Artist profile: Miguel Luciano
Passion, commitment, persistence
Keeps you warm, but also uncomfortable, too much heat
A lifelong search about identity, culture, and freedom, Miguel’s work embodies
these themes and stays true to them as the intensity and range of emotions embedded
in his art warms you at first, but as you continue to look deeper into the pieces
the warmth turns into unbearable heat, as the understanding begins to spread
across your body, enveloping you, wrapping around your heart, slowly choking
you with the burn of oppression.
What is your work about?
My work is rooted in history, deconstructing colonialism and looking
at the relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States.
A lot of it began with my own investigations into my own history
and heritage in terms of being from both cultures, and later it
expanded from personal questions of identity construction to broader
issues of colonialism, and cultural imperialism.
Where do you get your ideas for the work that you
A lot of my work plays with historical references, so I’m
big on history. I like to do a lot of reading and research, looking
at the parallels between yesterday and today, and analyzing how
much and how little we’ve progressed, how much things have
changed, and how much they’re still the same.
The Island of Puerto Rico - Clarity of thought, of purpose
What screams at you when speaking with Miguel is how focused and
committed he is to the mission of his work, and of his life. His
adoration for his birthplace is crystal clear, and remains the
bedrock of his inspiration. Thus, when looking into his eyes, and
into the depth of his work, a profound sense of love and pain seep
through, evoking an emotional battle from within.
One project that has really inspired Miguel is La Mano Poderosa
Racetrack, an interactive sculpture installation project. "It’s
a combination of Puerto Rican folkloric culture and consumer fantasy.
It’s built around a ten-foot tall version of the all-powerful
hand, which is a religious icon representing the hand of Christ,
whose fingertips are traditionally adorned by the biblical family.
But in this project they’re all replaced with new consumer
santos. These new Deities speak to consumerism operating in religious
proportion. Out of this stigmata-starting gate comes this twenty
foot long Hot Wheels race track where you can race your own cars
down a track of blinking lights to the Sacred Heart finish line."
Between 1999 and 2000, Hot Wheels racing in Puerto Rico was a
huge thing, bigger than it had ever been in the United States.
People were racing cars competitively in public and there was a
lot of money invested in the consumption of Hot Wheels. The prizes
ranged from trophies, to electronics, to you name it. Puerto Rico
broke all the sale records, they’ve never sold so many Hot
Wheels in one place, ever... "
"The racetrack project is sort of a parody on machismo culture
and consumerism. A lot of my work speaks to consumerism as a colonial
structure of dependency in Puerto Rico, as a colonial practice,
or manifestation. Although the vast majority of Puerto Rico lives
below the poverty level, we are avid consumers. We consume more
per capita than any state in the U.S. With so many people living
below the poverty level, you wonder how we can buy so much, what’s
the need to buy so much, you know. I think that the ambiguity of
our colonial status, living in a captive economy, and a lot of
other factors that contribute to this compulsion to consume. I’m
interested in understanding how colonial subordination is aided
by globalization. We’ve transformed from a production-based
society to one that is grounded in consumption. We all buy things
to replace other needs in a way, and the sense that material goods
signify progress, prosperity, it can be a really superficial existence.
I try to bring this out in the work, critiquing the way consumer
culture operates and questioning the ways we negotiate our own
participation in it. These are global issues."
Grounded in spiritual self, grounded working with young people
Connection to self, remaining grounded in this life is what keeps
truth emanating from Miguel’s art. His feet are firmly placed,
rooted in his love for Puerto Rico and in the hope for change. "At
the core of all the work is a desire to connect with other people
on a heart level and create a better understanding of who we are
to one another, and its really about impacting change, like changing
consciousness. It’s a spiritual desire to create, its really
about love, sometimes finding it through pain, but to reconnect
with love; loving ourselves first."
How does working with young people fit in to your
It’s a big part of what I do, having a connection with young
people reminds me why I make the work, why I’m an artist.
When I was a young person I had a lot of these questions on my
mind, I had my own search that I struggled with. So I’m really
compelled as adult to reach back to young people who may be asking
the same kind of cultural questions about who they are in this
world they’ve inherited. Part of that was moving to New York--I
live and work in a Latino neighborhood, and have a direct relationship
with the young people that I work with. It keeps me grounded, and
it keeps me mindful, a big motivation for me is that we contribute
to change so that this next generation can be asking different
Can you tell me about any of the work you’ve
done with young people?
