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Issue 216

El Museo del Barrio Documents its Roots and Celebrates Latinx Art

The Spanish Harlem museum presents a survey of the influential artist collective Taller Boricua

BY Erica N. Cardwell in Reviews , US Reviews | 24 NOV 20

One of the many memorable prints in El Museo del Barrio’s recent exhibition, ‘Taller Boricua: A Political Print Shop’, centres on an Afro-Latinx woman. With her rounded lips, wide hips and short, textured hair, she stands surrounded by disparate elements of an urban diaspora: a construction worker wearing a hard hat; high-rise buildings puffing steady streams of smoke; a village of small huts scattered below. Over her shoulder is a jester figure, presumably an Elegua deity of the Santería or Yoruba traditions, signifying duality and a crossroads. From between her legs, a Taino mask emerges. The print – an untitled 1971 serigraph by Yoyo Rodriguez – is an exemplar of the unwavering, yet often overlooked, tradition of social action within the Afro-Latinx community. 

Yoyo Rodriguez, Untitled, 1971, serigraph
Yoyo Rodriguez, Untitled, 1971, serigraph, 75.3 × 49.9 cm. Courtesy: Taller Boricua and El Museo del Barrio, New York

Founded in 1969, El Museo del Barrio continues to uphold a legacy in which art, culture and community are inextricably linked. Intimately bound up with the museum’s history is Taller Boricua – a dynamic collective and print workshop spearheaded by a group of Puerto Rican artists, whose primary focus was to use African and Taino influences to destabilize Eurocentric art and institutional frameworks. Also formed in 1969, the workshop became a known advocate for the equitable representation of Latinx artists in major museums and galleries. 

Taller Boricua was founded by several artists, including Marcos Dimas, Carlos Osorio (1927–84), Jorge Soto Sánchez (1947–87), Rafael Tufiño (1922–2008) and his daughter, Nitza Tufiño. In the late 1960s, following military service in the Vietnam War (1955–75), many Black and Puerto Rican New York-based artists returned home and joined political art organizations such as the Real Great Society and the Puerto Rican Art Workers Collective. The formation of these Puerto Rican cultural organizations coincided with the surging energy of the civil rights movement of the late 1960s, when Black and Latinx communities, not unlike today, were demanding social justice.

Marcos Dimas, Lolita Lebrón: Puerto Rican Freedom Fighter, ca.1971
Marcos Dimas, Lolita Lebrón: Puerto Rican Freedom Fighter, ca.1974, serigraph, 71.1. × 57.1 cm. Courtesy: the artist and El Museo del Barrio, New York

In 1970, founding member Dimas graduated from New York’s School of Visual Arts under the GI Bill. During this time, his work was featured in the seminal 1969 Brooklyn Museum exhibition ‘Contemporary Puerto Rican Artists’ alongside Martin Rubio and Adrian Garcia. In the wake of the assassinations of civil rights activists Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., a contemporary art exhibition that revolved around cultural identity was an unabashed political statement for the then-apolitical space of the art institution. Inspired by the impact of the show, Dimas joined with Rubio and Garcia to start Taller Boricua. 

When I spoke to Rodrigo Moura, chief curator of El Museo, he emphasized that Taller Boricua was intent on moving away from the ‘autonomy of the art object’ and committed to ‘art in service of the people’. Moura organized more than 200 serigraphs, lithographs, linocuts, paintings, assemblages, collages, drawings and other archive material into four guiding themes for the exhibition: ‘The Workshop and the Museum’, ‘Designing the Print Shop’, ‘Political Education’ and ‘Nuyorican Vanguard’. 

Jorge Soto Sánchez, Taller Boricua, 1974
Jorge Soto Sánchez, Taller Boricua, 1974, serigraph, 61 × 45.7 cm. Courtesy: Taller Boricua and El Museo del Barrio, New York

The first section introduces Taller Boricua as the ‘twin sibling’ to El Museo del Barrio, largely because several of the artists who were active in the collective were founding board members of the nascent museum. Many of the prints in this section are titled after the workshop – interchangeably Taller Boricua or Taller Galleria Boricua – emphasizing the collective and promoting their trademark, black-painted linocuts of Taino faces, easels on city streets or bolder, more surrealist imagery like Armando Soto’s green and orange print, Taller Boricua (1971), depicting a figure, chest open on its haunches, pushing against the edges of the composition.

