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Receiving and Returning: “La casa de arte y cultura de La Playa de Ponce”, a community art project by Diógenes Ballester

Independent scholar and former director of the Museo de Arte de Ponce, Cheryl Hartup, reflects on “La casa…”, a social practice project that Ballester has developed at La Playa de Ponce


Nota editorial: La Revista Plástica estará publicando artículos y ensayos tanto en español como en inglés. Aunque nuestro idioma principal de publicación es el español, aceptaremos contribuciones en inglés, según la preferencia del autor o autora. Nuestra misión es poder llegar a una audiencia más amplia para seguir difundiendo y dando a conocer el trabajo de nuestros artistas. 


Editor's note: Revista Plástica will be publishing articles and essays in both Spanish and English. Although our primary language of publication is Spanish, we will be accepting submissions in English, depending on the preference of our contributors. Our goal is to reach a wider audience in order to continue disseminating the work of our artists. 




“The past is in your head, but the future is in your hand” – African proverb

Walking a labyrinth invites one to leave behind a complacent mental space and enter into a contemplative journey of twists and turns that leads to a center and back out again. This opportunity for introspection, self-discovery, and growth is one of many possibilities at “La casa de arte y cultura de la Playa de Ponce” (La casa). Traditionally labyrinths have one path, but “Laberinto: Conciencia espiritual” offers visitors a choice between two paths to follow.


“La casa de arte y cultura de La Playa de Ponce”, a community art project by Diógenes Ballester.

Perhaps these two paths symbolize the co-founders of La casa and co-creators of the labyrinth –Dr. Mary Katherine Boncher (1948-2021), a psychologist and poet, and her husband Diógenes Ballester (1956-), a multi-media artist, educator, and self-described “arteologist” (artist/archeologist). Ballester explains, “My art…reconceptualizes history…in the service of meaning making as we move into a new era.…It is precisely the importance of making sense of what is at stake in today’s world that attracts me to the reconfiguration of these ancient forms of knowledge.” Boncher and Ballester have travelled winding paths grounded in community, identity, spirituality, healing, social justice, and nature. Their experiences have shaped La casa, a non-profit artist space, community center, and Ballester’s home. I recently visited the project for the inaugural exhibition of Ballester's, “Arteología, Capilla para la reflexión (Arteología)”. During this visit I was able to get to know in depth the great project that is La casa and the artist's vision of it.


In Ponce, watching a person’s dream become a reality is awe-inspiring. It generates wonder, hope, pride, confidence, creativity, and productivity. Early in his career, Ballester knew his mission in life was to give back to La Playa de Ponce where he was born and raised. There, he developed an understanding and appreciation for his Afro-Caribbean roots, and the community’s Afro-descendant culture that inspired him to become an artist. It has been a privilege to watch La casa come to life from the ground breaking in 2004, to construction in 2010, nonprofit status in 2016, the inauguration in 2023, and the opening of the artist residency, “La casa de Doña Carmen: Se sufre pero se goza”, in 2024. 


Diógenes Ballester, artist, educator and “arteologist” on the roof of “La casa de arte y cultura de La Playa de Ponce”.

Ballester has supported the project through art sales, private donations and grants. His clarity and intentionality for every aspect of it is impressive. Christian Soto Martín, artist and secretary of the board of La casa, agrees, “Diógenes is the big picture thinker. He has a long-term strategic plan in his head, and, at the same time, he participates in the day-to-day, hand’s-on details alongside artists, workers, and neighbors.” Ballester’s life is synonymous with La casa, which is open to the public at no cost. Free exchanges between the making of art and its enjoyment, and community empowerment are daily activities. Ballester states with satisfaction, “In a short period of time, neighbors and artists are treating La casa as an extension of their home, like an epicenter.” 


Ballester designed this project as a monumental, but unimposing temple. With its elevated base, high ceilings, and columns and verandas on the front and side, it follows the typology of Ponce’s traditional residential architecture. It is located at Callejón del Tiro #11, near the house where his maternal grandparents lived and across the street from the former home of his mother, Carmen María Rodríguez Wiscovich (1936-2023). Doña Carmen watched Ballester’s dream take shape from her front porch. After she died, Ballester purchased and converted her house into an artists’ residency and incubator which has become the engine for La casa’s stimulating center of creativity, spirited communion, and resistance to the destabilizing natural, cultural and socio-economic changes that have affected the area.


