celebration. “I am also dialoguing with the figure of Santiago Apóstol … In Loíza we have the equestrian figure as part of the iconography of the imagery of the Fiestas. That is the tradition, but I am proposing another rider linked to an important historical event in which our ancestors participated.”7 Santiago, after all, is a white saint also known as the “Moor-slayer,” traditionally represented as riding on horseback, carrying a sword, stepping on the heads of Black people. In referencing this image, Lind-Ramos does not aspire to alter the tradition, but rather to propose an alternative, creating a different but similar image to counter the one that already exists.
Even when Lind-Ramos painted oneiric, allegorical images, his figures were always glowing. Now, that inner glow is manifested in his assemblage sculptures through his use of varnish that covers the objects like a layer of sweat. This evokes a sense of presence as much as it provides the works with a certain aesthetic unity. “Having done something or having a past lived experience in relation to an object provides authentic solutions in my works,” the artist explains.8 Instead of using a nail, he might tie a knot; the selection of elements that refer back to his experiences makes the work more interesting, more practical, and more beautiful. Lind-Ramos, as ever, uses the material legacy of economies related to his community to activate meaning and generate identity-based bonds. His continued interest in 1797 must be understood in the context of Puerto Ricans’s—and specifically Loizans’s—struggles to remain in their ancestral spaces. For him the intent is clear: “I am generating images that are based on my experience, but are linked to my family, Puerto Rico, the Antilles, the diaspora, and obviously with the present moment.”9
Daniel Lind-Ramos sources the crucial materials, histories and metaphors for his pieces by being among family, lifelong friends, and neighbors. As he has found more success in his career in the international stage in recent years following his participation in the 2019 Whitney Biennial, he’s also found humor in the early criticism he received for not having stayed abroad when he was younger, or for not continuing to paint. But how could he have developed this work elsewhere? Where else, if not in Colobó? In his life, as in his work, Lind-Ramos aspires to remain. “You go around the world by staying in the same place where you grew up,” I said. And he replied: “Here is the ‘there’ for them. Here is like a center.”10
Marina Reyes Franco is a Curator at the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Puerto Rico (MAC). In 2010, she co-founded La Ene, an itinerant museum and collection. Recent projects include El momento del yagrumo (2021) and La llave / la clave (2021) at MAC, San Juan; De Loiza a la Loiza (2020), a MAC en el Barrio public art commission by Daniel Lind-Ramos; Resisting Paradise (2019) at :Pública, San Juan and Fonderie Darling, Montreal; Watch your step / Mind your head (2017), ifa-Galerie, Berlin; The 2nd Grand Tropical Biennial (2016) in Loíza, Puerto Rico; Sucursal (2014), MALBA, Buenos Aires; as well as numerous exhibitions at La Ene.
- Daniel Lind-Ramos, conversation with the author, Loíza, July 16, 2021.
- Juan Giusti Cordero, “Piñones sí se acuerda. 200 años de la participación negra en la Victoria sobre la invasión inglesa (1797-1997),” Boletín de la Asociación de Residentes de Piñones/Comité 1797-1997, May 1997, 3.
- See Daniel Lind-Ramos speak in participation with “PIÑONES 1797: Negros y mulatos al rescate de un pueblo,” an online public talk organized by Corredor Afro, April 21, 2021, accessed August 23, 2021, <https://www.facebook.com/2242672522684319/videos/453231555940607>.
- Giusti Cordero, 2. See also: Milagros Denis-Rosario, “The Silence of the Black Militia: Socio-Historical Analysis of the British Attack to Puerto Rico of 1797,” Memorias: Revista Digital de Historia y Arqueología desde el Caribe, no. 14, 2011, 48-74.
- Today, Lind-Ramos has brought Black women to the forefront of his representations in recognition of their protagonism in contemporary social struggles. No other Black female figure is more recurrent in his works than Adolfina Villanueva, a woman who was murdered on February 6, 1980, at the hands of the Puerto Rico Police during the eviction of her house in the Tocones sector of Loíza.
- Daniel Lind-Ramos, conversation with the author, Loíza, July 16, 2021.