On April 8, 2011 an expanded Institute of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture (IPRAC) celebrated the opening of its new exhibition, “Lo Que Trajo el Barco,” by three, young Puerto Rican artists from three distinct locations but with intersecting narratives. The exhibition, which will be open to the public until June 2011 also served as a tribute to the living master of Puerto Rican art, Antonio Martorell, whose much-anticipated exhibit is scheduled to follow.
The artists, Miguel Luciano, Josué Pellot, and Ramón Miranda, live in places of great distance from one another: New York City, Chicago, and Puerto Rico, respectively. However, what they share in their art is a deep desire to grapple with and understand the Puerto Rican context. For these masters of their craft, Puerto Rico and its multiple socio-cultural and political productions serve as a reference point from which to begin the ever-important dialogue of our identity, but the discourse continues beyond the waters of the Caribbean. The question of who and what we are as a distinct but disparate people, extend to and incorporate those very places in which we have settled and created community.
For a case in point, one of the pieces on display, “Machetero Air Force Ones/ Filiberto Ojeda Uptowns” by Miguel Luciano, may seem to be just another pair of fresh, white Nike shoes with spray-painted Puerto Rican flags – a common feature in the ghettos of the U.S. However, the colorful images of an assassinated pro-independence leader that stirred an uproar on the island and in the U.S. provide a compelling commentary on issues of materialism, cultural authenticity, the mass production of art and propaganda, collective memory, the synchronization of culture, and puertorriqueñidad in the Diaspora. It is no coincidence that the title of the exhibition is called “Lo Que Trajo el Barco” – “What was brought by the boat,” taken from a song by “El sonero mayor” Ismael Rivera. Migration not only moved half our people across the ocean, but also challenged our very definition of what it means to be Puerto Rican.
To gain a better understanding of the exhibition, his art, and to explore the themes of identity and history in Puerto Rican art, we interviewed the humble and profound Miguel Luciano, whose renowned work has been showcased in galleries and museums around the world. From Paris to Moscow, Brooklyn to Slovenia and even on cover of the scholarly Reggaetón: An Anthology, Luciano’s pieces are providing new insights and a playful rendition of our national character.
Gozamos: Where were you born and raised? Where did you study? Why did you decide to become an artist?
Miguel Luciano: I was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico and grew up in the United States from Seattle to Miami and I now live in New York City. I was always interested and had a passion for art and drawing ever since I was a kid. I was also interested in social justice and activism and I knew I could combine these things and make work that could contribute to social change; looking at artwork as a vehicle for social change.
In your presentation at the opening of your collaborative exhibition at IPRAC, you spoke about playing on the readings of Puerto Rican and Caribbean cultural signifiers and layering new mythologies. How do you decide which cultural signifiers are significant enough to present in your work? What is your purpose in using Puerto Rican cultural symbols?
ML: I look at our visual history and how it is taught usually, and I look at the cultural signifiers that are often used to represent Puerto Rican culture and identity. I use these histories and cultural symbols in order to challenge and flip them and do the same to how we see ourselves [as Puerto Ricans]. Also, to re-inscribe them with new meaning and change essentialist ideas, with an attempt to see how we self-identity and how we were identified throughout history.
Why did you choose to present those three particular pieces of your work at IPRAC?
ML: It started with a dialogue with the other artists [Josue Pellot and Ramón Miranda Beltrán] in order to see how our work could relate to each other and to find a common theme. The pieces at IPRAC, I’ve wanted to share with the Chicago audience, especially the Pure Plantanium Pendant and the Machetero Air Force Ones. I wanted to show them for a while in Humboldt Park, since there is a vibrant youth presence in the community and I thought it would resonate in that context. For the Cosmic Taíno piece, it includes a figure of a Bohique, who was a spiritual sage in the indigenous community. This character is often used in children’s books in Puerto Rico and I use it to play with it and to talk about illumination and consciousness in a spiritual way. It also serves as a good contrast to Josue Pellot’s neon lights, which represents conquest and death, while my piece represents spirituality and life. Also, the title of the exhibit, “Lo Que Trajo el Barco,” speaks to a theme of colonialism.
Do you consider yourself a Puerto Rican artist or an artist that is Puerto Rican? What is the difference, if there is any?
ML: I’m really not too concerned with that. I am Puerto Rican and an artist. My work has engaged Puerto Rican culture, history, and identity. The work also speaks to Latinos in general, but comes from the reference point that is Puerto Rican and that is where I’m from. And, I know who my audience is and I don’t think of it as limiting. I don’t only show my artwork in the Puerto Rican community, but I’m very proud to show it in the community and that is a priority for me. It is inspired by community and it makes sense to present it to the community. IPRAC, for example, doesn’t become an exclusive space that excludes the audience that I’m trying to get at; it provides a dialogue with a community.
Any special message you’d like to give to our readers and the Puerto Rican community in Chicago?
ML: Go see the show, and it is an honor to show my work in Chicago and in Humboldt Park.