Roy Lawaetz
by Roy Lawaetz

Newsletter of the Caribbean Amerindian Centrelink
Vol. 3, Issue No. 1
January, 2002
ISSN 1684-0232
© Caribbean Amerindian Centrelink, 2002

In This Issue
INTERVIEW with St. Croix artist, Roy Lawaetz on his Modular Triangular System and the Taino Zemi


Look at the outline of this computer screen, at the window in which these words appear. Some of us might take for granted the ‘rectangularity’ of presentation, seeing that it is so common, and thus might not seriously think about alternative ways of ‘framing’ visual images and words. This issue of the CAC newsletter may appeal, directly or tangentially, to archaeologists of the Caribbean, contemporary Tainos, and, of course, artists.

Artist Roy Lawaetz, from St. Croix (Virgin Islands), presents a much applauded, very well designed and intriguing Website featuring his art work which consists of triangular paintings, representative of what he calls the “The Modular Triangular System”. Roy Lawaetz explains that this art form is inspired by the Taino zemi (cemi). In Lawaetz’s view “the Taino Zemi heritage” is “a capable vehicle to form an alternative path towards Art”. While Lawaetz argues that this art form has its “primary origins and formulation in the Caribbean”, he also sees it as anticipating, “the multi-cultural trends of the Tri-Millennium which will strive more and more to assert hidden claims in a complex global village”. Readers are encouraged to investigate the Website on their own. The site contains an art gallery, a book on the Modular Triangular System (MTS), essays on MTS, a biography and CV for the artist, and an interview. In addition, you can read a very interesting overview of Lawaetz’s work, art theory, and personal biography in a 29 November 2001 article in the St. Thomas Source, which also discusses an exhibition of his in St. Thomas.

I (“MF” below) recently asked Roy (“RL” below) a few questions about his work, its meaning, and its context. I must thank Roy for his time and patience in answering these questions.

MF: You see the Tainos’ choice of the triangular form as a “calculated decision”. What reasons led you to think that?

RL: The amount of Zemis they produced is the main reason. It is an amazing testimony to their preference or fascination with the triangular shape. Then consider also they attributed certain deities, spirits, or ancestors to these created shapes thus cultivating a cultural significance for themselves. To spend the time the Taino did to carve so many triangular shapes out of rock without available modern tools goes beyond a calculated decision, it is more like an obsession. I have read that the early conquerors took some of them back to Europe where they were regarded as artistic curiosities. Because one thing was certainly clear from the inception of the Conquest. Whoever fashioned these objects had some kind of culture.

From the European Christian point of view they were regarded as pagan idols. But interestingly enough many of these ended up in the collections of Royal Houses and the Vatican. I used the phrase “calculated decision” to emphasise their chosen preference for this shape say over that of the oval or circle. If you consider the Christian cross as an isolated sign, it becomes quite meaningless and devoid of narrative content if you don’t know what historical event it is supposed to represent. If you don’t know of Christ’s dying on the cross, then it just looks like two sticks. There is nothing artistic about it. The Tainos on the other hand spent painstaking hours fashioning their three pointed Zemi stones with amazing artistic skills and patience.

MF: At different points of your Website, you speak of the Tainos as “extinct” and as the “lost” Taino Indians. How does it strike you that so many individuals (their Websites listed by the CAC), claim a Taino identity?

RL: As far as the many individuals with websites claiming an identity I am aware of that of course. I mentioned this fact in my book. But I am also aware of another fact. The millions that were wiped out by the Spanish explorers with treacherous means in their search for power and gold. The reference to “extinction” basically underscores that brutal genocide and is weighed in its general sense of proportional, historical truth. But, of course, it doesn’t really invalidate anyone’s personal claims to present day Taino ancestry if they can prove it to be true or are in fact Taino.  In “The Modular Triangular System” book I mentioned the following to make this clear distinction within the context of the genocide so as not to offend anyone:

“The lost legacy of the Taino is being actively promoted by mixed Indian descendants on the Information Super Highway. From Internet Tribal Council Groups to Internet Web sites and Native Chat Rooms, the Taino Civilization is reclaiming its cultural heritage in the Caribbean. And at least one individual claims to have created a Taino dictionary, which he promotes on the World Wide Web. Diverse activities such as these, and there are others, give testimony to a certain validity but are beyond the scope of this publication.”

