Being a culture of complex mystic and ceremonial evolution, the Tainos developed a type of art with very defined characteristics that are not totally related to styles in other continental indigenous cultures.
The materials tmost used were: bones, conch, clay, wood and stone. It is believed that they developed elaborate works in cotton, but there only one cemi and a few belts have survived.
You could say that the Tainos added an artistic touch to the majority of their every day objects; without the use of metal tools, they achieved an impressive production of ceremonial and ornamental objects. Manuel Garcia Arevalo explains: "The representation of their divinities in artistic abstraction and symbolism, becomes the default for these people, combining the functionality of the object with the votive and magical".36
There are two basic lines or decorative styles recognized in their works: one abstract with elaborate geometric designs, and another figurative, abundant in anthropomorphic representation (human shapes), zoomorphic (animal shapes) and anthropomorphic (a combination of both).
In the zoomorphic representations the following stand out: bats, owls, frogs, doves, parrots, and lizards. The anthropomorphic regularly displayed the head more than any other part of the body, usually occupying more than half of the piece.
The Taino art legacy is very extensive, so in this work we are focusing on the most outstanding works:
Cemies y Amulets – The idols or cemi were carved out of stone or precious woods; true jewels of Pre-Columbian art, they are possibly the most dramatic of the whole group.
Of varied styles and sizes, the cemi are representations of the actual divinity, making it a ritual its use as well as it's creation.
The description offered by Pane about this lets us see the special qualities of these pieces: "A man goes walking and sees a tree whose roots are moving; the man, full of fear, asks who's there? The tree answers: Call for a buhuitihu, and he will tell you who I am. That man, goes to fetch the shaman and tells him what he has seen. The medicine man or shaman runs when he hears this and sits right next to the tree. He fixes cohoba, as we have explained before in the story of the four brothers. Once the cohoba has taken effect, he stand up and tells the tree all his titles as if he was a lord, and asks: Tell me who you are and why you are here and what do you want from me and why you have called on me? Tell me if you want me to cut you, or if you want to come with me, and how you want me to take you and I will build you an estate. Then the tree or cemi, made idol or devil, answers it the way he wants him to do it. The shaman cuts it in the way he has been ordered to, builds it a house with one possession and every year does the cohoba."37
Impressive cemi carved out of mahogany have been found throughout the Caribbean, specially in the islands or Santo Domingo and Jamaica; it is assumed that some would have had mouths and eyes embedded with gold or conch.
The amulets are anthropomorphic figures that would have been used as sort of personal of mini-cemies. These have been found in great quantities which indicates that they were very abundant.
They were usually carved out of stone, bone or wood. Creating these is where the Taino craftsman achieved extraordinary levels.
It is usual that, similar to the mahogany cemi, they are carved in a flexed position, with their backs slightly bent over the legs, and hands resting on the knees. Some may have also been embedded with gold or conch.
Duhos – Stone or wood seat; was used by the caciques and nitainos when presiding ceremonies or ritual games. It is a sort of small chair, with a hollowed back and four short legs, that are usually shaped like animal legs. Within the rich decoration, anthropomorphic and zoomorphic faces stand out, specially towards the front part of the seat.
It is apparent that these seats were impressive to the Europeans, since, according to Pedro Martir de Angleria, "their treasures were not the gold, of silver, or pearls, but utensils and things that humans use such as seats... made of very dark wood, smooth, radiant... and sculpted with marvelous art".38
Ceramics – During the Taino period, all around the island, there was a considerable amount of ceramics produced sporting exquisite variations. Within the previously mentioned Chicoide style, the incisions of geometric motifs are present in the most cases, like the dotted kind and the application of anthropomorphic, zoomorphic, and anthropozoomorphic expressions.
Archeologists suggest that, like other utensils, there were two kinds or ceramics: a domestic, simple, without much decoration, and crafted by women as part of their daily chores; the other, ceremonial, crafted with rich decoration, and made for behiques or other individuals involved in religious activities; nevertheless, they were created to place offerings to the cemies, or simply to carry water. The beauty of these pieces rests in the liberties and personal touches that the artist is broadcasting that in the Taino world there was an abundance of what we today call "artistic talent".
Within the variety of styles stands out the bottles or pots, that can come in globular shape, with some zoomorphic or anthropozoomorphic representation close to the neck, which is almost always elongated or modeled in a phallic fashion.
Another type of bottle is the heart-shaped–mammiform, presents on both sides a decoration with feminine breasts, and observing the phallic neck, it can also have anthropomorphic or zoomorphic ornamentation.
It is possible that these bottles, representing a symbiosis between masculine and feminine, would have a special role in some delicate fertility ritual.
Mashers – They are stone pestles, usually decorated with incisions or anthropomorphic, zoomorphic or anthropozoomorphic figures. A great number and varieties have been found ; the most ornate are related with rituals, such as the pulverizing of the cohoba ingredients.
Effigy Glasses – Modeled in very thin ceramic, they are realistic sculptures that seem to represent mythological characters. They appear as anthropomorphic, zoomorphic, anthropozoomorphic, or pisciform (fish-shaped).
Some of these figures represent extreme slimness or physical deformities like pregnancies or hunchbacks, thus they are associated so much with the behiques, (they would follow diets and were very thin), like Dimivan Caracaracol or his mother Itiba Tahuvava.
It is possible that with their use, the Tainos intended for the figures to transfer a certain power to the liquid that they contained; this could be to heal a sick individual, or that whoever drank from this would be "illuminated" by mystic beings.
Effigy Heads – They are the most realistic works in Taino art, they could be portraits of important persons, although some possess the characteristics of Maquetaurie Guayaba. Others are related with the Trigonolitos or representations of Yocahuguama.
In most cases, you can appreciate the cranial deformation that was practiced by the Taino, as well as wide, decorative headbands with geometric motifs that were probably woven from cotton.
Maybe some of these heads were the best visual description of our indigenous people that we count on today.
Petroglyphs and Pictographs – Are manifestations of Antillean rock or cave art. The ones that are carved on rock are called petroglyphs, while the pictographs are usually rock art painted with vegetable dyes.
This art belongs to the Tainos as well as other cultural groups that inhabited the island; generally anthropomorphic and zoomorphic drawings that interweave with geometric motifs. They have been found in caves, river rocks, and in stone that define some ceremonial plazas.
Many represent a simplicity that is almost juvenile in the execution, while others possess an impressive graphic quality. This quality indicates a certain significance, as suggested by Dr. Morban Laucer, "like prehistoric people from other continents, their pictorial manifestations and their petroglyphs were a succession of ideas and not a simple representation of objects."39
The Tainos were a people with a sophisticated social and cultural evolution. Between them and their land there was a deep understanding based on the knowledge of natural laws, allowing them to make the most of natural resources without upsetting the delicate ecological balance.
It is unfortunate that this culture, even more fragile that the ecosystem, was the first to be encountered by the Europeans during the American conquest. These Tainos or noble men", in turn, became the real guinea pigs. Worse still is the fact that it is not a case of victims and guilty, but the expansion and economic growth of a culture forced to exploit and absorb the ones that it encountered through its growth. This is one of the most painful phases in human history, in which many ways of seeing, doing and thinking disappeared, which we still have so much to learn about.
Illustrations: Betsy Arvelo