by Diogenes Ballester

Online Exhibitions :


Other Exhibitions:

CAMBIOS: 50 Años de
transformacion en la vida puertorriqueña

Oller-Campeche Gallery

Lectures :

by Diogenes Ballester


From the window of my studio at the corner of 106th and Lexington Avenue I observe the recent gentrification of a neighborhood that was once, and is still today, an icon of the Puerto Rican exodus to the United States.

El Barrio, also known as Spanish Harlem, is a Puerto Rican neighborhood located on the upper-east side of Manhattan in New York City. The neighborhood became a center of migration for Puerto Ricans after WWII, following the U. S. government initiative Operation Bootstrap which encouraged Puerto Rican immigration as a means of supplying cheap labor to factories and industries. As a result of this exodus, communities like Spanish Harlem became important cultural centers where the development of a Puerto Rican identity in the United States was crucial to the new immigrants.

Within this context, Puerto Rican artists began to develop an aesthetic that addressed the values of their community while also adapting to the avant garde currents of the City. This aesthetic, as well as the values of the community from which it stems, have evolved considerably over the past fifty years and are worthy of study at this historic moment, as the community is rapidly changing in the face of gentrification. >From this perspective we can reflect on the Puerto Rican artistic expression that has occurred in El Barrio. We will first look at the period of the 50's and 60's when the pioneer and the second-generation artists began developing a collective expression that inspired a cultural movement, and led to the founding of important community institutions. We will also examine the development of a diaspora aesthetic as it manifests in visual arts. A discussion of public art in El Barrio will follow. In conclusion, we will address the impact of gentrification on the arts and culture of El Barrio.

The Period of the 50's and 60's The mass emigration of Puerto Ricans to New York in the 40's and 50's created a dominant center of Puerto Rican culture and quickly spawned new levels of artistic activity. From a community rooted in a small-town agrarian based culture, these immigrants, as so many before them, became a part of the City's working class. They passed on to a second generation of Puerto Rican artists a class and cultural consciousness that by the end of the 60's gave rise to three major centers of cultural ferment in El Barrio.

The first artists to emerge from the diaspora were folkloric and primitive, artists that are to be found in the first stages of any displaced culture. Grassroots painters Johnny Vazquez, Millito Lopez and Carlos Raquel Rivera whose work is shown here) made a precarious living decorating the walls and ceilings of social clubs with tropical scenes.

Jose Caraballo and Pedro Villarini, self-taught folk painters known for nostalgic Puerto Rican landscape's such as Villarini's "Villa Playita" (1969), did not address the New York context. However, their expressions of love for Puerto Rico are clearly of El Barrio. Carlos Osorio, Rafael Tufino and Vitin Linares arrived from Puerto Rico in this period and joined the primitive group of painters, concentrating mainly on Puerto Rican themes rather than those of New York. Influential in this community as well as in the art world, these artists brought a whole new set of stylistic inspirations. Linares's work signals a connection with the social realism prevalent in Puerto Rico's Community Division. His paintings abound with slum scenes from "El Fanguito" and "La Perla," and with figures of the working-class shown toiling. Carlos Osorio brought with him the experience of collective creation and political consciousness, and worked hard to develop the links between artist and community. Tufino introduced the techniques of serigraphy, linoleum, and wood cuts. His work represents an extension of Puerto Rican themes, but is more expressionistic and portrays the suffering of the people.

Issues of the city soon came to the forefront as the children of the first wave of immigrants came of age. Rafael Montanez Ortiz's " Mattress" (1963), in the Museum of Modern Art, is an example of this generation's abrupt entrance on the scene. The work consists of a sprung mattress, preserved as an archeological object by a covering of liquid plastic that freezes it in its decomposed state. It looks like the mattresses that populated the vacant lots of El Barrio, announcing in technique and image the poverty of the Latino community at the time. The work of Ortiz staked a place outside the folkloric vision of Puerto Rican society, reflecting the experience of the poor throughout the city. It revealed the potential power of a throw-away object when viewed as a signifier of an historical experience, nailed to the wall of a museum. Ortiz's work blazed the trail for Rafael Ferrer, whose installation of hay, grease and metal was shown at the 1968 Whitney Biennial ) and Marcos Dimas, who echoed Ortiz's focus on solitary objects adding a diffused, mythic relationship with Puerto Rico, sparked by the search for identity and an intense appreciation of the Caribbean tradition

.By the end of the 60's, El Barrio had three important centers of Puerto Rican art. El Museo del Barrio, founded in 1969 with Rafael Montanez Ortiz as the first director. Artist's Struggle Organization, OLA, founded that year as well, involved the painters of the 50's generation in a quest for the primitive and the folkloric. Taller Boricua, had its beginnings in1969 with the Real Great Society, when this organization of architects and community activists in El Barrio provided space for Marcos Dimas, Adrian Garcia, and Armando Soto, the founders of El Taller. They were followed by Osorio, Rafael Tufino and the young Nitza Tufino.

