Star Feliz, When Eye Land

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2023 by Printed Matter (here). Leatherette bound hardcover, 15 x 23 cm, 156 pages, with 181 images, including photographs, maps, drawings, engravings, and diagrams. Includes archival texts, and an essay by Manuel Arturo Abreu. In an edition of 800 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: When Eye Land has garnered recent attention after being shortlisted for the Paris Photo-Aperture first photobook award. Before diving into the book, we must first know something about its author. This isn’t as easy it sounds, because Star Feliz has their fingers in several creative pots under various monikers. They were born in Lenapehoking, New York, in 1992. For a period they were known as Catherine Feliz, then Star Catherine Feliz, and currently Star Feliz. This name is a good fit with their artistic trajectory, but they also go by Priestussy at times, as when creating devotional music for “the end of the world as we know it”. When taking a break from music to steward ancestral knowledge into medicinal practice, Star Feliz is subsumed into the broader project Botánica Cimarrón. When pursuing their Interdisciplinary Studio MFA at UCLA, where When Eye Land originated, they revert to Star Feliz. 

Feliz seems to be trying on identities to see what fits. Some are suited to certain tasks, some better geared for others. They come and go like ancient empires, all proving ephemeral. Appellations aside, Feliz is a self-described “interdisciplinary artist and medicine person with roots in Ayiti, aka Dominican Republic. Entangled across the mediums of sculptural installation, time based media, and book forms, their work explores earth-based pathways for disarming apparatuses of violence and their cycles of trauma.”

When Eye Land is the debut monograph from Feliz, and it explores their Dominican heritage. Like its author, the subject is a land of shifting identifies. In the pre-Columbian era, the island was settled by Arawakan-speaking Taínos who called in Ayiti. Beginning in 1492, Spanish colonization brought disease, slavery, and genocide to the natives, and internal power struggles for the occupiers. Columbus bequeathed it the name La Española, an etymological precursor to Hispaniola. Its eastern half was eventually partitioned from French speaking Haiti and named Santo Domingo after the capital (still the capital and largest city, and the oldest European settlement in North America.). This was known as Spanish Haiti for a minute, before the Dominican Republic eventually stuck, following several decades of independence battles. But national sovereignty hardly spelled the end of strife in the D.R. For decades continuing into the late 20th century, the nation was buffeted by waves of political strongmen, pretenders, popular uprisings, and American meddling. 

This long and rich history has produced quite a paper trail in the form of engravings, maps, seals, totems, correspondence, and photographs. Many such documents are housed in Dominican institutions. Others have been scattered or been absconded abroad, an exodus of records to mirror the broad diaspora of its citizenry. Finding themselves on the leading edge of both, Feliz set out to make sense of the archive. When Eye Land is a summary report of sorts. It collects materials of all types and dates from a range of sources including Santo Domingo museums and institutions, American universities, books, magazines, the Library of Congress, and the Internet. 181 images were selected for the book, each one dutifully referenced in the rear index. It’s an art monograph to be sure, but with one footnote firmly planted in academia. 

In some ways, archiving was a straightforward task compared to Feliz’s more nuanced challenge: how to curate and present their findings in cohesive book form? Eschewing chronology or interpretive framework, When Eye Land follows a scrapbook approach. The book is a teeming lode of impressions, images, pictures, and clippings. Some take up a full page. Some spreads contain up to four images. At times the illustrations are collaged into pastiche or abstraction. Skipping from one page to the next, they pluck events from Dominican history. The order is deliberately hodgepodge, following no linear narrative, as least that I can determine. 

In terms of subject matter, When Eye Land runs the gamut. Woodcuts showing 1800s village life sit next to modern photographs of Dominican laundry workers. A battle scene from 1590 adjoins a photo of train passengers. Socialite balls give way to island scenes of racial subjugation. These few examples offer a general taste of the full sequence. It is probably impossible to encapsulate centuries of any nation’s history into one tome. But Feliz seems determined to give it a shot, and in some sense they have succeeded. When Eye Land is a hurricane for the eyes. It may leave the reader scrambled, but it certainly leaves a mark.

