Challenging Forms: Notes and reactions on the juxtaposition between Sean Paul Gallegos’ “Etnoretrato” and Ignacio González-Lang’s “Adivina Quién?” and their connections to colonial Latin America

16 Oct

By: Pilar E. Guerra 

New York City is besieged by imposing museums. Practically every New Yorker has had lunch at the Metropolitan steps and every young elementary student has shown awe at the American Museum of Natural History’s vivid glass displays, not to mention the swarms of visitors that invade the MOMA and the Guggenheim each Friday afternoon. Yet in a quiet block amidst the East Harlem neighborhood stands a hidden gem of Latin American and Caribbean art, El Museo del Barrio. Although comparatively small, this space, from its colorful décor to its lively background music, has become the champion of Latin American identity. A particular aspect of the museum is its biennial exhibition, which tends to feature relatively new and mid-career artists who are based in New York City. This year, the collection is called “Here is Where We Jump!” and it showcases different art forms, including, paintings, videos, installations, and drawings. This particular exhibit was oriented to demonstrate the conditions under which artists produce and display their art [1]. While the Bienal2013 exhibition features the works of many distinct artists, I was drawn to two particular works: Sean Paul Gallegos’ “Etnoretrato” and Ignacio González-Lang’s “Adivina Quién?”

Sean Paul Gallegos is an artist of Native American descent who is formally trained in the construction of costumes. He focuses on studying ancient cultures in order to recreate, using modern goods, some of their sacrosanct objects [2]. In his “Etnoretrato,” Gallegos takes his usual methodology a little further by featuring himself in the work. Because of his ancestry, it is no surprise that he features himself wearing a sacred object of Native American origin. The particular piece is a digital black and white print and he poses with a very traditional Native American headdress that he designed himself. Initially, when I observed this print, I remember feeling ambivalent about its meaning and what made it “different.” I did not find it particularly creative on Gallegos’ part because I had seen many of these portraits before, particularly in my American History textbooks. It felt as he was transporting me, along with him, to the past, yet other than this I felt not much was interesting about it. Yet when I stepped back, I realized that the colorful piece next to the print was the actual headpiece worn by Gallegos. And once I saw it I realized the nuanced meaning of the print. The feathered headdress, instead of being made of actual feathers, is recreated using discarded Jordan sneakers and Van Heusen collared shirts. I was absolutely amazed at how this artist is able to destabilize the divisions between his past heritage by using his present modern influences. I also learned the importance of “taking a step back” when looking at things, for it may provide you with completely different interpretations!

Consider, for instance, the deliberate use of Jordan sneakers. Michael Jordan represents the successful African American population in the United States. Jordan is not Native American, yet Gallegos feels identified to him. I wonder whether this association is meant to, in some way, challenge the stereotypes that continue to limit both the Native and African American populations today; Gallegos as the representative of one culture, and Jordan as the agent of another. I say that Gallegos may be using Jordan’s fame to equate himself as an artistic groundbreaker of new generations of natives. If this is the interpretation, then this need to assert both cultures may be a response rooted as far back as pre-Columbian times of enslavement and encomienda practices. Can the “fame/recognition” achieved by these two men be seen as a need, ingrained from past roles of subservience, to break this lower status?  

But there exists another interpretation, one that I am more inclined to support based on the color scheme of the headdress itself. I was extremely shocked to notice that it was red, white, and blue, the colors of the American flag and American nationalism. Does this not, then, seem to suggest some degree of assimilation—by both cultures—into modern American society? The fact that Gallegos can make something so traditionally Native American using modern products suggests to me that not only has he found a bridge between his two identities, but that the modern American culture has allowed him to reconcile his past to his present. The fact that the print itself is black and white, however, can perhaps show how the world (and myself, initially) see his features as solely native and disregard his more hidden, yet still present, connection to the modern American culture. Somehow, this transports me back to the idea of convivencia in the Moros y Cristianos instances, where the goal of the juxtaposition of the two groups was not to show a clash of irreconcilable cultures, but rather to witness their incorporation. The parallel also illustrated how both the Christians and Gallegos himself were successful in using different art mediums to merge identities together (art is powerful!).

Additionally, after realizing the strategic use of Jordan red and blue sneakers, I decided to research the use of the other brand, Van Heusen, which I was not familiar with. I was delighted to learn that Moses Phillips, the original seller of these shirts, used to sell these back in 1881 to Pennsylvania coal miners from “a wooden handcart.” His wife and daughters would sew the shirts at home and gave them to Phillips and his son to sell [3]. To me this sounded very similar to the reading on “Women and Work” and “Women, Marriage, and Family” by Socolow. Much like the women in colonial Latin America, the women of the Phillips family worked in domestic spheres, places which generally defined femininity itself. Also like their Latin American counterparts, these women dedicated themselves to sewing. I wonder if it is a coincidence that the Van Heusen business began in a mining town, since Gallegos probably knew the presence of early Native American laborers in mine communities as well. While the Phillips family was not Native American, perhaps Gallegos’ point is again to highlight connections between the two cultures.