I think I gave enough credence to the present Taino existence in “The Modular Triangular System” book, which is not a history book by the way. The book is principally about how triangles are combined to create new shape applications for painting.... Let’s face it, the website is really a condensed version of “The Modular Triangular System” book. The art theory also consists of excerpts and is not the full version. By doing so one always risks the possibility of topics being taken out of context, the art theory as well, because it is more complex than what is mentioned on the website.

MF: In addition, are you worried in any way that “living Tainos” might see your art work as “New Age”, or as an attempt to “appropriate” their “heritage”?

RL: Appropriation seems to be the modus operandi of many of the world’s most celebrated artists and the evolution of art history itself. Art can never begin from a position without influences. Picasso certainly appropriated African art. Gauguin appropriated ideas from the Tahitians. Henry Moore appropriated heavily from pre-Columbian art. The German Expressionists from Oceania. William Rubin’s monumental two volume work  “Primitivism in 20th Century Art” (The Museum of Modern Art) is all about western artists like Paul Klee, Giacometti, Matisse, the Fauves, Dada, Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism etc. appropriating from sources originating in tribal arts. In America Abstract Expressionist artist Jackson Pollock appropriated much from Native American Tribal art. The list is practically endless if you look at the evolution of world art that is never static. In this sense I am a traditional artist because I too have appropriated from sources of tribal arts. But to get to your question directly as to whether I am worried. No I am not - quite the opposite. Remember my roots are also in the Caribbean. And I see nothing wrong in appropriating from my own part of the world. Other artists before me have perceived certain non-western cultures as a conduit for truer expression, one that was less artificial and decadent. They have abandoned their European mindset to either mentally or physically travel to zones of tribal wealth for inspiration. Besides I am not making Zemi replicas out of stone. I am content that I have found my own way to appropriate these sources in a fashion that does not copy them and develop something that has not been done before. Are the Caribbean Rastafarians worried about having appropriated their beliefs from Ethiopia?

MF: I am not an art critic, nor an art historian, and so I will not pretend to be either one. Yet, I need to ask a  question that perplexes me: does shape change content?

RL: Yes it can. Often a shape that I use will have instant content based on its configuration that resembles something observed in nature, a butterfly, a lobster, a seashell etc.  And conversely content can also change shape. That’s the other side of the compositional coin with “The Modular Triangular System” I often based my content based on an available shape. The interplay of double imagery which many tribal societies have traditionally used often becomes a factor here. Hemingway had a theory about writing. To keep the fat out of prose and keep it lean. In some of the shapes I use there is only enough canvas to accommodate the content. Take a traditional landscape painting with its subject matter for instance. Often the painter is forced to add certain filler elements in his composition to make it work even though it doesn’t amount to much more than fat on the pictorial plane. So often what I do is to determine a shape that will just echo the outline of my subject matter. The way the Tainos first determined the triangular shape on stone, then built on that shape with imagery. The Tainos did this too with their three-pointed Zemis. You don’t see their Zemis placed within a rectangular space or some background element or for that matter scratched out on boulders like their petroglyphs. There’s no fat.

So yes, shape can change content. I think it can also in many instances heighten the dramatic potential of certain subject matter. It’s an optical reading. When you look at nature and see a landscape what is it you are really looking at? For me, at least, it is a series of different shape combinations packaged together. A tree is denser than a rock. A flower lighter than a rock.  The sky more ethereal than a beach etc. This varied sense of shape and character gives nature its inherent beauty. It was Gauguin who wrote, “The lofty coconut trees lift up their plumes again”. Varied shapes in our landscape are the key to pleasing our aesthetic eye. In my shape applications I have tried to transform this concept onto the canvas format rather that always utilizing a repetitive arbitrary shape like the rectangle for each painterly creation I do. The Taino Zemi unlocked the zone of possibility for me and in this sense triangles convey a wider range of canvas applications…for me at least… and it offers me a way to mimic or should I say….appropriate ….some of nature’s work habits as well.

MF: Does triangularity convey more, or convey differently, than rectangularity?

