Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Plátano Chains & Radical Gym Shoes

Plátano Chains & Radical Gym Shoes: An Interview with Artist Miguel Luciano

by Xavier "Xavi" Luis Burgos

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.
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.
Originally published in April 2011 editions of La Voz del Paseo Boricua and Gozamos

Monday, April 11, 2011

Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Don't Challenge Anything

In the national pantheon of lesbian and gay history, President Obama will have a special place for his accomplished effort to repeal the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) regulation in the United States military. DADT, a controversial measure since its inception seventeen years ago, officially allowed lesbian, bisexual, and gay people to join the ranks of this country’s most revered institution, only if they did not reveal their sexuality. On December 22, 2010, President Obama, after a majority vote in Congress four days earlier, finally signed into law the revocation of this discriminatory measure in the presence of a large, supportive crowd in the Interior Department auditorium. Many in the media and friends and associates of mine understandably applauded this act for its human rights contribution and the potential momentum it could offer to a national LGBTQ movement. However, another message was also sent that day–one in which for some is an oversight, while for others is the crux of a malicious agenda: if LGBTQ people want any sort of recognition or civil rights, it is done by including ourselves into this society, not by challenging it. The end result will not be true societal transformation or liberation for LGBTQ people, but the promotion of politics of assimilation that do not represent or address the interests of much of the “community.”

It does not take a fool to recognize that DADT was discriminatory and unconstitutional, as ruled by California Judge Virginia A. Phillips on October 12, 2010 in response to a lawsuit by the Log Cabin Republicans. The origins of the regulation are from the Clinton administration’s quest for complete inclusion of lesbian, bisexual, and gay people in the military. Prior to DADT, recruiting officers were obliged to question and screen potential candidates for “homosexual tendencies.” This was done in order to “protect the morale, mission, and accomplishments” of this prestigious fighting force from such a “severe personality defect,” as stated in official documents. Of course, top military leaders and the public refused to accept drastic changes, so a deal was struck. Gay, bisexual, and lesbian people could serve silently without questions but be discharged if she or he “came out.” In an announcement of the new policy on July 19, 1993, former President Bill Clinton argued that it was “the right thing to do and the best way to do it.” Ever since then, there has been a trend in the national LGBTQ movement to push the policy further, for complete and utter integration and acceptance of lesbian, bisexual and gay people in the military.

However, it would be too easy just to say that the military is discriminatory and should be more open and not inquire if we should be validating such an institution in the first place. There lies a problem. The voices that advocate for LGBTQ social justice but not in a way that accepts current institutions for all their violence and inherent exclusionary power, are left out of the dominant discourse. It is our responsibility to ask the question: when and how does an issue become an “LGBTQ issue”? In other words, who has the power to mark an issue as representing a particular group identity? Who has the resources to make something important at the national level? How inclusive is a civil rights campaign? More importantly, which issues are deemed more important and for what reasons and what compromises are made and at whose expense? It is no coincidence that a conservative organization, whose Board of Directors are made up of all homosexual white men – the Log Cabin Republicans – were the ones who filed the successful lawsuit presided by Judge Phillips. Organizations such as this, whose core values include a “free market, limited government, and a strong national defense” do not have the interests of all LGBTQ people, especially those of queer people of color, in mind.

In an act of political protagonism, the Obama administration requested in an appeals court a judicial halt of Judge Phillip’s order to the Pentagon, which was already preparing to stop following DADT after the ruling. The Supreme Court also upheld the request by the presidential administration. This was all done so that President Obama could take full credit in destroying the policy, since he has come up short on other campaign promises. This is where things get interesting. The repeal was passed as a stand-alone bill because it was taken out of a large Pentagon policy bill that Republicans were filibustering. Republicans, as the alleged guardians of a moral conservatism that seeks to uphold the institution of family, voted in large numbers for the repeal, but only after it was taken out of the original package. The reason? The bill included Democrat-sponsored last-minute provisions, most notably one that would have created a path to citizenship for undocumented peoples who came to the U.S. as children. Without coincidence, the DREAM Act had been defeated again around the same time of the DADT debates. The successful lawsuit by members of a conservative elite and the belligerent refusal to pass any sort of comprehensive immigration reform speak to what is the national LGBTQ movement. It is about polishing or should I say, “whitening” the image of LGBTQ people into a non-threatening package. In other words, dirty, brown immigrants are threatening this country’s institutions, while the clean, white gay man or lesbian down the street are playing by the rules even if they are a “little different.”

Luis Aponte-Parés and Jorge B. Merced in “Página Omitídas: The Gay and Lesbian Presence,” pinpoint the socio-historical origins of a movement that initially sought radical social transformation and an agenda of cross-cultural and political connections to one that “excluded or subordinated other types of oppressions.” In their study of the Puerto Rican and Latina/o presence in the emergence of an LGBTQ movement in the 1960s and 1970s, they saw that those with power, capital, and access created an agenda that served their interests, which were for white, middle-class gay men, and at times, women. This exclusive vision is evident even in the DADT spectacle, where the presence of transgender voices were absent. But those deviants don’t matter, right?

We should have a much more open society, without a doubt. However, nowhere in the call to remove DADT was there a call to the end of the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq. The discourse has been: include us in society and not reshape it to meet the needs of everyone. In very few prominent places is there a call to reshape an institution in which people learn to kill and conquer foreign lands. Imagine a world in which the resources used to dismantle DADT were put in–with LGBTQ people at the forefront–to change U.S. foreign policy and the devastating mission of the military all together. The immediate and long-term results of dismantling DADT will be the swelling of the ranks of a massive military industrial complex, making it a more effective fighting force of death and destruction. When there are those who say all this was a success for the movement, one must ask, for whom? For transgender people who still cannot serve? For people of color, who enlist in higher numbers, who not only suffer homophobia and transphobia, but housing discrimination, income inequality, and everyday racism? For us, the military becomes an only escape out of poverty and lack of opportunities. For the millions of people around the world who become causalities of war? Now that DADT is repealed, a new kind of policy has emerged, one which says don’t ask questions, don’t tell any truths, and don’t challenge anything too much. As LGBTQ people, that is not the kind of movement we should be applauding or building.

Originally published in the January edition of La Voz del Paseo Boricua and Gozamos.com