The Puerto Rican Diaspora- An Evolving Aesthetic. While Puerto Rican artists in New York use many stylistic expressions including folkloric painting, social realism, neo-expressionism, conceptual, and digital art; the art of the diaspora in and around El Barrio can be categorized by the themes portrayed. These themes, though somewhat interchangeable, can be de-marked as 1) social political, 2) cultural, and 3) the search for identity.

The social political theme stems from the Puerto Rican colonial status with the United States since 1898 when the U.S. overpowered the independence movement and appropriated Puerto Rico from Spain. Most Puerto Rican artists in the City maintain a strong sense of Puerto Rican nationalism and have been adamant in their support for Vieques, the Puerto Rican Island used as a bombing range by the U.S. Navy. They are equally concerned with issues confronting the Puerto Rican population in the United States such as racism, the "second class citizen " status, and social conditions of Puerto Ricans on the mainland.

For example, Jorge Soto, was a political activist. In his expressionistic assemblage entitled "Tom and Jill" Soto drips dark hued paint over two silver painted mutilated mannequins depicting the suffering of oppressed and alienated people. Juan Sanchez, combines photographs of political leaders and common people, painted symbols from the Taino Indians (the original inhabitants of the island), and text to address the social political concerns of Puerto Ricans. His juxtaposition of brilliant colors against a dark ground captures the feel of a richly colored people struggling in the face of oppression.

Fernando Salicrup, uses a video camera, computer paintbrush, and digital printing to apprehend and transform scenes of El Barrio. His social commentary is dream like with swirling colors and images of haunting characters populating the myth of the promised land distorted by reality. The Puerto Rican diaspora boasts a number of female artists who address the social political theme from the feminist perspective. For example, Marina Gutierrez's "Poem Pieces - Vision of Julia" 1995, a mobile sculpture, created for the Julia de Burgos Latino Cultural Center in El Barrio consists of shapes cut out of metal. The large center piece of the sculpture cut in the silhouette of a female figure and painted with tropical scenes holds cascading river waters in each hand, symbolic of the poet's writings and love of her island homeland. Miriam Hernandez in her multiple panel painting "Nutrition" (1989) uses fragmented nude figures of females clothed only with the helmet of a warrior to face the spiritual and mental battles of this violent and sexist world.

The issue of culture, closely related to the social and political, is paramount to all immigrants. At question is how to fit into the host country without losing the cultural values of the motherland. The day to day culture of the Puerto Rican people on the island and in the City has inspired artists to appropriate found objects, kitsch elements, and images from Puerto Rican history. Pepon Osorio's installation piece "The Scene of the Crime" exhibited at the 1993 Whitney Biennial recreates and parodies the interior of a "typical" Puerto Rican apartment filled with oversized furniture, family photographs, Santos, knick-knacks, and so much more. He places a crime scene amidst these cultural artifacts, addressing the violence that has invaded the Puerto Rican home.

Antonio Martorell, who exemplifies the ever-increasing interchange between the island and mainland artists, also uses artifacts to create installations that address the culture. For example, In "Casa Singer" (1991), he uses a decorated sewing machine in a house made of sewing patterns, pearls, lace, ribbons, sequins, and trimmings to pay homage to the women seamstresses of Puerto Rico. Jose Morales also speaks to the culture of the Puerto Rican people in the United States. In "El Vivero" (1993), Morales paints abstractions of caged chickens, row upon row, one on top of another across three large canvases. He captures not only the experience of buying live chickens from the market, a common practice in El Barrio in the 1960's, but also metaphorically the experience of the people of El Barrio, caged and vulnerable.

Embedded in the diaspora is the question of identity. Who are these first, second, third generation immigrants, no longer Puerto Ricans from the island but clearly not accepted as part of mainstream America. Artists, along with the people of El Barrio, have searched for their roots and have found the Pre-Colombian and African heritage of the Caribbean.

Since the 1970's Marcos Dimas has used symbols from the Taino Indians in his paintings and drawings. For example, he created a series of frotages from Taino symbols carved on the stones at the ceremonial grounds at Utuado, Puerto Rico. The series, done by placing Japanese paper on the stone and rubbing charcoal over it, captures the spiritual energy and power of these ancient stones. The recent work of Gloria Rodriguez also addresses identity. She creates acrylic painting collages that she calls "acrollage" using images of woman and black men from photographs which are framed by multiple layers of translucent paper of different colors. These images speak of the issues facing women and black males in a society dominated by sexism and racism.

My own work also fits into the theme of identity. After moving to New York from Puerto Rico in 1981, I became increasingly aware of the multiple threads interwoven into the Puerto Rican spiritual tradition. In works such as "Globalization, Post-Industrialism, and Syncretism" (1999/2000), I use encaustic and charcoal on multiple panels of paper to depict expressionistic figures of spiritual icons from the Afro-Caribbean religion of Espiritismo. The piece becomes both an installation and an altar with the addition of artifacts from spiritual rituals that connect us to our past through the umbilical cord of oral history.

