In Bony Ramirez’s portraits, sculptural, drawn and painted, the compositional techniques of Renaissance portraiture are applied to the depiction of Caribbean iconography and culture.
The religious icons that Bony encountered growing up in a Dominican household mark the origins of his fascination with Renaissance imagery. His first artistic ventures in drawing and imitating religious iconography still have a place in his practice, only in his current works the traditional saints and martyrs are replaced by exuberant, large-limbed and majestic figures representing Caribbean subjectivities and histories. Made first on paper using a combination of painting and drawing techniques, then transposed onto wood panels, Bony’s figures command the visual field, occupying their surroundings with a regal authority. Bony’s dynamic process of layering his medium lends his subjects a further sense of dominance in their differentiation from their backgrounds; the figures are given heightened prominence both materially and compositionally.
The symbols with which Bony surrounds his figures turn European traditions of Renaissance opulence towards images which uphold the significance of iconography specific to the Caribbean, including machetes, plantains, indigenous vegetation and animals. By placing these symbols in the context of religious and Renaissance portraiture, Bony is affording reverence to a culture which colonial versions of history tend to disregard. Similarly, his veneration of black and brown figures using highly saturated palettes and exaggerated, powerful stances supplants the homogenised, imperial, white narratives of European Renaissance portraiture and presents instead a decolonised vision of the Dominican Republic. In this, Bony seeks to create compositions in which others who share his experiences and cultural references will feel represented—in his words: “that is who I paint for—for me and my people.”
AMM: Hello Bony! To start off—could you tell us about the events and decisions that led you to become an artist?
BR: I’ve always loved art ever since I can remember. I don’t know where I got it from. Like most Dominican children, I didn’t grow up in an artistic household. I started drawing religious icons, since that’s mainly the type of art you would find in a Dominican home. These religious paintings are the reason my work is so inspired by the Renaissance. I realised I was really good at it when we moved to the US and I took art classes in high school. This was my first official introduction into making art. Since then, I’ve made it my goal to become the best artist I can and keep expanding my horizons.
AMM: Your style is incredibly distinctive; how would you describe the work you create and how has your artistic style developed over time?
BR: In terms of my aesthetic, it would be pre-colonisation Caribbean luxury. I would describe my work as if Peter Paul Rubens and Francis Bacon moved to the Caribbean and had a baby—that would be me! My work has changed a lot, I started with a style more aimed at children. At one point I wanted to be a children’s book illustrator, so my early works are cute little characters. Later I realised that I wanted my work to be stronger and to have a bigger purpose. My characters turned into full blown adults with multi-coloured and exaggerated limbs.
AMM: The use of layering in your images is very intriguing—can you tell us more about multimodality in your work and how the sculptural aspect of your practice merges into your paintings?
BR: For my process, my figures are made on paper pasted on a wood panel background. I make my figures on Bristol paper, I do an acrylic wash, colour pencil and then I blend the colour pencil with soft oil pastels. The background for the pieces is all acrylic paint and sometimes I use oil bars to complement it. At the end, the figures are pasted on the panel, combining the two together into one piece. I’m basically working on two artworks at a time for one piece, one is the figure on paper and the other the background on wood. Recently I’ve started incorporating more sculptural elements into the panel, like knives and swords. These sculptural elements take the already mixed media work to the next level.
AMM: It must require a lot of dynamic creative energy to utilise so many different mediums alongside each other and in combination—how do you handle your process when making to keep the various elements connected and coherent?
BR: The process is a bit complex. In pictures is looks like a normal painting, but when seen in person, the viewer comes across the layers of materials and mark making. In the pasting of the paper, often all the details on the artwork make the paper lines get lost, especially if the piece has an intricate background. When adding things like swords on to the panel, the swords usually complement the meaning or idea that I’m trying to convey with the piece.
AMM: There is a chromatic intensity to your works; the palette is so rich, vibrant and evocative. We’d love to hear about the significance of colour choices in your art. Can you tell us about the symbols, motifs and metaphors present in your works?
