Well west of the Zona Colonial and north of the Malecón is rambling, tree-shaded Gazcue, the city’s prettiest residential district, a mostly middle-class neighbourhood highlighted by the Plaza de la Cultura, Máximo Gómez and Ureña, a complex of four museums alongside the National Theatre and Library. While southern Gazcue is in easy walking distance of Parque Independencia and the Zone, the Plaza is far enough away that you’ll need a taxi or a guagua to get there.
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Museo del Hombre Dominicano
Museo del Hombre Dominicano
The Museo del Hombre Dominicano (Tues–Sun 10am–5pm; RD$50; English language guide RD$50; 687 3622) holds an extraordinary collection of Taino artefacts and an anthropological exhibit on Dominican fiestas patronales. The ground floor is mostly concerned with the gift shop, but does display a dozen stone obelisks and Taino burial mounds found near Boca Chica in the 1970s. The first floor is office space; the second floor consists of one large room bearing display cases of Taino sculpture, beginning with seated human figures and cemis – small stone idols that stood in for the gods during rituals, possessing large, inward- spiralling eyes and flared nostrils. Further down the room is an extensive collection of flints, hatchets and stone spearheads, which can be scanned over before passing to the two cases bearing beautiful animal sculptures and ceremonial daggers. At the far end of the room you’ll find jewellery with incredibly intricate carvings made from coral, tooth, stone and conch shell, a case filled with spectacularly nasty-looking death heads and a few examples of the artwork created by the Tainos’ ancestors in the Amazon basin.
The third floor moves to Dominican culture after Columbus, with emphasis on the African influence. The first room focuses on the slave trade; the next room is taken up by a comparison of the rural dwellings of African peasants and Dominican campesinos. These are followed by a terrific exhibition on syncretist religious practices in the DR, including photographs of various rural fiestas patro- nales and a Dominican Vodú altar, with Catholic iconography standing in for African gods, votive candles and a sacrifice of cigarettes, a chicken and a bottle of rum. From here walk past the display of local musical instruments that originated in Africa to three large glass cases depicting costumed Carnival celebrations in Monte Cristi, La Vega and Santo Domingo.
The Museo Prehispánico, San Martín 179 and Lopé de Vega (Mon–Fri 9am–5pm; free), is a private collection of Taino artefacts housed in a large room within the Pepsi-Cola corporate building, rivalling the display at the Museo del Hombre Dominicano in Gazcue. At the entrance are a few Venezuelan pieces (the Tainos’ ancestral home) to provide historical context, a prelude to the fossil- ized mastodon and armadillo remains, animals the natives hunted to extinction on the island. Further on stand display cases outlining the history of indigenous ceramics, followed by intricate tooth and bone sculptures used in necklaces – one is so small you need a magnifying glass to see the carving. At the far end of the room you’ll see jewellery made from conch shells, coral, teeth and clay, before turning left to the opposite end of the room for a view of an intact wooden duho – a chair carved with the face of a Taino god, used by caciques as a throne during religious ceremonies. Along the wall beside it is a collection of clay animals that represented various deities, including a dozen frogs, a few turtles, a crocodile and two owls, which were believed to ferry souls to the afterlife. The exhibit turns to more practical items as you double back towards the entrance, but the intricate ornamentation on the pots, cassava grinders and ceremonial axeheads keeps your attention from flagging. Especially arresting is the jet-black monolith of a Taino deity with an ostentatious phallus – originally meant to guard the entrance to a cave.
Museo de Arte Moderno
Museo de Arte Moderno
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.