The Public Art created in El Barrio cuts across the themes already addressed but will be discussed separately because it is the most direct form of artist-community dialogue and interaction. In addition, public art brings together a broader perspective of community concerns and can function as a form of social intervention.

The Public Art in El Barrio includes a variety of murals, from traditionally painted walls to aerosol art and mosaics, sculptures of various forms, and chalk drawings on the street. A large mural of domino players by Hank Prussing painted in 1978 on the wall of a building at 104th Street and Lexington Avenue reflects a typical barrio scene of interpersonal connectedness. The creation of this mural served as a training workshop for the young Manuel Vega who later created other public art pieces in El Barrio. These include a wall painting (1981) of a jibaro family working the land at 103rd Street and a ceramic mosaic (1997) related to Afro-Brasilian religious experience at the 110th Street subway station.

Nitza Tufino's ceramic tile mosaic "Neo-Boriken" (1990) at the 103rd Street subway station, interprets Taino symbols that convey our heritage to the metro passengers as they arrive at El Barrio. Similarly, James de la Vega's numerous mural paintings of religious images and community personalities have become icons in El Barrio. Other public art in El Barrio is more temporary. Made on the streets and side walks, chalk drawings from the yearly Festival de la Tiza organized by Jose Morales unite the artists and the community who work together creating colorful street murals on 104th Street. Although these disappear once the street is reopened to cars on the evening of the Festival, the spirit of the day lingers in the heart of the community.

In the tradition of the festival, James de la Vega, a folk hero in El Barrio for his temporary public art interventions, creates sidewalk drawings and proverb-like texts with chalk or masking tape. Graffiti murals in El Barrio have a twenty five-year tradition. The Graffiti Hall of Fame located at 106th Street and Park Avenue is transformed each year by the most prestigious graffiti collaboration in the City. With leadership from local artists like Joe Whippler, the collaborative is conscious of the mural's dialogue with children on the schoolyard side of the graffiti wall. This year the group selected Graffopoli as the theme. While boasting the artistic dominance of the graffiti crew, the mural simultaneously exercises a social critique of the neighborhood's gentrification.

El Barrio has changed since the 1950's. Puerto Rican families have moved out to the suburbs. New immigrant groups such as West Africans, Chinese and Mexicans have crowded the rooms of the old tenements. This is not a new process. The ethnic make up of this stretch of land from 96th Street to 125th between Central Park and the East River has changed many times from North American Indians, to Dutch, to German and Irish, to Italian and Jewish immigrants, and African Americans who came from the south. What is new is the class change that is currently transforming El Barrio. Gentrification has already transformed neighborhoods such as the West Village, Soho, the East Village,Tribeca, Williamsburg, and Chelsea, as the upper middle class moves in while the working class and working poor are forced out. Interestingly it is the artists and bohemians who stake the first outposts.

This can be seen as young Anglo artists are arriving in El Barrio. Will they be followed by the yuppies, cafes, and designer shops that are homogenizing the City? What will this mean for the Puerto Rican diaspora and the artistic aesthetic that has grown from this community? Clearly, El Barrio faces a challenge. On the political front, there has been a rezoning of the area with the southern section from 106th to 96th now part of Upper Yorkville. Economically, money is flooding into El Barrio through developers. Although declared an empowerment zone only a fraction of government money has been available to the people of El Barrio. Artists, because they do not generally employ others, are not even eligible to apply. El Museo del Barrio, under pressure to broaden its economic base, has been redefined as a Latin American and Puerto Rican Museum. On a brighter side, The Taller Boricua, under the leadership of Fernando Salicrup, has over the past fifteen years wisely secured gallery, studio and artist housing space and is collaborating on planning efforts to create a multifaceted Cultural Corridor Project in El Barrio. And what about the community?

The next phase of the diaspora is not yet known. Many working class Puerto Ricans are moving to Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Jersey and Florida. Elaine Soto, a Taller artist, who paints beautiful Black Madonas has moved to Denver. Pepon Osorio has moved to Pennsylvania. However, young Puerto Ricans, among them many artists from the island and other cities in the United States, more educated than previous waves of immigrants and more globalized in their perspective, are still arriving. Like their predecessors, they are working in the community. For example, Miguel Luciano does interactional installations pieces such as "La Mano Poderosa Racetrack," 2000 (detail). He also is currently working on a mural project with Robert Fulton Housing in the Chelsea area. His work forecasts the imminent battle over the status of Public Housing which will be crucial to the fate of working class Puerto Rican's in El Barrio. In conclusion, our community here, together with the artists who recount and interpret the tales, has the ability to not only withstand the onslaught of gentrification but also utilize it to enhance El Barrio.

We are indeed resilient and just as back home our people have struggled for our identity in the face of 500 years of Spanish and U.S. colonialism so too we will continue the struggle. The next stage of the Puerto Rican diaspora and the artistic aesthetic that speaks of that journey awaits us. Let us meet the challenge.



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