Since the 1960s, Ballester has witnessed acts of dispersion, marginalization, and erasure in La Playa. He estimates that 56-57% of the residents live in poverty. La casa’s mission is to be a social practice that participates in the revitalization of underserved and economically depressed communities in La Playa de Ponce through multidisciplinary art and culture activities for all ages. Drawing and kite and mask making workshops for neighborhood school children, talks, and mindfulness and wellness practices like Tai Chi and capoeira take place in the Plaza de Pensar. In the aftermath of natural disasters, La casa cooked and distributed food to neighbors and offered acupuncture and massage therapy. For the past eight years, this multipurpose place has organized the “Intervención del Vejigante” during La Playa de Ponce’s Carnaval. Artists, bomba and plena musicians and dancers, poets, students and the public participate in a day of creative revelation and reclamation. This year, in addition to the day-long activities, artists and friends constructed a thirty-foot long “Vejigante Dragón Playero” with fifty painted vejigas (cow bladders) and participated in Carnaval processions in La Playa and Ponce. 



For the past eight years, this multipurpose place has organized the “Intervención del Vejigante” during La Playa de Ponce’s Carnaval.

La casa’s inaugural exhibition, “Arteología, Capilla para la reflexión (Arteología)”, activates networks of memory and sites of enunciation. It is a sweeping and at times deeply personal voyage along the long arc of La Playa de Ponce, where Ballester brings submerged histories to the surface through community recollection and the power and energy of objects, signs, and symbols. His multimedia installations include paintings, videotaped interviews, large, painted wood sculptures, syncretic altars, archives, and invitations to visitors to participate in co-creating arteología. La casa and “Arteología, Capilla para la reflexión” challenge visitors to recognize and honor the continuum of community in La Playa, to be caretakers of stories and their storytellers, and to initiate and share research and lived inquiry.


Ballester begins his guided tour of “Arteología” in a small room with “El Ritual de San Lázaro” and “Memorial de María”, two installations that re-imagine the altar in new constructions that reclaim and continue this cultural and spiritual tradition. The artist’s portraits and altars, celebrating the essence of his beloved and revered, include a mix of objects from the private altars of Ballester, his mother, and his wife. A video of a reading of Boncher’s poetry in Central Park plays above her sewing machine table which is like a desk. The two installations anchor La casa to a transcultural and syncretic foundation. 


Installation of “Arteología, Capilla para la reflexión” by Diógenes Ballester.

In “Reafirmación geográfica”, a video of historic maps from the Archivo Histórico de Ponce shows the grand expanse and geographical definition of La Playa de Ponce, which includes the islands of Caja de Muertos and Cardona. Ballester’s painting, a large, horizontal, and symbolic map of the area, traces the route of captives, from the Caribbean, to the Matilde River, to Hacienda Matilde, a sugar and coffee plantation. There, slave owners branded the bodies of captives and converted them into slaves. The forces of ancestor spirits that transcend powers threatening to dissolve a people for centuries, are represented in the face of a Black woman in the center of the painting. 


Subsequent installations and videotaped oral histories tell of building and racing chalanas, flat-bottomed wooden boats, native to Puerto Rico, and unearthing a buried treasure at the site of Doña Milla’s house after the government expropriated her home. An iPad on top of a mailbox invites visitors to become part of a digital registry of names and memories from La Playa. The drawers of flat files nearby contain the beginnings of La casa’s archives which include Doña Carmen’s religious ephemera and books on Spiritism, along with written histories of La Playa.


Sometimes objects that link Ballester to his past in profound ways find him. Such was the case with a five-feet-tall wooden santo of San Martín de Porres (Lima, Peru, 1579-1639), carved in Peru. The artist tells a magical story of his relationship to the object when he lived in New York and how it ended up coming to La casa during the pandemic. San Martín de Porres is intimately related to Ballester’s youth and his mother’s faith, and after the carved wooden saint arrived, the artist organized a public promesa. In “Arteología”, Ballester placed San Martín de Porres on a unique historical base and hung above him two simple habits that Doña Carmen wore during her promesas to the saint. Ballester’s installation is a condensation point for cultural identity, historical meaning, and spiritual transformation. 


Ballester’s installation is a condensation point for cultural identity, historical meaning, and spiritual transformation.

“Testigos oculares”, like San Martín de Porres, blurs the boundaries between the observer and the observed. Ballester placed a long wooden bench, like a church pew, facing out underneath a large painting with many sets of eyes. He invites the viewer to sit and join the testigos oculares, seeing, feeling, noticing, observing, and thinking. What do we witness? The story of “Mama Tata”. On a small screen, Aníbal Oppenheimer recounts how his grandmother, Mama Tata, was brought from Mayagüez to work at Hacienda Matilde in Ponce, at the age of twelve, as part of a slave exchange. 