RL: I think triangularity has a greater range in some specific instances. This is the area I try to explore. If I didn’t think so I would revert back to rectangles right now....Just the sloping angularity of the shape holds potent possibilities for shape relationships in painting. The fragmentation factor as well can be adequately explored in contrast to the philosophical ideal of harmony, which is a desirable goal in life but not always possible. In my essay and website, however, I list at least 10 basic attributes in which triangles can demonstrate their inherent agility to create a new dynamic for painterly expression. The triangular formats come closer to sculpture too, in some instances. This creates a middle ground between sculpture and painting at times making it different than the shape of the hegemonic rectangle. Just this area in itself gives proof that shape can change content in the way we perceive it and also convey more for some situations. I think sculptors have wrestled with this for centuries but it is in painting where the exterior format of the support has basically held loyal to the hegemonic rectangle. As I mentioned in my essay there are reasons for this.
The rectangular system of art has been in place for a long time now and of course will always exist, even more so with digital imagery. So in this sense triangularity could never convey more. What I do offer to the art forum however is an inclusive idea inspired by some Caribbean legacies. One that basically says the triangle also exists if you want to include it.

MF: In line with the last question (still not an art critic), can one not see a rectangle as the combination of two triangles?

RL: Of course you can. But then you only have two triangles that is limiting in terms of shape combinations. Some combinations I have worked with have up to 22 triangles together thereby expanding the range of possibilities. At the moment I have developed over 70 different shape applications. These shape applications go further than just a single triangle or two triangles, which you suggest are within a rectangle if you draw a diagonal line. But your point is well taken in the sense that I also restricted myself to such limited possibilities in the early years of my triangular work. I saw the triangle as a shape entity in isolation and limited compared to what I now know to be different. Now I see it as an expansive element for combinational dialogue.

The geometric nature of the triangle shape has some hidden values that once explored with a certain creative daring can produce innovative results. But in this sense it really takes more than just two to really tango in this triangular dance. You need more than two triangles all the time to feel the true experience.

MF: But is triangularity as much a challenge to the linear parameters of the rectangle as circularity may be?

RL: As a single element the circle is a stronger contrast. No doubt. Its inherent roundness is a striking difference to the angular elements of the rectangle or triangle. That’s true. But when you begin to explore the circle’s possibilities for combinational dynamics you might find it falls short of expectations as a resourceful element. But a committed artist who really wants to work with circles could probably do it if he or she put enough effort into it. I have only done one circular painting. It is still hung in my living room next to a family of triangular works. Perhaps as a reminder. But to date I have not taken it any further than just a single circle in isolation. The triangles still have my attention for the moment as you can see.

MF: I also think, if we were to interpret some elements of Amerindian cosmology as represented in different objects, that triangularity is infertile: cassava bread, for instance, is almost always circular, which, according to some ethnographers, is due to its association with females, with the feminine, and with the pregnant womb in particular. What is your opinion on this?

RL: The elements of Amerindian cosmology you speak of I am unfamiliar with. But I have come to know this: the Tainos believed some zemis had the power to instill painless childbirth for women. Also they had certain fertility zemis based on the triangular shape. The reference you make to Cassava bread is not one I am familiar with. It was the Taino concept of the fertility zemis that inspired me to create interactive works with real water flowing etc. such as in the painting “No Rain, No Rainbow” featured on my website. Had I been convinced of what you are referring to as the only interpretation for the Amerindian triangle I could not have proceeded in the manner I did with my interactive works. It’s a good thing I’m meeting you now and not earlier Max.

MF: You seem to equate rectangularity with Europe. Are there no examples of rectangularity dominant in other civilizations?

RL: Sure there are. But the rectangular introduction to the Caribbean Taino was basically European. The references I point to take this into consideration. Before the pre-European contact there was a limited rectangular world for the Taino. But with the Europeans a great number of rectangular shaped objects were introduced that they had never seen before.

MF: You mention at one point: “the triangle recalls an important part of Caribbean history that is provocative to understanding its past. It offers a symbolic gateway for depicting a particular legacy specific to the Region as well as a liberating path to self-identity”. Is an Amerindian aesthetic important, as you see it, in cultivating a sense of cultural nationalism in the Caribbean?