Recently, I designed a series of vending machines entitled Cuando
las Gallinas Mean (When Hens Pee). The project refers to the expression "Children
can speak when hens pee," which is an old Puerto Rican colloquialism
often used by adults to silence children speaking out of turn.
It’s like an early form of learned censorship or repression…so
in these vending machines, when a quarter is inserted, a plastic
hen "pees", and opens up this possibility to express
ourselves. The hen cackles, pees, and lays an egg with a unique
prize inside, one designed by community residents that speak out
about personal, communal and global concerns. I did workshops for
months with different groups of young people in the community asking
them what they feel they haven’t been aloud to express. We
then translated the responses into vending machine objects, becoming
the prizes in these machines. The vending machines were placed
in a supermarket, community center, and at the Newark Museum where
the project was sponsored. The peeing chicken was a novelty, but
I liked that the prizes evoked intimate dialogues in an unsuspecting
Matters of the heart
Self renewal and keeping the important things in life close to
you support the work by maintaining a balance, and keeping the
soul strong for longevity in the struggle. Miguel is clear on what’s
important in his life, and what makes him happy. "Little things
make me happy. When I have time to sleep, my niece, my family,
when someone smiles at me for no reason, those moments really shine
when your in New York City, you know. It makes me happy working
with students and thinking you can be a positive influence. I’m
happy when I’m in Puerto Rico. "
What are your rituals as an artist?
I spend a lot of time meditating on the work, like with these
paintings that are based on older images. I often paint the reference
material as it originally existed and I feel like I can build a
relationship with the image in this way. In the process of rebuilding
it, I can step back from it and then decide how to change or alter
what it wants to say to me. That’s a ritual process for me,
its one way of getting closer to an image. At the foundation of
my paintings are historical references that are appropriated and
then recreated with new layers built upon them. Each layer changes
the meaning of the one underneath it, and eventually they are multi-layered
with multiple narratives. They don’t always have one beginning
and one end, and sometimes its hard to distinguish what’s
been borrowed from the past and what’s from the present.
I like that interplay, that potentially the viewer may ask themselves
the same questions, and then again relate to how much things changed
and how much they remain the same. A lot of the paintings relate
to consumerism and our dependency as consumers on American markets.
Resistance is like the air we breath, without it we will suffocate
What role does white supremacy have in the issues
you address in your art?
At the core of deconstructing a colonial mentality you have to
address the issues of white supremacy in our own consciousness
of how we think of ourselves. You have to look at how that has
impacted our identity. A core issue that runs through the work
is how to flip this hierarchy around to challenge the preference
to view ourselves as a Spanish Colonial culture versus an Afro-Antillian
Caribbean culture. We are a mix of both of these and Taino as well.
A lot of times I’ve worked with imagery that’s Catholic
in origin. Upon altering them, I’m not interested in being
sacrilegious or blasphemous or in challenging the sacredness of
these icons. What I am sometimes doing is challenging the way these
icons were introduced to the island, and how the white and European
physical characteristics of those saints reinforced a system of
supremacy that preferred "whiteness" as the image of
the purest good. It’s heavy. I have a hard time describing
this stuff to my grandparents who are really Catholic."
Miguel’s work has been shown in galleries and museums from
Brooklyn to Puerto Rico, and his work with young people has inspired
such things as human sized kites of freedom flown in Vieques, to
political slogans and anti-war pins and stickers coming from the
eggs of peeing chickens. His current installation is featured in
the Caribbean Abroad exhibition at the Newark Museum where he has
re-created a series of vending machines and kiddie rides.
I’m creating Puerto Rican experiences in these American
amusement machines and rebuilding them—it’s a political
process, to recodify something that already exists and create it
in our own language, resymbolizing it, owning it and Puerto Rican-izing
it. That’s a way of being empowered. It’s about reclaiming
power in a colonial process that’s really essential to my
work, to reinvent or rebuild a lot of these images and objects
and to make it say something different, something that I want it
Miguel Luciano: Inhale visual revolution and inspire the warrior
To see and hear more about Miguel’s work, go to www.prdream.com.