Finally, I cannot help but see the commentary that is to be made about the fact that this religious object has been made out of materials that many people consume today. Through this combination of past and present, of the religious and the trivial, Gallegos seems to also on some level imply how the worship of consumerism has become almost a religion. In this case, I am not sure whether to interpret such consumerism as a process that has aided new generations of Native Americans in bridging their mixed identities, or if it has instead corrupted the authentic Native American heritage.

Equally as fascinating as “Etroretrato” was González-Lang’s “Adivina Quién?” González-Lang is a Puerto Rican artist who usually tries to merge two cultures into his artwork in order to show how one has assimilated the other, a process he calls the “melting pot.” In particular, he focuses on how the United States has, or has not, accepted cultures from South America [4]. This piece is a collection of “news clippings of police sketches that have appeared in New York City media over the last three years.” These clippings are based on pencil sketches drawn by an artist who interprets an eyewitness’ testimony of a criminal’s face. Initially, what was most interesting to me about this piece was the extremely similar appearance of all of these subjects. When I looked at it as a whole, I found myself almost unable to distinguish one face from another. I also realized that while I had to step back to really “see” Gallegos’ work, for this one I had to get closer. Anyway, I realized that the similarity of the faces was due to the fact that they were all males of Latin American features. Once I dawned on this, I found myself surprisingly upset. Whether or not these men had committed felonies, I realized at how all of them were a symbol for the victimization of minority groups that has taken place across human history. I found myself drawing parallels between the men on the drawings and Native Americans during colonial times. Both groups were viewed and addressed by their “superior” onlookers (Spaniards in the former case, white Americans in the latter) as a collective, making no distinction between the individuals themselves. This happened during the colonization of the Americas when the European peoples viewed the natives they encountered as a collection of barbaric brutes. Likewise, I feel like the men in González-Lang’s piece are seen as savage perpetrators. The fact that these are drawings based on other people’s descriptions highlights how these images could have well been biased by the eyewitness’ stereotypes. This need to represent native and Latin American cultures as animalistic is extremely degrading, and it made me realize that the ramifications of the discovery of the West and the establishment of colonialism are still felt today and perhaps always will exist to some extent. Can we completely escape our past?

Another aspect of this work that captivated me was the fact that it stood directly in front of Gallegos’ ethnoportrait. For me, these two works were almost perfect juxtapositions of each other. For instance, I noticed that many of the men in the sketches were wearing Nike and New York Yankee caps. I found it fascinating to witness how Gallegos was able to use a Nike shoe and a sports legend to build his identity as a Native American while the men assembled by González-Lang wore the same brand and also a sports motif to hide their Latin American features to escape prosecution. I could not help but compare this disparity to the figures of Sor Juana Inéz de la Cruz and Santa Ursula de Jesús. To me Sor Juana is similar to the sketched men because she too had to hide her identity—her thirst for learning and her critiques of religion—behind convent walls, much like these men are expected to “correct” who they are behind prison walls. For Sor Juana and the men alike, their identity enslaves them, at least physically. Ursula reminds me of Gallegos because, like him, she was able to find a middle ground between her inherited slave status and her role as religious leader. While finding a bridge between both identities must not have been an easy feat for either, both of these individuals provide hope.

Finally, I sincerely found myself in awe when I considered the artistic medium used by Gallegos for his own portrait, and by the artist who drew the men in “Adivina Quién?” Gallegos purposely uses print, a mode that, much like modern photography, aims at capturing a specific image to assure its permanence. I found this attempt at durability somewhat ironic, given the obvious transformations in Gallegos identity that the image is expressing. Yet I can also see how, in a way, he is telling the world that his “Native American-ness” will always be a part of him, no matter what is built upon it. Moreover, challenging this eternalness are the pencil-drawn men on the other side of the gallery, for drawings in pencil are usually meant to be, or at least likely to be, erased. The power of this tension is extremely palpable, for it suggests that the only way to survive in the world is through self-embracement. If you do not accept your identity, is seems to say, you will wither away figuratively in the sense that you will have no individuality to cling to. Additionally, one could claim that Gallegos’ image is warning the men to adapt to changing cultures, lest they be persecuted for their Latin American roots or fade into the background of changing practices. Does this not sound like the dilemma faced by Latin American natives during the period of colonization? Either adapt to Christianity, or die?

While I was very attracted to some of the other works as well, for each had its own charm and story, I decided to use these two particular pieces to show, or at least attempt to show, how one artwork can speak to another, and how two art pieces can be translated into a discourse between the two. Further, I was impressed by how much one can get out of a print and some sketches when one is forced to look at them from different angles. Finally, and I wish to conclude here, this experience allowed me to understand the nuances of identity, the challenges that arise when a culture must be assimilated into another, the fact that identity is in constant flux, and the degree to which people are marked by their heritage.

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