Introductory text by Peggy Levitt and Jessica Hejtmanek
Excerpts from an interview with Miguel Luciano
A sea change has transformed migration scholarship in the last two decades. Most scholars now recognize that many migrants maintain ties to their home countries at the same time that they become incorporated into the places where they settle. They continue to invest, support political candidates, and raise families in their homelands while they buy homes and join the PTA in the United States. By belonging to several communities at once, migrants redefine the boundaries of belonging and create new kinds of memberships and citizenships, dramatically transforming the contours social experience.
One place these processes not only unfold but are also represented is in the creative arts. To explore how the relationship between art and society changes when social life no longer stays within national boundaries, the Transnational Studies Initiative (TSI) at Harvard organized a series of public events in the Boston area in spring of 2007. Three artists—Giles Li, a Chinese-American spoken word artist, Samina Ali, an Indian Muslim writer, and Miguel Luciano, a Puerto Rican visual artist—were invited to present and speak about their work and how it explores an intersection between art, identity and homeland. Interviews with the artists, as well as the public conversations were filmed and made into a documentary film, Art Beyond Borders, which speaks not only to the relationship between art and identity but about the role of art and culture in bringing about social change.
Pelea de Gallos, 2002. Image by Miguel Luciano. I’m a visual artist who was born in Puerto rico and grew up primarily in the states, from seattle to Miami to ny i’ve lived in a lot of different cit- ies and i’ve also spent a lot of time in Puerto rico during all those years—mostly going to visit family over the years, but later i would spend more time there making my work which has been a reward- ing experience for me. My work as an artist deals with a lot of those issues in the back and forth, about looking at Puerto rican history, culture and politics and the experience of being connected to both the island and the united states. My work has expanded from personal questions of identity construction to broader questions about colonialism and its relationship to globalization and consumerism.
“Cracker Juan is a work that describes a lot of things i am interested in—it’s a poster image that i made by appropriat- ing a Cracker jack label—so it directly references advertis- ing and the dominance of popular consumer imagery. this was made in 1998, which was the centennial mark of us colonialism in Puerto rico (1898–1998), an event both cel- ebrated and denounced throughout the island. this seemed an appropriate image because the Cracker jack character is a sailor, and the history of militarization in Puerto rico, along with the complicated role of Puerto ricans in the u.s. military, highlights our strained relationship with the united states and the inequities we experience as citizens.”
“i am interested in deconstructing a colonial consciousness that we have been living with for a long time—while creat- ing spaces of resistance that empower us to embrace our contradictions, and move through them towards our own self- determined path.”
“I like to evoke humor, though i sometimes use imagery from our childhood to engage both play- ful and painful issues. the painting Barceloneta Bunnies references a former pineapple town in Puerto rico that today hosts the largest pharma- ceutical complex in the world. barceloneta was also a prominent site of u.s.-sponsored sterilization programs, an official policy on the island from the 1930’s–1970’s. with ironic associations to both sterility and virility, barceloneta’s Pfizer plant is the world’s leading producer of viagra today.”
“In Puerto rico, i presented la Mano Poderosa Race Track, an interactive sculptural installa- tion that combines Puerto rican folkloric iconography with consumer fantasy in a competi- tive hotwheels racing competi- tion. hotwheels racing was a recent consumer phenomenon in Puerto rico that became a widespread social pastime. la Mano Poderosa (the All Power- ful hand of god) is a tradi- tional image from the history of Puerto rican saint carving. here, the hand is ten feet tall, and the saints upon its finger- tips have transformed into new Consumer Santos. Participants compete for mixed blessings in a race from the stigmata starting gate to the sacred heart finish line, where final- ists receive coveted golden Plátano-mobile trophies.”
“There was an attempt to build the largest statue of Christopher Columbus in the western hemisphere in Puerto rico. the statue, designed by russian artist zurab tsereteli, was rejected by several u.s. cities before arriv- ing in Cataño, Puerto rico… however, finances collapsed, the Mayor of Cataño resigned for psychological reasons and the controversial project was never erected. today, Columbus lies fragmented in thousands of pieces of bronze, deteriorating in an outdoor lot next to the bacardi factory… perhaps the only justice in the story. the “head” was the one recognizable fragment of the statue, and to parody this failed monument i installed an inflatable replica in la Plaza Colón in old san juan on May 20th, 2006—the 500-year anniver- sary of the death of Christopher Columbus.”
“In the Pure Plantainum series, actual plantains were plated in platinum. with a thin layer of platinum on the surface, the actual fruit decomposes within. Plantains are a sterotypical yet iconic symbol of Puerto rican and Caribbean culture with vernacular associations to race, class, labor and migration. here they’re presented like emblematic jewels that transform cultural stigmas into urban expressions of pride.”