Treating his paint like water, Raelis Vasquez depicts the aqueous bodies of his hometown

The artist’s serene water paintings of Mao Valverde in the Dominican Republic show that the municipality is more than just a tourist destination.

29 November 2023

While Raelis Vasquez’s paintings of Mao Valverde are filled with figures, water takes centre stage. Featuring in every painting, submerging a body or simply providing a backdrop, the glistening blues, greens and browns have a magnetic quality. Sometimes still, gentle and flowing, and sometimes disturbed with flashes of white, the artist’s attention to detail has breathtaking results. To achieve such visuals, Raelis tells us that he treated the fluidity of paint “as a medium akin to water”, allowing his materials to embody its spirit. “I sought to paint it in a manner that reflected the essence of being present in that very moment,” he says.

Mao Valverde is the painter’s hometown, a municipality in the Dominican Republic. Mao is a Taíno word that translates the ‘land between rivers’, Raelis explains, a fitting name when considering the city’s strong connection to its waterways. “The river holds immense communal significance, being a vital resource for water and a place for relaxation and contemplation,” he says. “It can also pose risks if not navigated carefully due to the currents and rocky terrain.”

GalleryRaelis Vasquez: A Land Between Rivers (Copyright © Raelis Vasquez, 2023)

At the age of seven, Raelis immigrated with his family, leaving Mae Valverde behind. It’s at this point Raelis sees his artistic journey beginning, turning to painting as a source of comfort, exerting control in a time of uncertainty. “The page became my sanctuary,” he says, “a place where I could draw lines and craft something uniquely my own.” Now, the artist is based between New Jersey and Philadelphia, though he still regularly returns to Mao Valverde with his family for gatherings, music and swimming. Much as he did as a child, he now uses his paintings of Mao Valverde to connect him with the place that has shaped him, his “true home”.

Exploring bodies of water as a place of significance is a theme translated beautifully in the paintings, with key moments in people’s lives playing out by the water’s edge. Raelis directs us to Amer Como el Neustro, a tender work that shows a couple on a date, perched on the branch of a tree and surrounded by leaves and foliage, their slightly awkward yet flirtatious body language capturing the essence of an early relationship. Through the Branches, on the other hand, captures two boys playing and splashing around together. A moment Raelis describes as “uninhibited freedom”, for this piece he chose to create the sense of viewing from a distance, demonstrating the vastness of the space engulfing the boys and facilitating their levity.

As well as providing a space to navigate personal emotions and feelings, Raelis hopes that his paintings hold an important message: that the Dominican Republic is not merely a tourist destination, but a home, and a sacred place for many. “The rivers and canals are lifelines for the people of this region,” he says. “I aim to reveal the deep-rooted relationship between the people and this specific environment, shedding light on Mao and illuminating its unique connection to water.”

GalleryRaelis Vasquez: A Land Between Rivers (Copyright © Raelis Vasquez, 2023)

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About the Author

Olivia Hingley

Olivia (she/her) joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in November 2021 and soon became staff writer. A graduate of the University of Edinburgh with a degree in English Literature and History, she’s particularly interested in photography, publications and type design.

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