Of the museums in the Plaza de la Cultura, the first stop should be the Museo de Arte Moderno (Tues–Sun 10am–6pm; RD$20; 685 2154), four storeys dedicated to modernist and post-modern Dominican art, with a magnificent permanent collection on the second and third floors, temporary exhibits on the first and fourth and installation art in the basement. At times the assemblage can seem a bit random, exacerbated by the frequent rotation of pieces within the museum space, but certain themes, like a reliance on Taino influences, can be spotted. Notable in this regard is Clara Ledesma’s Casetas, in the first floor’s first room, in which Taino-rendered campesinos peek out of a colmado and several mud huts at two gringo tourists lying on the beach.
The next room holds the arresting El sacrificio del chivo, Elegio Pichardo’s dark depiction of a family meal that interprets the everyday ritual of dinner as a pagan rite – note the shrunken head in the hand of the child as he waits for the mother to carve the goat. The third room is dominated by another piece incorporating native art, Junior Mendoza’s Ritual de Iniciación, a mixed-media burlap canvas with a malevolent Taino head – half-painted, half-stitched together with bone and shell fragments – surrounded by nails with a circle of straw dolls tied to them by rope. Equally disturbing is the borrowed Roman Catholic iconography of Rincón Mora’s Rito in the fourth room, his blood-smeared Christ peering through a glass window with smouldering red eyes.
The most highly regarded proponent of a more pastoral strain in modern Dominican art is Candido Bidó, whose stylized idealizations of campesino life have won international acclaim. Bidó’s father was a Carnival mask maker in Bonao – the influence is apparent in the faces with hollowed-out eyes, straight noses and exaggerated lips. The museum owns six Bidós, all of them in the second floor’s fifth room, including his most famous, El Paseo a las 10am, a painting of a Dominican woman in a sunhat with a handful of flowers. The pigeon fluttering by her side is a typical Bidó gesture, as is the use of colour: his serene, distinctive world contains a generous application of indigo blue and almost no green, with yellow fields, black mountains and the sun surrounded by a subduing, dark cyst.
Climb to the second floor to get a look at Alberto Bajo’s La Vida del Domini- cano en Nueva York, an enormous triptych in the fourth room depicting a family divided by American immigration. The first panel is of a sleepy Dominican fishing village, the second of the emigrant’s cramped Manhattan apartment (with a letter home in the typewriter) and the third of the alien, neon rumble of Times Square. Around the corner in the fifth room are Frank Almayar’s Composición Gráfico de Duarte, a dot-matrix Warhol rip-off that draws attention to the country’s unreflecting obsession with the image of its liberator and Silvano Lora’s Flor Endemica, a mixed-media commentary on the bombed-out urban environment that many of the country’s children live in. Lora is known locally as an outspoken defender of the oppressed – in 1992, when replicas of Columbus’s three ships tried to dock in Santo Domingo in honour of the 500th anniversary of his voyage, Lora dressed up like a Taino, paddled out to the boats in a canoe and fired arrows at them until his vessel was capsized by the Coast Guard.