Bartolome de las Casas in creative art work for the Jubilee

A brief description, analysis and interpretation of the artwork of fr Gerard Isiguzo, OP on Bartolome de las Casas for the Order’s 800 Jubilee Art Exhibition.
Bartolome de las Casas

Let me quickly note here that my interest in this project has been to translate into the tangible elements of art what I consider very striking in the Dominican biography of Bartolomeo de las Casas, the Dominican personality I was asked to produce a work of art on by the General Curia as part of the events marking the Order’s 800 Jubilee Art Exhibition. In producing a work of art on Bartolomeo de las Casas, I found it very interesting to express my views using materials that bear local, creative accent, in ways that are intended to address those nearby and far-reaching issues of socio-political, environmental and religious concerns.

If the art media used in producing this work represent my aspiration and my vision of art – “to be suspicious of conventions in question traditional notions of art media and push the traditional boundaries of sculpture [and] painting”[1] then a work of art on a Dominican personality who questioned the socially disruptive anomalies of his time would have been profound in its meaning and value. In this work of art, I, therefore, speak about de las Casas from an African-art perspective, using some indigenous, cultural and symbolic paradigms.

Description of the Work

What you see in the photograph is an installation art in which I employed an African human model to represent Bartolomeo de las Casas as an outstanding figure in the fight for social justice and human rights in defence of the Indians between the 15th and 16th century AD.

Although the work draws on the views of many biographers and historians on the life of de las Casas and the projects he carried out, it is to a large extent my own personal artistic interpretation of what I find very striking in the Dominican biography of Bartolomeo de las Casas by Helen Rand Parish: "In the century of discovery, there was one outstanding man, Bartolomeo de las Casas, who saw the New World as it was: the land, the people, their initial beauty - and the resulting horror of conquest and fatal forced labour.”

Bartolomeo de las Casas, wearing a Dominican habit made from sack (sackcloth), stands in the midst of the natives as the Defender of the Indians. He looks on them with pity and writes in defence of them, hoping to bring about their liberation from the "encomienda" system of horror and fatal forced labour which the conquering Spaniards had brought upon them.

Interpretation of the Materials Used

The choice of materials used - a Dominican habit made of sack; discarded materials such as used toothpaste tubes and bottle tops - provides the basis for the interpretation of the work from a plurality of perspectives.

1. Sackcloth – In the bible, the sackcloth signifies mourning, repentance, and conversion. In this work of art, I draw extensively on this traditional biblical interpretation of sackcloth to speak about what scholars have called the "two great conversions of Bartolomeo de las Casas."

First conversion: on the Pentecost of 1514 when he renounced his ownership of Indians and the inter-Island provision business, and, having listened to the famous speech delivered by Friar Anton Montesino, started preaching his own provocative sermon against the Spanish "encomienda" system of fatal forced labour.

Second conversion: when Bartolomeo joined the Dominican Order in 1522 at the age of 36.

Therefore, the idea of the Dominican habit made of sackcloth and worn by de las Casas is more of a biblical-artistic interpretation than a historical fact, since this imagery is not intended to suggest that Bartolome probably wore a Dominican habit made of sackcloth. Rather, it represents the longing of a humble and contrite heart. It portrays Bartolomeo de las Casas in the same light in which the Psalmist prayed to God saying: “Thou hast turned my mourning into dancing; thou hast loosed my sackcloth and girded me with gladness, that my soul may praise thee and not be silent...” (Ps 30:11-12). This again references Helen Rand Parish’s commentary on de las Casas: “He saw, he listened. And he learned that he could no longer be a good person in a bad system.... He awoke to his life’s mission: he knew that he had to change the entire system – get rid of the encomienda, get rid of slavery, get rid of the lies about the Indians – and create a new relationship with the New World.”

2. Used toothpaste tubes, is another material used: skillfully joined together in vertical patterns, they form a colourful sculptural tapestry depicting the imagery of slavery in which the few surviving slaves are portrayed as taking refuge at the foot of Bartolomeo de las Casas, who looks on them with pity as a "Father to the Indians."

By some extension, the choice of materials used - the sackcloth/habit, bottle tops, empty and discarded toothpaste tubes and drink-cans - also explores the idea of "technical conversion," recycling and transformation of discarded materials and wastes into something good and profound in its meaning and value - a critical reflection on what Pope Francis condemns in his Laudato Si as the "throw-away culture” of our times.

In these “used” and “discarded” materials which I employed to produce a work of art on Bartolomeo de las Casas, I explore the historical experience of the natives (Indians) who were being "used," "discarded," "thrown away," "dumped," and eventually massacred since they were no longer productive in the “encomienda system” of the conquering Spaniards. Thus, the idea of transforming discarded materials such as used sackcloth, used toothpaste tubes, and bottle tops, therefore, makes some subtle reference to the disruption of the social and native lives of the Indians by the Spaniards which Bartolomeo fought to reform.

If this my interpretative effort to produce a work of art on Bartolomeo de las Casas (which I found very interesting to do in ways that appeal both to the intellect and to the senses) makes a statement about the primacy of creativity in art using non-conventional art media, then my aspiration and vision of art would probably have been successfully translated into this visual imagery of art.

fr Gerard Okechukwu Isiguzo, OP (Province of St Joseph the Worker, Nigeria and Ghana). fr Gerard's work is on display at the Basilica of Santa Sabina, Rome. 


[1] Ozioma Onuzulike, “In Search of Nsukkasque: Dreams Alive 3”, (an introductory note in Dreams Alive 3, an Annual Art Exhibition catalogue, Department of Fine and Applied Arts, University of Nigeria, Nsukka, July, 2006 ), p. 5.