“I am so relaxed at Notre Dame, I don’t care when I go back to New York,” Puerto Rican artist Diógenes Ballester says when I sit down with him on a couch at the Notre Dame Center for Arts and Culture. “Being here relaxes me.”
Maybe this is why Ballester doesn’t mind being an increasingly frequent visitor to the Center.
When Ballester arrived in South Bend in the fall of 2013, he had with him a statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a doll of an African American woman, an unfinished painting of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and a very faint idea of how to tie these things together.
“Once I was here, I started working with the concept, but I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do,” Ballester explains. “I wanted to say that he [Martin Luther King, Jr.] and his speeches opened the way for many other people and cultures in the United States, but I only had a short time, so I did the piece right here.”
And he literally means he created the piece right here, in the middle of the floor at the Center for Arts and Culture.
“I started collecting information from South Bend. I brought stuff from New York but I got the little pew from Good Will, the heart from Good Will, and the glass of water from here,” he says. “I asked people from South Bend to bring keys, all keys, and they opened the heart. And I asked people to bring boots, old boots and old shoes, because it related to the one million people who marched when King gave the speech, I Have a Dream. So people brought keys, and people brought shoes, and people brought flowers for the ancestors, for the people who died in the family, and they also brought pictures. And a priest came here and he blessed the exhibition.”
The exhibition Ballester produced with all these components was an interactive exhibit titled “Sueños Sin Fronteras / Dreams without Borders: Ofrenda in Honor of Martin Luther King, Jr.” The instillation was presented on October 16, 2013, at the Notre Dame Center for Arts and Culture to mark the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s visit to campus and to help celebrate Día de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead.
“You have all these concepts involved in a very simple way to make meaning so people feel like part of the show for the Day of the Dead. But it goes beyond the Day of the Dead, because, in essence, it becomes alive.”
Under the newly finished portrait of Martin Luther King, Jr., a statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and a doll of an African-American woman representing Dr. King’s mother, the South Bend residents added life to Ballester’s exhibition.
“There was something magical about this that I think everyone should know; it wasn’t just an exhibition for the Day of the Dead but for the Day of the Happiness, the Day of the Celebration, the Day of the Life. We have all these elements, but it was an open path in all directions.”
And this “open path” is exactly what inspired Ballester’s print, “Open Path in All Directions,” when he visited Notre Dame for a second time nearly two years later.
“In my work, I consider myself an arteologist [arte-ologist],” Ballester says. “I am an artist who also considers himself an archeologist – in the history and the philosophy and the arts to research.”
“I made the print with the idea to show that we have a history that is embedded in many ways and many levels, but what are we going to do with that history?” Ballester says. “If we just go one person on one side and another person on the other, somehow we need that to encompass this collective mind and consciousness and direct it in a positive way in order for society to grow and to enable us to share.”
“The idea is that this idea is no longer one place – it is global,” Ballester continues. “The idea of the war, the idea of [Martin Luther King, Jr.’s] roots, the idea of the struggle, the idea of the Catholic Church, the idea of the Hinduism – everything is together.”
And Ballester hopes that the South Bend community will come together again when his print is revealed later this month in the Segura Studio at the Center for Arts and Culture. He hopes the community can look to Martin Luther King, Jr. for inspiration like he does in hopes to tell historical stories in a new light through his work.
“It’s not to be new; it’s to be authentic. Believe in what you can do and do it.”