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The Boston Globe
His Blurry Photos Bring Clarity To The Plight Of Puerto Ricans
Cate McQuaid, Globe Correspondent
24 December 2004
It may surprise those who know Adal Maldonado as a photographer both of his own crisp and witty self-portraits and as a printer of Robert Mapplethorpe's images that his current photo series, "Out of Focus Nuyoricans," is wildly, frustratingly blurry.
The artist, known as Adal, has developed over the years from a photographer to a conceptual and installation artist. You can witness the progression in "Blue Bananas on Fire," at Harvard University's David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, and see its culmination in "Blueprints for a Nation," a searingly funny show of his current work at the Center for Latino Arts.
Throughout, Adal has questioned identity. Born in Puerto Rico, raised in the Bronx, he studied at the San Francisco Art Institute and has shown work internationally, Adal jumped first into the thicket of his own personal identity, then that of Puerto Ricans.
He did it in the fractured and haunting photographic collages collected in his first book, "The Evidence of Things Not Seen," 30 years ago. In the 1990s, he created a series of self-portraits, "I was a Schizophrenic Mambo Dancer for the FBI," some of which are up at Harvard. They play with language and cultural stereotypes and make pointed commentary about the disenfranchisement of his people. Look at "New Age Mambo Mime," in which Adal, in a tux, dances with a bathroom plunger stuck on his face.
These kinds of images paved the way for "Blueprints for a Nation," at the Center for Latino Arts. Adal looks at a society riven and often forgotten. Puerto Ricans are legally US citizens, yet they can't vote in federal elections. Even the Puerto Rican community in the United States, including Nuyoricans such as the performance artists Adal photographs, are in some ways neither here nor there, but in a netherworld in between.
Adal portrays that quite vividly in "Out of Focus Nuyoricans," a series of dramatically blurry portraits. In their haze, they defy the viewer's desire for sharpness and eye contact. Flying below the radar, they claim their virtual invisibility as a subversive power. One portrait from 2000, of the slam poet Pedro Pietri, who died this year, sets his foggy head shot between the glinting, sharp-focus portraits of Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani; it reads "Vote for the first out-of-focus Senate candidate in political history."
Bringing clarity to the blurry condition of Puerto Ricans, Adal celebrates his culture. He also critiques its passions and assumptions, its willingness to be sidelined, to hand power over to others. He has developed patron saints "Santo Borroso," a blurry masked shot of Adal himself (seen on a can of "anti-terrorist aerosol spray"), and "Nun of the Above," an otherwise topless sister wearing a wimple. An altar to Saint Anthony consists of a prayer stool and a pillow beneath a hazy picture of pop singer Marc Anthony. Put your head on the pillow to pray, and you hear his velvety tenor whispering in your ear. Such idols, Adal suggests, soothe and disarm their worshipers, leaving them dreamy and toothless.
Ultimately, this netherworld is Adal's homeland. He has created El Puerto Rican Passport Agency of El Puerto Rican Embassy; he will take anyone's photo and issue a passport not a Puerto Rican passport, per se (Puerto Ricans carry US passports) but, as it says on the document, "el spirit republic de Puerto Rico." It's not a place, it's an outlaw state of mind and a remarkably fertile one.
WEEKEND ARTS & PERFORMANCE GALLERIES ADAL MALDONADO: BLUEPRINTS FOR A NATION AND BLUE BANANAS ON FIRE AT: CENTER FOR LATINO ARTS, 85 WEST NEWTON ST., AND DAVID ROCKEFELLER CENTER FOR LATIN AMERICAN STUDIES, HARVARD UNIVERSITY, 61 KIRKLAND ST., CAMBRIDGE, THROUGH JAN. 10. 617-927-1730.