Adál Maldonado has been a photographic documentarian, a Dadaist visual satirist and a Nuyorican conceptual artist. James Estrin profiles him for The New York Times. Follow the link below for the original report and a great gallery of photos.
But most of all, he has been a cultural provocateur, who has focused on issues of identity throughout his broad career.
Though often reduced to a few pat phrases, identity is not always a simple matter. Adál — his professional moniker — says his identity is fluid and has changed to circumstances. But at its core has always been the Puerto Rican culture which is itself a blend of Spanish, African and indigenous Taino influences, among others.
In his own life, he has gone from being the child of farmers in the mountains of Puerto Rico to living as a teenager in the Bronx, becoming a hippie, studying photography in San Francisco and being an artist in SoHo.
“We are multilayered because so many different cultures and races came through Puerto Rico with the slave trade,” Mr. Maldonado said. “We became a sort of fusion of all those experiences and ideas. I was raised to feel that I had many different dimensions that I could choose from.”
For his book, “Portraits of the Puerto Rican Experience” (IPRUS, 1984), Mr. Maldonado photographed 100 Puerto Ricans who had excelled in all aspects of society, including science, the arts and community service. The portraits and accompanying interviews became a part of the social studies curriculum in the New York school system beginning in 1985.
He also did a portrait series of Latin musicians including Celia Cruz (Slide 12) and Tito Puente (Slide 13). After he published the book “Mango Mambo” in 1987, Mr. Maldonado conceived and directed a performance piece, “Mondo Mambo: A Mambo Rap Sodi,” which was written by his longtime collaborator, the poet Pedro Pietri. With a monologue, video, dancing, and music composed and performed by Mr. Puente, it played at the Public Theater in New York.
But it was a later series of portraits that struck at the heart of what Mr. Maldonado sees as the New York Puerto Rican — or Nuyorican — identity. “I think there is for us a personal identity, and then there’s a collective identity,” Mr. Maldonado said. “I think that the collective identity for a Puerto Rican is what I call an ‘out-of-focus identity’ because it was caused by trauma — emotional and psychological trauma — by a sort of mental colonization, first by Spain, and then by the United States.”
Mr. Maldonado’s “Out of Focus Nuyoricans” includes portraits of noted poets, musicians, artists, community activists and even the super of the Lower East Side building where Mr. Maldonado lived. The images were deliberately printed out of focus in the darkroom, then enhanced digitally. With text by Mr. Pietri, the photographs were published in 2004 by Harvard Press in “The Out of Focus Nuyorican.”
He has produced five photo novellas: small photo storybooks with words. The format is based on photo novellas that mainly originated in Mexico and were precursors to the emotionally (and sartorially) overwrought telenovelas. Mr. Maldonado’s novellas display the humor and Dadaist influence that runs through much of his work.
In Mr. Maldonado’s “Coconauts in Space” (Slides 5 through 7), an American astronaut lands on the moon in 1969 and discovers a capsule with artifacts that apparently belonged to Puerto Rican explorers who had been to the moon before him. When he looks up and sees a Puerto Rican flag on the capsule, he radios back, “Houston, we have a problem.” “Coconauts in Space” highlights historical revisionism, how conquering countries “tend to rewrite history to suit their agenda,” he said.
One of his early photo novellas, “Falling Eyelids,” will be exhibited at The Gutiérrez-Bermúdez Collection Gallery in San Juan, P.R., beginning Thursday, as part of the FotoVisura Photography Pavilion. In the series, a photographer becomes dissatisfied with the way he looks at his reality, invents his own and eventually wakes up inside one of his photographs.
Mr. Maldonado was born in Utuado, P.R., in 1948 in the mountainous countryside. His parents divorced, and he and his sister moved with his mother to Trenton, N.J., when he was 13. By coincidence, they ended up in an apartment above the studio of a portrait photographer, who taught him how to process film and print.
His mother remarried, and the family moved to the Bronx where Mr. Maldonado went to high school. When his mother moved back to Puerto Rico in 1967, Mr. Maldonado stayed, and “became a hippie.” He studied photography at the Art Center College of Design in Southern California and at the San Francisco Art Institute.
He returned to New York in 1975 and started Foto Gallery on Broome Street in SoHo with Alex Coleman. He published his first book, “The Evidence of Things Not Seen” (Da Capo Press, 1975), consisting mostly of post surrealist collage self-portraits along with his photographs of Duane Michals, Andre Kertesz, Lisette Model and other photographers who influenced him. He started his photo novellas including the “
Perhaps his most famous artistic endeavor, in partnership with Mr. Pietri, the poet and playwright, was the conceptual piece “El Puerto Rican Embassy,” in which they created an imaginary embassy for an island that is not an independent country. It was, Mr. Pietri’s manifesto said, a place where “sovereignty is a state of mind.”
They mixed politics music, poetry and performance art at floating embassy events held in New York City, including El Museo del Barrio and the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. A highlight was Mr. Pietri, always dressed in black, leading the crowd in singing “The Spanglish National Anthem,” a satirical and serious song which chronicles the hard-knock life of stateside Puerto Ricans. The anthem was written by Mr. Pietri to the tune of “En Mi Viejo San Juan.”
Mr. Maldonado created realistic-looking passports — the official documents that define an individual’s nationality and identity.
Though it was created as a statement on Puerto Rico, and New York Puerto Rican identity, the “Embassy” was not limited to people of Puerto Rican descent. Anyone could participate. Anyone could become a Nuyorican through a “baptism” performed by Mr. Pietri who represented his own sect La Iglesia de la Madre de Los Tomates (the Church of the Mother of Tomatoes).
Which brings us full circle, to the end of our tale.
If Puerto Ricans are a mix of indigenous Taino, European and African influences, and Nuyoricans combine that with New York’s polyglot ethnic stew, perhaps we are all becoming more interrelated — and maybe “Puerto Rican” is a good metaphor for that.
“Eventually, everyone will be a hybrid of something,” Mr. Maldonado said. “Whether it’s Asian or Latino, we’re all going to look alike.”
Two years ago, Mr. Maldonado moved back to Puerto Rico, where he began his exploration of identity. He lives on his uncle’s watermelon farm near where he grew up. The mosquitoes drive him crazy, and his family doesn’t believe in air-conditioning.
But he is happy to be near one of his artistic sources.
“Country folks like to tell tall tales,” he said. “We have part a bit of that influence in my family. Tall tales with mystical elements. They are in like a stream of consciousness.”
All the same, he is moving into an apartment in San Juan next week.
He is still working: he just finished writing a novel titled “Mambo Madness,” and he is still shifting identities. “I shift identities at will,” he said. “But I feel comfortable doing that. I’m a product of many different cultural identities. You know?
“Eventually everyone’s going to be Puerto Rican.”
For the original report go to http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/08/28/an-artists-search-fo-puerto-rican-identity/