RL: Actually I was specifically referring to the three principal legacies: the pre-Columbian, the European and the African. The triangular concept of the Divine Trinity as introduced by the Europeans to the area, and the triangular slave trade in combination with the Zemi legacy. A sense of cultural nationalism in the Caribbean based on an Amerindian aesthetic seems as far fetched as the U.S. developing an aesthetic based on the American Native. But I think it would be culturally correct and rewarding for the Caribbean experience to begin including this aspect of the Caribbean into the cultural landscape. I think it is an area of cultural neglect existing in the Caribbean.

When people visit the Caribbean they should really experience all of its legacies etc. to understand the complex background. But inhabitants as well should be given a greater sense of historical and cultural interaction on an early educational level. It has taken the Vatican and the Union of European Countries over 500 years to acknowledge officially the atrocities committed in this area of the world in the name of one banner or the other. Either the Christian faith or European economic expansionism or both. Who will rewrite history within the context of this New Apology?

MF: Also, please tell those of us who know little about St. Croix, whether or not there is any local clamouring for independence and a quest for a sense of local or national identity.

RL: As I am not involved in politics I am certain to be very uninformed as to any such viable movements and the wrong person to ask. But I will say this however that the U.S. still has St. Croix politically combined with St. Thomas which gives the people on St. Croix very little local autonomy for Self Rule. We are in the dark ages here compared to other Caribbean islands that have already gained their own independence from other sister-island affiliations. I think there is some local clamoring there, which by the way, is certainly justified when you observe the great social and economic discrepancies that exist between the two islands even though St. Croix is the larger of the two islands. There are those on St. Croix who would like to have municipal government separated from the guardianship of St. Thomas while still remaining under the U.S. flag. I think that this is the future that many Crucians aspire to. Whether this will ever become a political reality is another question.

MF: Have you witnessed similar Amerindian inspired art creations elsewhere in the Caribbean?

RL: It depends on what you mean by similar. Certainly there exist many Amerindian –inspired creations throughout the Caribbean, i.e., in Guadeloupe, Martinique, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Jamaica. These are just some of the islands that come to mind. I don’t pretend to omit anyone. And is there anyone who knows them all? All the artists who may be so inspired? There are many more, each artist doing his own thing, also inspired by the pre-Columbian legacy of the Caribbean.

Your own website, the CAC, features some of these engaged artists as well. But the similarity should not be taken to mean that we are all working with a developed triangular repertoire of shapes. To address the works on canvas they stick primarily to the hegemonic rectangle. I think this is just one of the main distinctions to be found between what currently exists as Amerindian inspired creations and my own work with “The Modular Triangular System” which at the same time tries to convey a sense of fragmentation that is connected to the historical past of the Caribbean. And it is very much to do with the philosophical stance that I take: the Region’s past and present is one of human displacement and fragmentation. The Archipelago’s own geographical structure with stretches of ocean separating us only adds to the historical fragmentation reality of the physical space. Then of course there are other artists who work with other material that do not require canvas formats, those who work with wood or stone or mixed media.

MF: Is there anything like an artistic movement that draws on the Amerindian past in the Caribbean? If so, what do you think motivates it?

RL: Not that I am aware of but it is not always easy to know what else is happening outside one’s own studio. One gets thick into paint. But I hope to see the day when a major international traveling exhibition will take this up as a serious thematic. There are certainly enough notable artists in the Caribbean who could live up to the challenge of presenting an Amerindian presence exhibition that could be a significant contribution to the arts of the Diaspora. But right now most of us seem to be working in isolation. As far as motivation I think many feel it is part of their Caribbean heritage, whether they have Amerindian blood or not.

MF: When the visitors to your many exhibitions view your work, are they aware that it is inspired by Taino zemis?

RL: No, most do not initially. In fact many have never even heard of the Taino. In Brazil at the 1996 Sao Paulo Biennial I was questioned a lot on the subject. I didn’t have “The Modular Triangular System” in a formulated book available at the time. But I had some printed Zemi reproductions for the public to observe. In fact I think the Brazilian public’s acceptance of my new style paintings propelled me to develop more shape applications and eventually publish a book.