BR: I was born and raised in the Dominican Republic; the Caribbean colour palette is full of strong and vibrant colours that are definitely present in my work! A lot of light blue, pink, yellow, just to name a few. If you look into Caribbean architecture, these colours are common on most houses, especially in the country side of DR. By carrying this colour palette into my paintings and sculptures, I’m carrying my home with me. In the same way, my work includes a lot of motifs and symbolism that are very unique to the Caribbean. Some of these motifs/symbols include machetes, plantains, tropical trees and animals, and most recently rooster fighting. I am aware that sometimes my work gets so specific in terms of the meaning that only people from the Caribbean or the diaspora in general will get it, but that is who I paint for— for me and my people.
AMM: We’re particularly interested to know more about the influence of Renaissance portraiture in your work; how is this tradition repurposed in your images?
BR: I think what interests me the most about Renaissance portraiture is the compositions and the play between the surreal and ordinary. I like the power and seriousness those compositions exude! I like for my figures to be taken seriously, for the viewer to feel that the figure is not only taking up space, but that it’s in charge of that space. When I look at these Renaissance portraits of royals that’s how I feel. I want my Caribbean, brown and black figures to take over these predominantly white-cis-male narratives that have been advertised to us in these Renaissance portraits. I love going to museums and looking at all these Renaissance pieces and I enjoy the colours, compositions and storytelling elements of them, but as a brown Caribbean immigrant living in the United States I don’t feel represented in these works that I love so much. I want my people to feel represented and to know that they have a space in history.
AMM: Could you please tell us more about the distortortion feature in the bodies and especially the limbs of the characters you paint?
BR: I was never good at proportions while I was in school. It was really difficult for me to draw the human body anatomically correct. When trying to find my voice and a specific style, I told myself, why don’t I embrace this and exaggerate it even more! So I started taking “human anatomy” to different extremes. I looked into artists like Francis Bacon and Picasso and was fascinated on how they explore the human form. In addition, I explore a lot with the idea of the human anatomy and what the average human being considers “male” or “female”. It’s interesting when people see my figures and give them pronouns based on what gender they think I’m trying to portray. In my head, my figures aren’t exactly human beings, so the idea of gender doesn’t really exist for most of my figures. In a way that asks the viewers to examine what exactly means to be a human?
AMM: What kinds of things inspire your work beyond the visual?
BR: I look into a lot of my personal experiences as inspiration. I look for ways I can translate those experiences into my work without being too autobiographical. Being surrounded by nature and intricate interior spaces also informs my work! I’m a big anime fan—I watch a lot of anime as a way of letting the character’s expressions and movements in the series inform my own figures!
AMM: What excites you about the contemporary art world? And how do you hope it will evolve in the future?
BR: What really excites me about the contemporary art world is really the idea that there are almost no limits when creating an artwork and getting your point across! I really like that freedom. On the other hand, I feel like inclusivity is something that I hope can evolve in the future of the contemporary art world and the art world in general. I believe we are heading in the right direction—we’ve had more BIPOC and women artists being recognised than ever! There is still a lot to do, but I see a bright and more inclusive art world ahead.
AMM: Are there other artists currently working whose art you admire and with whom your own artistic sensibilities resonate?
BR: I really enjoy looking at artists that work with several mediums at one time or just push one medium into new ways. I really like David R. Harper’s use of different sculptural languages to create a body of work. I’ve also always been obsessed with Maurizio Cattelan, he’s really a genius! In terms of pushing the boundaries of the human anatomy, which is something that I do with my work, Patricia Piccinini and Sofia Mitsola’s work really resonate with mine! In general most of the artists that inspire me would be 200 years old by now, if they were alive!
AMM: What things have recently helped you to keep making and keep creatively motivated?
BR: In the last twelve months, my art career has exploded and people have started to finally pay attention to my work. For the first time in my life, a few months ago I was able to have my own studio! I was creating in a new and more comfortable environment. In addition, one thing that also made me creatively motivated was seeing all my artist friends or artists I admire create even bigger and better work; I feel like we’re in a time where all of us are really pushing ourselves!
AMM: What kind of creative experimentation are you engaging with at the moment? Do you have specific aspirations for the development of your work?
BR: My work is already mixed media, but I definitely want to keep pushing the boundaries of my practice by exploring with new materials. I have been thinking a lot about incorporating photo transfers and fabric in the works. I also want to get more creative in terms of my sculptures.
Find out more about the artist: www.bonyramirez.com
Interview by Rebecca Irvin for ArtMaze Magazine.