Paintings by Alejandro Carreño, words by poet Donia Elizabeth Allen


There is an exhibition of stunning, bold paintings by Alejandro Carreño with text by poet Donia Elizabeth Allen at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Society. The two marry their artistry to create a show brimming with personal meaning.

Carreño, born in 1962, originally hails from Cuba, and Afro-Cuban influences abound in his colorful artwork. “For me, it was very natural to live in a country with a strong African influence, eclectic architecture with influences from all over the world, amazing music everywhere, beautiful people, beautiful weather all the time,” Carreño says.

Although he left Cuba in 1985 to study and work in industrial design in Germany, he relocated to warmer climes in 1995 to live in the Dominican Republic. “The light, weather, and vegetation there were very similar to my homeland, though not the African culture,” he says. In Santo Domingo, Carreño started to develop his technique using acrylic paints the color of the Caribbean, and sharp lines produced with the edge of his palette knife.

Carreño has lived on the Vineyard since 2009. Fate and serendipity brought him and Allen, a published poet living in Boston, together when she was here for vacation last October. After Allen left, the two continued to get to know each other, and the show is an outgrowth of their evolving relationship — and a conversation between their creative expressions. Allen shares that it is also reflective of how they both very much value where they came from, with Carreño’s Cuban heritage and Allen’s African American culture.

Carreño’s work is nothing if not personal. It is all about people who have touched his life and are dear to him. We are first greeted by a set of six paintings, which to Allen tell a tale. Each piece depicts a fabulous diaspora angel inspired by their conversations. They are not angelic cherubs. Allen says, “These are some fearsome angels — they are not shy, retiring, or delicate. They’re survivors, grown-up angels.” Carreño varies his textures, patterns, brushstrokes, and vibrant palettes to create magnificent, strong, sensual, winged females.

Allen says about the series, “We were trying to get to know each other from a distance during a pandemic, and started to ask each other questions. I think the story is me trying to tell him what my values are. Who I was beyond the day-to-day.”

The accompanying texts resonate with each engaging painting. In “Angel #1: Angels in Love,” Carreño sets off the double-faced, voluptuous, feather-winged figure in hot red, and Allen’s words amplify the image’s intensity: “My feathers are made of palo santo smoke and lava and spray from waterfalls I’ve flown through. A few of them come from fierce, ancient birds, Alejandro. I think my ancestors tucked these in to watch over me and see that I soar.”

Carreño’s masterful use of his palette knife to create vibrating, linear patterns make “Angel #4: … With the Face of an Angel” buzz with the energy of quickly flapping wings. However, there is no fairy dust in sight. Allen’s text: “Tidal bores roar. The sound is fearsome, deafening …”

In contrast, “Angel #5: Green Angel” is quiet with its solid, opaque background and looser, organic patterns filling in the female form. Here, Allen simply writes, “Once in a great while, I rest. I fold my wings and listen to earth’s blue-green pulse.”

In “Angel #6: Angel in Fear,” the figure, amid athletic brushstrokes, stares right out at us with a direct gaze, asking, “What about you, Cubano? Tell me about cowrie shells and congas, rhumba, and rum. About carnival, the Malecón, barracuda. I’ll weave your stories into a bracelet with some of my feathers, so you always have part of me with you. If you like — grab hold and choose a few.” Reflecting on the series as a whole, Allen says, “The overarching idea is the power of the imagination to bridge time, space, pandemic, age, distance.”

Next along the wall is “Concón Quemado,” abstractly depicting a musical band that is important to Carreño for its political commentary. Between his style and colors, you virtually hear the cacophony of sounds. Icons of corrupt politicians, hungry people, and more populate the composition around the African-Caribbean sculpture-like players.

The final series are striking portraits of the people whom, Carreño says, “I had the honor of meeting in the Dominican Republic. These people are forgotten heroes, my heroes. They pass unnoticed, nobody knows what they’ve achieved, and the efforts they had to make to do so.”

Each expressive work oozes personality. “Pablito” is depicted in shades of flaming red locked into place with luminous green. His enormous smile lights up his entire face. Carreño writes, “Pablito became a champion windsurfer and invested his glory and recognition into creating a windsurfing school for poor kids to give them an alternative to the streets. Many of these kids now are also champion windsurfers, or in other disciplines and are living good lives. Pablito is still very poor.”

Equally as appealing is “Alexander the Haitian Artist,” who for Carreño is a very special friend: “He is struggling every day to live because he is Haitian, and Dominicans are very disrespectful to Haitians; very racist. He is trying to survive every day painting and trying to sell his work to tourists. Sometimes he breaks down, sometimes he is very happy. I hope he is still there.”

Carreño says that if he were to give the untitled exhibition a name, it would be “Love in the Times of COVID,” which, with its nod to Gabriel García Márquez’s novel, is acutely apt given all the work reflects his open heart and deep caring for the people around him.

The exhibition of painter Alejandro Carreño and poet Donia Elizabeth Allen is on view through Sept. 11 at the Feldman Family Artspace at the M.V. Film Center, in collaboration with Featherstone Center for the Arts.