It was in Brazil where I started to seriously consider articulating in words what I was attempting to do. There I could interact with a large audience on the subject. Luiz Carlos Barreto, the famous Brazilian film maker visited my salon at the Biennial and even commented in the press that my works were inspirational for movie scenery etc. and of course I had never thought of them in that light. So opportunities like this gave me the platform to expound a bit on the subject of the Taino Zemi and why I did triangles, always paying homage to the Taino and their legacy.

MF: What sorts of questions do they ask?

RL: Why triangles? That’s almost always the standard question even when I explain about the Zemis. Even when I point out some Zemi reproductions they sometimes still don’t see the direct association that I see. That is the usual perplexing question since they are used to seeing paintings on rectangles. The next line of questioning is: “what are the triangles made of?” Often they think that they are made of wood and not stretched canvas on triangular shaped frames. This too can prompt them to touch the work to see if this is indeed so and women’s fingernails are often guests as well. Some can’t resist touching the triangular works. Oh, it’s rough, Max.

MF: What sorts of opinions do they offer?

RL: Luckily I have had situations where someone in the general public has offered a creative idea of their own. Constructive feedback when they realize that shapes play an important role in my work. Like have you ever tried doing so and so etc. Recently an art critic, Abil Peralta, liked a tiny piece that was done with just thirteen black triangles, that he suggested I increase the scale. I did so and there is now a ten foot version of the original two foot version featured at the current Biennial of the Caribbean and Central America at the Museo de Arte Moderno in Santo Domingo.

A close friend of mine, Billy Mackay, also a native from St. Croix, caught on quickly and has given some insightful suggestions for the interactive works I did for the 1996 Sao Paulo Biennial and assisted me in this production.
The art collector Marianne Drost, my partner and Curator, is a tremendous evaluator and she is my most immediate public on a daily basis. She is often very capable of seeing where a particular shape can lead to in terms of its expansive range because she understands the vocabulary of the shapes. Often she will have an opinion on what could be done with a particular shape and I take her suggestions seriously. Feedback is also a valuable ingredient in my work.

MF: Aside from the message of the form itself, do you seek to convey any set messages and ideas through your art work?

RL: Some paintings have more narrative content than others. I was an abstract expressionist artist for at least 20 years. That genre holds sacred the suppression of narrative content in its expression. Basically you’re dealing with form and color to reach a harmonic reality on the pictorial plane.

The system of painting I now use doesn’t deny narrative content. It also uses abstraction whenever it helps me to convey whatever I want to say. In a painting like “The Levitation of Emancipation” featured on my website I used a winged shaped format consisting of thirteen triangles to convey the feeling of liberated flight. I feel the shape itself added to the overall concept of the painting’s message that I could not have realized with a standard rectangle. And dramatized the subject matter with the use of this specific shape to really underscore the 1848 Emancipation event. So yes, sometimes messages of historical and cultural background are ideally facilitated by the different shapes.

MF: Should one try to read social and political commentary in your art work?

RL: I guess this will be inevitable. Depending on the individual painting and the viewer’s own engagement and interest this will obviously differ too. But if I can add some general interest in the Taino legacy from a creative perspective rather than an historical one, then this in itself would be meaningful for me. But for an in depth study on the Taino which offers direct social and political commentary there are many Taino based groups on the Internet which I referred to in my book and which your CAC has links to. A good example is the petition out right now by the UCTP to halt certain development in Boricua (Puerto Rico) on sacred Taino burial grounds [Editor: see sidebar in this issue]. Taino advocacy groups are involved with that issue. This is as clear an indication, as any that the Taino spirit, mind and body is an active force. And has legitimate cultural claims. Then of course there is the Vieques issue. How will history ultimately judge the United States for its insistence to continue using this tiny inhabited island for bombing practice? Frankly I think you will find more social and political commentary in history’s final scoreboard on issues such as these than you will in my triangular paintings. Admittedly ever so often my paintings do include some topic of social or political commentary. But in the main my triangular work is about theoretical ideas, ideas dealing with the presentation of paintings in a non-rectangular fashion. And “The Modular Triangular System” is my expressed theory and the practice of such a pictorial endeavor.
It  was done by Dr. Maximilian C. Forte
Caribs of the Lesser Antilles/Webmaster
Assistant Professor
Department of Sociology and Anthropology
1455 de Maisonneuve Blvd. W.
Montreal, QC, H3G 1M8, Canada