After his emerging artist award speech that drew a standing ovation at last year’s NCECA conference, the ceramic community fell in love with Roberto Lugo. His drive, mission, and outspoken nature were refreshing in a field saturated with quiet, passive passion. Last March, he launched into his speech with a spoken word poem about prejudice, poverty, art, and community and everyone in the sleepy auditorium perked up. I was moved by his speech at NCECA, but I couldn’t help but wonder if his artwork could also hold its own on stage, with an equally as confident, impassioned, informed, and poetic rhetoric. Lugo’s current show at Ferrin Contemporary proves that it can.
Above Image: Roberto Lugo, Ghetto Garniture: Wu Tang Worcester Exhibition, Image: Courtesy of Ferrin Contemporary
The exhibition titled Ghetto Garniture: Wu Tang Worcester (August 22-October 12, 2015) is eclectic, offering multiple points of entry to his concepts including avenues of history, humor, and pop-culture. The exhibition is like flipping channels on TV, consecutively passing Sesame Street, MTV music videos, CNN, the Antiques Roadshow, and WWE wrestling. It shares with television a feeling of saturation, a group of topics combined to satisfy every wildly different type of viewer in one sitting. An impossible task, but it brings attention to the challenges of living in a diverse culture. But instead of having all these channels and feeling like there is nothing worth watching, Lugo engages throughout.
The show features Lugo’s work created during his artist residency at Project Art in Cummington, Massachusetts. The collection includes ceramic pots, an interactive mosaic, painting, drawing, and photographs. Some of the work was created in collaboration with other artists including sculptor Alexandra Jelleberg and photographer Bill Wright. In Chain Composition Lugo is photographed by Wright wearing a wrestling champion necklace and the paired photo titled World Champion of the World: Defiant is of a young boy with a ceramic wrestling belt, both props made by Lugo. His interest in collaboration is connected to his ongoing commitment to strengthening community through teaching, raising money for people in need, and mentoring young students.
“My experiences as an indigent minority inform my version of Puerto Rican American history.” Lugo said. “With my education in critical theory, art education, art history, and studio art I have developed a studio practice that fluidly communicates with diverse audiences. I bring art to those that do not believe they need to see it and engage in deeper ways of knowing, learning, and thinking.”
Lugo’s work is autobiographical, but not egotistical. He presents his life and humanity, from family deaths to his interest in the Wu-Tang Clan, as something for the viewer to relate to. Simultaneously feeling connected and alien is what gives the show the ability to move. You may end up feeling something like: “if I can empathize with losing a loved one, maybe I can understand the Wu-Tang clan too.” A brilliant culturally progressive metaphor.
One of the most poignant pieces in Ghetto Garniture is We are All Kings 2015, an urn decorated with the portraits of Mike Brown, Travon Martin, Eric Garner, and Rodney King – all subjects of recent controversial black deaths.
Lugo explains the intent behind the urn:
“This piece was inspired by the recent losses of Black lives through controversial means. Through these tragedies, the statement “Black Lives Matter” was made popular and has created conversation about race equality in contemporary society. My hope in making this piece is to create a tangible work reflecting this idea. By creating an urn, I am creating an object that will live beyond current events. In the same way that royalty has been given tribute in the past, I am paying homage to these lives by placing their images on this piece. My claim is that all of humanity is equal. Rather than take a side, my work hopes to appeal to reverence for all lives lost regardless of race, in the belief that we are all kings.”
According to the gallery, the show “stimulates new conversations around cultural tolerance,” but I think this is misleading. To tolerate is to allow something to exist that you don’t necessarily agree with – this show is more optimistic. Ghetto Garniture parallels our cultural landscape and history stimulating conversations about the still-unfolding path to wide-spread acceptance, embracement, and, ultimately, celebration of diversity.
In a lecture at Harvard, Lugo made a point that gets at the essence of his work:
“I realized when I was painting Michael Brown’s portrait at 2:00 a.m. I could have been him – he could have been me.”
Justin Crowe is a Writer and Director of Operations at CFile.
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