Fernando Salicrup, Taller Boricua, serigraph, 1977
Fernando Salicrup, Taller Boricua, 1977, serigraph, 75.6 × 55.9 cm. Courtesy: Taller Boricua and El Museo del Barrio, New York

The succeeding galleries, ‘Designing the Print Shop’ and ‘Political Education’, present the first decade of Taller Boricua’s output by way of a vibrant display of the collective’s extensive poster archives, some of which advertise the space in name and location, while others present activist portraits or colourful stand-alone drawings. As Taller Boricua gained momentum, Osorio and Tufiño, members of the Puerto Rican Division of Community Education, also joined. During our conversation, Moura cites Tufiño’s background as a Mexican muralist to have been a significant factor in Taller Boricua’s ties to political education, by favouring the Spanish language in many of their prints and ensuring that the information shared was relevant to their community. Posters expressing solidarity with communist China, Che Guevara and Puerto Rican political prisoners such as Lolita Lebrón hang opposite a wall dedicated to a local man, Martin ‘Tito’ Perez, who was arrested in 1974 for playing conga drums on the New York subway and found murdered in prison the next day. 

Having successfully lobbied the state council to institute ‘Pay What You Wish’ day at museums and to provide funding for community art centres, Taller Boricua acquired non-profit status and expanded its network to incorporate artists from Spanish Harlem, the Lower East Side and other artist-run collectives such as the Nuyorican Poets Cafe and ABC No Rio. This expansion was alluded to in Dimas’s Este tren para in Delancey? (Does this Train Stop in Delancey, 1973) – a red and blue flyer featuring two figures, with comedy/tragedy mask-like faces, as straphangers commuting between neighbourhoods. When Tufiño’s daughter, Nitza, eventually joined the collective, she carried on her father’s legacy of representing the diaspora in public murals and theatre performances throughout the city.

Jorge Soto Sánchez, Self Portrait, ca. 1974
Jorge Soto Sánchez, Self Portrait, ca.1974, mixed media, 126.4 × 83.8 × 13 cm. Courtesy: El Museo del Barrio, New York

Alongside their persistent advocacy and artmaking, the members of Taller Boricua continued to demonstrate against their exclusion from mainstream art institutions. In 1969, the collective aligned with Black Emergency Cultural Coalition to protest the Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition ‘Harlem on my Mind: Cultural Capital of Black America (1900–68)’ for not including any Black or Puerto Rican artists. After lengthy efforts, the Met was persuaded to collaborate with El Museo on another exhibition – ‘The Art Heritage of Puerto Rico: Pre-Columbian to Present’ (1974) – but omitted members of Taller Boricua. Rightfully, the collective denounced the show. As Dimas told me over the phone: ‘We protested because we felt excluded from a history that [we] were telling.’ Eventually, given the two organizations’ mutual history and respect, the rift was healed.

Nitza Tufiño, Pareja taina, Taino Couple, 1972, acrylic, charcoal, polyurethane, on Masonite
Nitza Tufiño, Pareja taino (Taino Couple), 1972, acrylic, charcoal, polyurethane on Masonite, 123.8 × 122.5 cm. Courtesy: El Museo del Barrio, New York

Political engagement notwithstanding, many of the artists involved with Taller Boricua also favoured avant-garde aesthetics, symbolized by abstract works such as Fernando Salicrup’s Amor en ti (Love in You, 1979), an orange and clay-colored print depicting a body suffused with an amoeba-like creature. ‘Nuyorican Vanguard’, the exhibition’s fourth section, introduces viewers to the collective’s experimental output, particularly by Manuel Otero, Jorge Soto Sánchez and Nitza Tufiño. In many of her works, Tufiño adopts an inventive approach that draws on a variety of media – acrylic, polyurethane, thread, silkscreen, charcoal – to evoke an aesthetic akin to Betye Saar’s Black Girl’s Window (1969). Pareja taina (Taino Couple, 1972), for instance, depicts two Taino figures with their arms around each other, rendered in broad brushstrokes in muted pink and yellow hues, their animalesque heads on human torsos lending them an air of ancestral futurity, while soft, mostly red thread underscores the Taino features in her silkscreen series ‘Máscara de hilo’ (String Mask, 1979). Using ephemera collected from junkyards, Sánchez produces profound, anarchic works charged with an air of disenfranchisement. Self Portrait (ca.1974), for example, is a hefty artwork given further weight by its ruddy-brown tones, although the wooden elements that jut out from the frame also suggest the sense of existential displacement. 

Showcasing a network of artists and activists for whom community accessibility, education and representation were steadfast priorities, ‘Taller Boricua: A Puerto Rican Print Shop’ serves as a timely reminder of the power of identity within the Afro-Latinx community – and the strength of its activist roots.  

‘Taller Boricua: A Political Print Shop’ runs at El Museo del Barrio, New York, until 17 January 2021. 

Main image: Adrián Garcia, Exposición Taller Boricua, date unknown, linoleum cut, 46.7 × 61 cm. Courtesy: Taller Boricua and El Museo del Barrio, New York

Erica N. Cardwell is a writer, critic, and educator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in BOMB Magazine, The Believer, Hyperallergic, Brooklyn Rail and elsewhere. She teaches writing and social justice at The New School.