Great Paintings: Collar y Cemí by José R. Alicea

When examining Puerto Rican art, you will find that the Taino people-Puerto Rico’s original inhabitants-are a recurring theme. Many Puerto Rican artists draw inspiration from the artifacts of Taino culture, taking advantage of their distinctive visual style to create bold and meaningful art. The idea that modern Puerto Ricans are connected to the Tainos-either genetically or culturally-is an important cornerstone of Puerto Rican identity and an underpinning concept in the Puerto Rican nationalist movement.

Puerto Rican artist José Alicea explores this idea in his print Collar y Cemí. Alicea is one of many Puerto Rican artists who became interested in printmaking in the mid to late twentieth century. Today, he is well known for his prints and woodcuts and for his interest in portraying social and historical subjects.

At first glance, Collar y Cemí appears to be a drawing of a Taino collar, a ritual item often uncovered at archeological sites. These collars were made of carved stone, one of the few materials that could withstand the unforgiving Caribbean climate without significant damage over time. The difficulty of crafting such an item and the obvious skill involved indicates that these collars were important ritual items, even though their purpose is unclear to modern scholars. The use of the collar in Alicea’s print is a statement about the ever-present connection between the Tainos and modern Puerto Ricans.

Alicea uses the distinctive shape of the collar, something that would have been familiar to most Puerto Ricans. However, in his print, the Taino symbols and designs have been replaced by the faces of four Puerto Rican political and intellectual leaders: Eugenio María de Hostos, Román Baldorioty de Castro, Pedro Albizu Campos, and Ramón Emeterio Betances. In the center of the collar, a small, red figure is visible. This is the titular cemí, a kind of ritual object used for personal devotion. As author Nelson Rivera explains, the figure is a sort of symbol of anti-colonial struggle, highlighting the collective history of oppression in Puerto Rico. The collar-a circular object-symbolizes the endless cycle of death and life as well as the connection between people and events over time (the idea of history repeating itself). Though they are separated by centuries, these four men-who represent the fight for Puerto Rican independence and Puerto Rican culture more generally-are the direct intellectual descendents of the Tainos, the last independent Puerto Ricans. Alicea implies that these men stand on the shoulders of the Tainos; their fights and struggles are the same. Though they are gone, the Tainos remain relevant to modern day Puerto Ricans.

As Rivera writes, “for Alicea, Puerto Rican life and history are one, countrymen all immersed in centuries-old and inconclusive struggles against colonialism.”

Originally published at on May 24, 2020.



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