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Miguel Luciano: Anti-Commercial Art / Works Show Effect On Puerto Rican Culture

By Romy Varghese

January 15, 2003
Copyright © 2003
Newsday. All rights reserved. 

A day's drive along the Puerto Rican coast from San Juan to the southern city of Ponce offers dazzling tropical vistas, palm trees against a blue sky, mountains rising majestically.

When he was a child of 10, however, the beauty of the Puerto Rican landscape did not make an impression on Miguel Luciano, 30, who lives in the decidedly grittier Bushwick section of Brooklyn.

"I don't remember the scenic route, but I remember going to McDonald's," said Luciano, an artist whose brilliantly hued paintings, addressing the effect of American consumerism on Puerto Rican culture, hang through mid-February as part of an exhibit of several Latino artists' works at El Museo del Barrio in East Harlem.

A larger body of Luciano's paintings is also on exhibit in San Juan's Instituto de Cultura Puertorriquena.

Luciano typically thrusts everyday symbolism into a surprising context that forces viewers to consider their implications. For example, he may use corporate symbols, such as Kentucky Fried Chicken's Colonel Sanders or the Aunt Jemima-like figure that represents a popular brand of coffee in Puerto Rico . That icon, known as Mama Ines, harks back to the island's colonial past that, while racist, is often accepted without question and is thus perpetuated, Luciano said.

His work suggests the problematic nature of the Americanization of Puerto Rico . In his painting "La ultima copa," or "The Last Cup," Mama Ines becomes a Madonna-like figure, offering a cup of blood to a cartoonish white child - a scene also based on the coffee's ubiquitous ads.

Like its many possible interpretations, the painting itself is layered. In the background are folkloric representations of farm workers, a soda can logo and Uncle Sam and bald eagle images from 1898 political illustrations.

"These paintings at El Museo are designed to renounce the stereotypes, denounce the racism," said Luciano, a serious, modestly spoken man.

In one work, Luciano used produce labels from the American South, drawing parallels between how insulting stereotypes about blacks were appropriated to sell products to whites, and the use of such cartoonish commercial icons in Puerto Rico . The canvases were displayed in his very first exhibition in New York, at the Taller Boricua Gallery in East Harlem, a few years ago. Curator Marcos Dimas was impressed by the installation.

While artwork conveying political messages is far from new, Luciano's art is fresh and effective, Dimas said. "His work is direct," he said. "His work is not about esoteric interpretations, and that makes it unique. That makes it powerful."

Luciano started delving into his heritage as a teenager. He was born in Puerto Rico ; his father is Puerto Rican and his mother is an American of Polish and German ancestry. They divorced when he was 3, and Luciano went with his mother to Seattle and later to Miami, spending summers with his father in Puerto Rico .

Luciano went on to get this bachelor's degree in fine art at the New World School of the Arts in Miami and his master's in fine art at the University of Florida.

Luciano said that when he first started examining his Puerto Rican culture, he found it under siege from globalization, with American chain restaurants, among other franchises, sprouting up and offering their bland, homogeneous take on Puerto Rican cuisine.

"My culture was changing so fast, it was almost like a race to find it," said Luciano, who went on to make himself well versed in the island's history and trends.

Luciano's day job has him teaching at El Puente, a school in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, that emphasizes human rights and grassroots organizing to address social ills. He also coordinates a Saturday arts program for young people at the Cooper Union in Greenwich Village.

Frances Lucerna, executive director of El Puente, recalled Luciano's "peace kites" project - the kites, made by students, flew over the U.S. military base at the Puerto Rican island of Vieques during protests to end U.S. practice bombing there.

"He's extremely charismatic," Lucerna said. "It comes from his sincere commitment to building meaningful relationships with people."

At one level, the message of Luciano's art is simple: "I would like people to take away a broader sense of who we are," a people with a rich and complicated culture and history, he said.

Through his work he hopes to foster appreciation of Puerto Rico 's unique past. "The more conscious we are of our past," he said, "the better chances we have of redefining our path in the future.

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