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Juan Sánchez, “¿What’s The Meaning of This?”

By N. David Pastor

It’s no secret that Juan Sánchez’s Puerto Rican roots have a deep impact on his work. In a new exhibition entitled “¿What’s The Meaning of This?” curator and Vice President, Contemporary Art at BRIC Elizabeth Ferrer has selected from the artist’s body of work to produce the incredible collection of painting, video, and collage on display at the BRIC House Gallery. The exhibition celebrates one of the central figures of Latino and Puerto Rican art in the United States, but most importantly, “¿What’s The Meaning of This?” represents the first solo exhibition of artist’s work in his native Brooklyn-the place where he was raised and continues to work up to the present-day. This past Thursday, November 6th, BRIC House Gallery held an opening reception where Juan Sánchez and Elizabeth Ferrer spoke briefly on the timing and significance of this exhibition (see photos below).

When one walks around the exhibition, self-evident is the commitment the artist has made toward Puerto Rican history, political figures, and cultural signifiers. However, this commitment also extends to a much broader context of struggle and oppression, and includes pieces such as Mariposas para las Hermanas Mirabal, a tribute to the Mirabal sisters killed during the Trujillo regime. The exhibition also includes some of the more personal works that appear in the gallery, specifically Poema para Mami: Missing You and a unique self-portrait using photos from his 4th birthday. Perhaps a perfect synthesis of this aesthetic is found in Unknown Boricua A Nuyorican State of Mind, a stream of consciousness video installation that chronicles the artist’s experience through images and music in rapid succession.

Click on the picture for additional images

In a recent conversation with Eve-Laure Moros Ortega held at the gallery, he purposefully referred to this as an attempt at brainwashing. The most notable aspect of the video, in terms of Puerto Rican identity, is how outside influences gradually leak into the video–reinforcing broader themes of oppression and social awareness. This is an example of solidarity in Juan Sánchez’s work. It is a product of a search for identity many of us face, but that becomes magnified for a young artist looking to define himself in order to define his place in the world of art. When discussing his Puerto Rican identity during this talk with Moros Ortega, Sánchez was careful to explain the intersectional relationship between his black, Puerto Rican, and Latino background as a fine artist. It’s a collage inside of a collage, an “artificial niche” as he calls it when others attempt to label or stereotype his work. On the one hand, this mestizaje allows for him to (re)claim a diverse cultural and ethnic background, but at the same time, it gives others an opportunity to stereotype his work and overemphasize the Puerto Rican symbols within it.

The solution to this ni de aquí, ni de allá–type narrative that persists within the diaspora? Firstly, who cares? There’s no need to be practical when it comes to questions of identity, but it does help take the question seriously. The actual answer in this case: emphasize the universal. It’s an idea that began with Juan Sánchez’s trajectory as an artist. As a student at Cooper Union, he couldn’t help but notice the Eurocentric approach to his classes as well as the lack of artists that shared his personal background. As a result, he was drawn to places like El Taller Boricua and El Museo del Barrio early in his career. But while helping to reinforce his identity, these experiences also led him to continue exploring his puertorriqueñidad as it became a reference point for broader themes in his work. So when looking around the room, you may notice symbols of colonialism and the Catholic Church and martyrs to a revolutionary cause–but you have to see them all as interconnected, all part of the same story, the same struggle. And what could be more evocative of the Puerto Rican experience in the United States? To adopt a new home (through language, culture, and so on) while trying to maintain a connection to one’s roots. The diaspora is often the catalyst for these unique questions of identity. With this latest exhibition, there is an opportunity to trace the path of someone who managed to go from a Bushwick Boricua drawing on the floor above his parents as they hosted parties to going one step further, and having a room filled with paintings and collages that reflect how far he has come as an artist and an individual.

The exhibition is on display through December 27th. It’s free and open to the public. For more information, visit BRIC’s website here.

© Center for Puerto Rican Studies. Published in Centro Voices on 12 November 2015.
Hero image: Mariposas, Mariposas y mas Mariposas; Juan Sánchez, 2014.