Raelis Vasquez Captures Real Dominican Life

Raelis Vasquez Captures Real Dominican Life

Raelis Vasquez Captures Real Dominican Life

A painting of a young man in a sweater, shorts, and adidas slides sitting at a table, with paintings of men on the wall behind him

Raelis Vasquez, Auto Retrato, 2019, oil on canvas, 36 x 36 inches. Image courtesy of the artist

Raelis Vasquez, Auto Retrato, 2019, oil on canvas, 36 x 36 inches. Image courtesy of the artist

by Ben Kim Paplham (MFA 2021)

When you see Noches en el Pueblo de Dios, you’re struck by the familiarity of the scene—how easy it is to slide into the intimate conversation it depicts.

All eyes are fixed on the family’s matriarch, hands and drinks still in motion, as she recounts some unheard narrative under a kiosko and Dominican evening sky. 

This is Afro-Latinx life as we rarely see it in pop culture: intimate, personal, and honest. 

And this is all because we are given permission to see this from School of the Art Institute of Chicago alum Raelis Vasquez’s (BFA 2018) eyes, because this is his family—it’s a painting based on an old family photo of his relatives in Santa Cruz de Mao. This is the city where Vasquez grew up until, at the age of 7, his family emigrated from the Dominican Republic to New Jersey. 

A painting of a group of people sitting outside, talking, and drinking beer at a table covered with a floral tablecloth

Raelis Vasquez, Noches en el Pueblo de Dios, 2021, oil, acrylic, and oil stick on canvas, 40 x 60 inches. Image courtesy of the artist

Raelis Vasquez, Noches en el Pueblo de Dios, 2021, oil, acrylic, and oil stick on canvas, 40 x 60 inches. Image courtesy of the artist

Vasquez has very much emerged into the international art scene. A CNN feature and a spot for Presidente beer with Hall of Fame baseball player Alex Rodriguez highlight Vasquez’s whirlwind year as an ascending name among contemporary Latinx American artists. 

And that’s not to mention his various exhibitions. This year alone Vasquez has been showcased in Shattered Glass at Jeffrey Deitch Gallery in Los Angeles and Estamos Bien–La Trienal 20/21 at El Museo del Barrio in New York City and received an international solo exhibition titled As We Were at Sakhile&Me in Frankfurt, Germany.

For Vasquez, his artwork is a labor of love. His paintings are often based on photos of Afro-Latinx communities in New Jersey and the Dominican Republic—they’re usually his own, but sometimes he’ll draw from his personal family archives. “Sometimes I’m painting people I know, my family, my neighbors in the Dominican Republic. Sometimes I’m painting people that I’ve asked permission to take pictures of. For me, it’s about communication. Does this painting communicate what I want to communicate?” said Vasquez.

“I’m talking about a specific people. I’m talking about people of African descent, of Hispanic descent, immigrants and the histories of the Caribbean and the US, showing the diversity in peoples’ backgrounds and the complexity of the narratives which we represent.”

A painting of two children, one sitting on a bicycle seat, the other propped up behind him on the wheels, on the front lawn of a brick ranch house

Raelis Vasquez, Homeowners, 2021, oil and acrylic on canvas, 48 x 72 inches. Image courtesy of the artist

Raelis Vasquez, Homeowners, 2021, oil and acrylic on canvas, 48 x 72 inches. Image courtesy of the artist

As he curates which photos to paint and finds the right composition, Vasquez is very much aware that his work provides nuance and complexity to an underrepresented and often misrepresented culture. By representing his figures in an honest and vulnerable way, Vasquez hopes that when viewers encounter his work, they will be encouraged to be vulnerable as well.

“I would like my family members to have access to the paintings and be able to appreciate them, but also for the art world to understand the layers behind the works. I’m talking about a specific people. I’m talking about people of African descent, of Hispanic descent, immigrants and the histories of the Caribbean and the US, showing the diversity in peoples’ backgrounds and the complexity of the narratives which we represent.”

A painting of a bustling scene at a market, with women sitting down next to bags of produce and others standing at stalls

Raelis Vasquez, Mercado en Dajabon, 2021, oil, acrylic, and oil pastels on canvas, 72 x 72 inches. Image courtesy of the artist

Raelis Vasquez, Mercado en Dajabon, 2021, oil, acrylic, and oil pastels on canvas, 72 x 72 inches. Image courtesy of the artist

By presenting daily life in the Dominican Republic without artifice, Vasquez transcends academic discussions and theories on the African diaspora, immigrant communities, and representation. With Vasquez’s paintings, we see real living people. Vasquez hopes that we will continue to seek out various voices and representation that presents life as it actually is.

“Something that’s important is that people be represented as who they are; they’re in a vulnerable state because they’re not wearing a mask, they’re not presenting themselves as anything other than who they are.”