Portals and tracings of space and time abound in “Arteología”. The exhibition ends, and in a way begins, with “Laberinto: Conciencia espiritual”. Boncher communicated the general concepts of the labyrinth to Ballester. After she died, the artist drew the large labyrinth on the floor through Tai Chi motions and white chalk falling from his hands. He etched the lines into the floor tiles and painted the two paths. A webcam records the visitor’s journey, and selected recordings are posted on La casa’s YouTube channel along with the videotaped interviews featured in the exhibition. 


After walking through the labyrinth, one faces large double doors with a painted outline of a lighthouse in the center.

After walking through the labyrinth, one faces large double doors with a painted outline of a lighthouse in the center. The shape contains the symbols of the five tattvas –energies of natural elements in Indian philosophy– ether, air, fire, earth, and water. With renewed energy, visitors open the doors and walk out onto the front balcony. There, embedded in the floor at one’s feet, is a bronze commemorative plaque from Ponce’s former municipal library. Ever the arteologist, Ballester found the discarded inauguration plate and repurposed it as a marker for reflection and questions that speak to how and what objects mean. 


Outdoors there is a blooming community garden that looks like a natural labyrinth. Ballester invites visitors to deposit their intimate confidences and wishes in the “Garden of Secrets and Dreams.” Next to the garden is a striking mural by invited artist Ludwig Medina Cruz titled “Atardecer Playero”, 2023. It is a hard-edge painting of a pixilated sunset on the horizon of the Caribbean Sea. On a wall, over six feet high and over twenty-six feet long, rectangles of flat color radiate light, harmony, and possibilities. Medina dedicated the work to the Antillean Archipelago and its peoples that confront and resists rampant exploitation. Each identical shape carries its own color and influences its adjacent colors.


Ballester invites visitors to deposit their intimate confidences and wishes in the “Garden of Secrets and Dreams.” Next to the garden is a striking mural by invited artist Ludwig Medina Cruz titled “Atardecer Playero” (2023). Medina Cruz is part of the Contingente Sinergético. You can also see Carlos Santiago’s wood sculpture.

“Atardecer Playero” is an apt metaphor for La casa’s Contingente Sinergético, or Synergetic Contingent, a core group of participants who are committed to the organization’s sustainability. Soto Martín states, “the artist residency and incubator has formed a dynamic energy and philosophy that all share in supporting La casa.” Ballester invites artists and cultural workers to be a part of La casa intuitively. Reflecting on her experience as the first artist in residence, Rachel Smith Sepúlveda said, “La casa helped me define my practice and channel my energy where I wanted it to go. I benefitted from working with others and creating cracks in the social system where I can make proposals and use art as my tool.” 



Christian Soto Martín in his exhibition “Manifiesto: El Contingente Sinergético” at “La casa de Doña Carmen: Se sufre pero se goza”.

Members of the Synergetic Contingent can propose ideas, decisions are made together, and each person has a role for an activity.  They have space to work and share their work. Those affiliated with the Synergetic Contingent are Diógenes Ballester, Christian Soto Martín, and artists-in-residence Rachel Smith Sepúlveda, Nitzayra Leonor, and Rafael Enrique Vega; invited artists Ludwig Medina Cruz, Carlos Santiago, and Luis Rodríguez; cultural worker Ricardo Mariani; and others including Javier De Jesús, Luis Enrique, Ryan Hamilton, Susanne López, Julio Lugo Rivas, Sonia Méndez, Yira Rodríguez, Cristina Rodríguez, Andrés Soto Guillén, and Carolina Watson. 


For Carnaval, Soto Martín mounted a series of his black and white photographs at “La casa de Doña Carmen: Se sufre pero se goza”. The exhibition, “Manifiesto: El Contingente Sinergético”, features individuals in conversation with vejigante masks. The day I went to see it, invited artist Carlos Santiago was installing a wooden sculpture in the “Garden of Secrets and Dreams” with the help of artist in residence Rafael Enrique Vega. 


“Nitzayra”, by Christian Soto Martín

Ballester’s vision for La casa and the artist residency and incubator is twofold –that they will be essential to the economic vibrancy and cultural resistance of La Playa de Ponce and that they will generate exchanges with Puerto Rico’s Afrodescendant communities, the Caribbean, and other parts of the world. Living and making art in foreign countries was key to Ballester’s practice because he observed relationships between colonizers and colonized in other parts of the world, which included the exchange of cultural traditions and syncretic imagery. It’s clear to me that the legacy of La casa will be its support of current and future generations of artists. His ultimate goal is to have artists living and working near La casa, without displacing residents, to continue the project he has put in motion. He is thrilled that the artists in residence are being invited to programs on and off the island and that members of the Synergetic Contingent will be traveling to Barbados this year. “We all share and become one.” Ballester’s arteología, and his most important project, La casa, have facilitated a platform for creative action to empower people and enrich La Playa de Ponce and a trans-Caribbean community.

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