If its firehose of artifacts threatens to spin out of control, When Eye Land is rooted by elegant design. A two-toned palette sets a consistent tone throughout, beginning with cover and endpages in metallic gold accents. Almost all of the interior images are monochrome as well, printed in either black, gold, or a combination of the two. The reproductions are lo-fi, with the thin tonality of screen prints or risographs. Perhaps the golden tone is meant to reference Spanish colonialism and its bloodthirsty quest for El Dorado? Or it might be a nod to Pueblo Viejo, a relatively new gold mine in the Dominican Republic which is already among the world’s largest? In any case gold accents are applied beautifully here. They appear sometimes in swaths of blotchy foreground, other places as abstract prep surface. Several images are hewn entirely from gold, like small visual nuggets panned from the book’s visual ore.

The sheer variety of material and rudimentary color scheme lend this book an impressionist slant, but it’s not wishy washy. Feliz leaves no doubt where they stand on European imperialism “My Arawai-Taino ancestors saw the ships of doom going onto the shore,” they write. “They were victims of genocide in the same of the holy bible, empire…torn apart and driven underground.” A few sentences later, they arrive at the title passage. “Oh when eye land in the next other world, my heart will taste its wind before it’s written on any map.”

These sentiments go a good way toward expressing Feliz’s worldview. We learn even more about Feliz through selected family photographs. These are easily distinguished from the book’s main body. They’re printed as glossy color pictures and tipped in as physical objects. They’re only partially glued at the top half, allowing the reader to lift and handle them on the page, more or less like an authentic family album. We see Feliz’s uncle with his girlfriend, a snap of their grandmother at Niagara Falls, a faded print of their mother in Santo Domingo. If these facsimiles stir Feliz’s personal memories into the national melting pot, the waters are further muddied elsewhere, when archival photos are given the same treatment. Color photos of a heart shaped vessel and sugar estate jolt the flow. Do they belong to Feliz? Apparently not. But by merely raising the question they may have accomplished their aim: Feliz’s history is folded into their Dominican heritage.

Several fabulated letters aim for similar effect. The texts are pulled from archival sources. But rather than reproduce the original documents, Feliz has rewritten them in their own gold-penned cursive. One letter claims a stake for Columbus in 1492. Another is a paternalistic land grab directed from King Ferdinand to Taino Arawak Indians in 1500. At least one is written from scratch, a fabulated letter from the perspective of the artist’s great aunt Tina Nunez. Interspersed occasionally throughout the book, these comments help to put Feliz’s stamp on an otherwise historicized and image-based monograph. 

Feliz buttons up both histories with a short flurry of final texts. An essay by Manuel Arturo Abreu delves into family archives and systems of oppression, before Feliz has the last word with a heartfelt acknowledgement. “Thank you for my ancestors who lovingly worked the land for, well, everything,” they write. “Thank you to the warriors of earth, justice, truth, and love under (neo-) colonial rule in the Caribbean.” When Eye Land is just another momentary fragment in an ongoing national history. “May we break away form the colonial spell of disconnection,” they implore. The Dominican Republic’s future is yet unwritten, but Feliz casts the arc toward justice as inexorable.

Collector’s POV: Star Feliz does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via her website (linked in the sidebar).

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Read more about: Star Feliz, Printed Matter, Inc.

2 comments

  1. Charles Johnstone /

    I have been pushing Aperture for years that the category should be called “Artist Book” of the year as more and more books are becoming multi media with not only photos but paintings, drawings , prints , text etc. . SUN had a book last year COURT 1520-2020 which at 2 volumes and 520 pages by Bill Sullivan and myself that was marked down because it was only 40% photo based. I apologize about blowing our own horn here but I can’t tell you how many other publishers and museums came to us and bought the book because it took the category of photobooks to another level, their words not mine.
    Long story short I am extremely happy to see “When Eye Land” get their nomination from Aperture. Because it can only help the Prize going forward that a book that combines photo with other art forms is worthy of consideration for this important prize.
    In saying all this I can also understand the reluctance from a historical perspective of keeping the Award to strictly Photo based books. If that is the case maybe an “Artist Book” category could be added to the mix.

  2. Blake /

    Thanks for the comment, Charles. The dance between art and photography has been going on for centuries. Where does one stop and the other begin? Don’t ask me. Many books—e.g., Court and When Eye Land—blur the boundaries and are tough to label. But anyway, perhaps it’s time for APP to add a new category.

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