Jan. 9 - April 17, 2021
Am I a Nuyorican?
By Laudelina Martinez, Curator
Let’s begin with some history. The Caribbean island known as Puerto Rico got this name in the early 16 century after Spaniards occupied it. Like other lands conquered by Spain, Puerto Rico (PR) became part of an increasingly weakened empire. Through 400 years, PR evolved from mainly three branches of peoples: Taino, African, and European, gaining by the 1700’s the distinct sense of self-identity as Puerto Ricans. At this time, the islanders interacted with their neighbors to the north, by trading in pre- and post-colonial times. By the 19 century, regular contacts took place as Puerto Ricans came to the USA to study, work, conduct business, visit for leisure, network with emancipators from Latin America, and conceive political plans.
Thus, by 1898, when American troops annexed Puerto Rico, there was ongoing and regular traffic between the Island and the USA. That interaction was cemented by granting US citizenship to Puerto Ricans in 1917, which allowed for mostly unimpeded movement between the Island and the continent. The connection was made even tighter by the structural deficits inherent in PR’s colonial status. This has meant that whenever there are economic or political upheavals in the US, these crises are experienced more deeply in PR. At those moments, Puerto Ricans have felt that life may be more bearable stateside and some move to find refuge or possibilities in the US.
The artists in this exhibition – Martin Rubio, Armando Soto, and Marcos Dimas – had parents who had dreams of a better life in the States. Rubio and Dimas were born in PR and came to New York as youngsters, while Soto was born in New York. The three came of age at a time when the nation was in the throes of the civil rights movement, fueled by a desire for justice on the part of groups that felt neglected and marginalized. They saw how Puerto Rican artists were not represented in galleries, museums, and other art spaces in NY, so together with other artists, in 1969 they established El Taller Boricua (The Boricuan Workshop). El Taller provided the support of a likeminded group and the mentorship of established artists who had more advanced skills. El Taller gave them a space to mount exhibitions and think about the artist’s role in the community; this led to their advocacy of a museum for Puerto Rican artists that became El Museo del Barrio on Fifth Ave. It also prompted their seeking professional higher education in the arts.
In the 1960s, terms combining Puerto Rican ancestry and New Yorker status began appearing, culminating in the word “Nuyorican,” codified in 1975 with the establishment of the Nuyorican Poets Café in the Lower East Side. This term designates the cultural connections of a hybrid identity which is not solely Puerto Rican or New Yorker. But, why not just call them American artists? Is this an accurate or valid descriptor? More recently, other perspectives have referenced a broader identity for Puerto Ricans with the concept of transnationality and the discourses encompassing diaspora. From these stances, Nuyorican artists are seen engaged in the production of culture, not merely the combining of legacies.
In his paintings, Soto creates native American forms that are an imaginative construct of idealized Taino lines and tropes, and Dimas invents combinations of African and Taino figurative elements that recall Francis Bacon and biomorphism. Through his sculptures in metal and wood, Rubio shapes geometric forms and volume to arrive at amid-century sensibility of an international design.
Still, the question lingers for each of them: Am I a Nuyorican?
-- Hannah Davis, Curatorial Assistant
Martin Rubio is a sculptor born in Puerto Rico and based in New York City, where he moved to with his parents as a child. Rubio obtained his BFA at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. A part of the Nuyorican movement, he became a founder of El Taller Boricua in 1969 together with other noted artists of his generation. Rubio quickly established himself as an artist of public art; his public work is in NYC, Japan, and Venezuela. Rubio has exhibited in many institutions, including the Brooklyn Museum of Art, NYC, Gallery Tom, Tokyo, Japan, Instituto de Cultura, San Juan, Puerto Rico, the Wadsworth Museum in CT, and the Meguro Museum of Art, Tokyo, Japan. His collectors are global as well, coming from Japan, France, Venezuela, and the United States.
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Armando Soto is an artist and painter who was born in New York City of Puerto Rican parents. Soto received his BFA in Art History and Drawing/Painting from Pratt Institute in New York City. One of the founders of El Taller Boricua in East Harlem in 1969, Soto became identified with the Nuyorican movement in the arts. Soto’s work is primarily inspired by mythical characters from African and Taino cultures. His work has exhibited regionally in Upstate New York, New York City, and in Vermont. Soto now teaches in the Capital Region of New York, especially at the Arts Center of the Capital Region where he holds studio classes for the public and teaches privately.
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Marcos Dimas was born in Cabo Rojo, Puerto Rico, and lives in New York City. Dimas got his BFA from the School of Visual Arts in New York City and did postgraduate work in film. A part of the Nuyorican movement in the late 60s, his work features African and Taino symbols and their abstractions. He is a founder of El Taller Boricua, in New York City, together with artists such as Armando Soto and Martin Rubio. Dimas currently serves as executive director. His work has exhibited all over the United States, the Caribbean, and Europe. Museums such as El Museo De Barrio and the Smithsonian have shown his work. Dimas continues to lead, curate, and teach at El Taller Boricua in NYC where he continues working as an artist.
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