By Evan D. Williams
Jacoub Reyes is a multidisciplinary artist living and working in Orlando. He is a graduate of the University of Central Florida with a BFA in Drawing in Printmaking, a recipient of the Southern Graphics International Grant Award, and a frequent exhibitor, lecturer, and workshop instructor across the South. For more information and images, visit jacoubreyes.com.
Evan: Woodcuts are traditionally executed on an intimate, handheld scale, but some of your prints reach up to eight feet in length. What led you to ‘go big’ with printmaking?
Jacoub: ‘Going big’ happened naturally. When I was in college, I would walk around looking through dumpsters and other places where people had discarded things. Oddly-shaped and oversized pieces of wood were readily available, and they went along with my eco-friendly ethos. The image is determined by the wood that I find. The scale allows me to incorporate small details while being able to grab people’s attention from across the room.
Likewise, printmaking is an emphatically planar medium, but I was fascinated to see your recent solo show at Beacon College that occupied the entire volume of the space—with freestanding light boxes, suspended chicken feet, and a labyrinth of rock salt on the gallery floor, in addition to what was on the wall.
I have always been interested in activating all areas of a space. For that exhibition in particular, I wanted to create a counterpoint to the graphic work on the walls, which was heavy in Christian imagery. The installation in the middle of the space was an allusion to Santería. Over time, the humidity melted the salt labyrinth and the ghostly tracks of visitors’ footsteps made their way around the room. These spatial elements added another layer of discourse to the exhibition.
Christian imagery has been prevalent in your work for quite some time—the road to Damascus, the Lion of Judah, the pietà. What is distinctive about your interpretation and treatment of these familiar themes?
I use these themes because they are recognizable and relatable but can be read differently depending on how they are framed within a particular context. I use Christian symbols to connect with the plight of enslaved and native peoples. I aim to find a place for tradition in modernity rather than to destroy it. For instance, my pietà took a very traditional form of La Virgen de Guadalupe but used anonymous refugees in place of the Biblical figures. A mother holds her dead child, his shadow forming the outline of a slain lamb as other mothers of dead children mourn at her feet.
One of your most recent pieces is a woodcut of Columbus’s flagship Santa María, its sails emblazoned with the crosses of the Knights Templar. Again, there is explicit Christian symbolism here, as well as some postcolonial implications to ‘unpack.’
I used the image of the caravel to represent commerce, migration, grandeur, and power. Columbus’s voyage was a turning point for both the Caribbean and Spain. The agreement between King Ferdinand, Queen Isabella, and Columbus stipulated that most resources that were found in the Caribbean would belong to Spain, and that greatly enriched their economy. They also wanted to spread Christianity to any lands they captured. This led to a crisis of cultural identity and the creation of globalism.
You’ve printed this particular image not on paper but on very colorful and ornate cloth that looks like a vintage Hermès silk scarf, although you simply describe it as ‘found fabric.’ Columbus’s ill-fated expedition aimed to find a new ‘Silk Road’ between East and West, so there’s a clever allusion here, but what else was behind this choice?
I wanted to make a connection with luxury goods, which equate to power and status. I chose a Baroque-like design that is still coveted in fashion today. Sometimes when I look for materials, I find something that works perfectly with the design I’m working on. Sometimes I don’t, and I save it for a different project. Working with found materials is an integral part of my process. It’s ‘discovering’ the discarded or unwanted and making something important out of it.
You also confronted the specter of colonialism with another nautically-themed woodcut that depicts not a caravel but a cruise ship.
In this piece, I wanted to explore the ripple effects of colonialism on today’s tourism industry. From ‘discovery’ onwards, the influence of Europe on the Caribbean was profound. Native populations were exploited and their economies were destroyed with the introduction of sugar plantations. Their social order was reconstructed according to the colonists’ views of the ‘natural’ racial order—white supremacy and black slavery. This disruption continues today through tourism. It brings changes in value systems and behaviors that threaten indigenous identity. Local cultures are transformed to appeal to tourists’ expectations—craftspeople adapt their traditional forms to suit consumers’ tastes.
Two of your recent prints are homages to the masters: Two Figures (After Dürer) and Chum (After Turner). What other artists do you admire?
I admire traditional printmakers like Gustave Doré, Hendrick Goltzius, Rembrandt, Titian, and Goya. Their use of line, perspective, and light has always inspired me to push my work into different realms. Right now, I have also been taking inspiration from a lot of contemporary artists like Kara Walker, Alison Saar, Faith Ringgold, Jacob Lawrence, Belkis Ayon, Elizabeth Catlett, and Pepón Osorio. These artists challenge the European canon and redefine graphic arts in a relatable context.
You studied printmaking at the University of Central Florida (UCF) and have established your studio practice in Orlando. What can you tell our readers—artists and art connoisseurs in the South—about the current arts scene in Orlando?
The scene is definitely growing. There are lots of opportunities to show work in galleries and take part in events. There are many artists experimenting right now and it’s really exciting to see. Younger artists are starting to take their careers more seriously. There is room for innovation and I’m glad to be a part of it.
You have also led a number of printmaking workshops in the area, including some for people who have never tried their hand at it before. What have you learned from teaching novices?
My students show me the simpler things that I could be focusing on. They make me realize the components I may be missing. I learn from their successes and their failures and they give me inspiration to walk fearlessly within myself.
What’s your next big project?
Right now, I am organizing an exhibition with two other teaching artists at the Cornell Fine Arts Museum at Rollins College, which will showcase a yearlong project by students with diverse learning backgrounds. I will also be attending an artist-in-residence program in Mexico, where I’ll be working on a series of large woodcuts focusing on the transmission of diseases to indigenous people. And when I get back from that, I plan to print my largest woodblock yet—The Tower of Babel, which will be thirteen feet tall.
And lastly—the question I ask every artist I meet—what’s your favorite color?
Evan D. Williams is an independent art appraiser, scholar, writer, and practitioner based in the foothills of the Appalachians.