¡Presente! The Young Lords in New York exhibition


Jul 1 2015


New York

Spread over three institutions — the Bronx Museum of the Arts; El Museo del Barrio in East Harlem; and Loisaida Inc., a cultural center in the East Village — this show departs from straight political history by presenting the Young Lords as a cultural phenomenon as well as an ideological one, with a highly developed instinct for visual self-projection, right down to having an official party photographer, the gifted Hiram Maristany.

Each of the show’s three parts is more or less self-contained, giving a general picture of the party’s brief history while centering on events specific to each venue. The Bronx Museum portion, for example, organized by two New York-based art historians, Johanna Fernández and Yasmin Ramirez, focuses on the July 1970 takeover of Lincoln Hospital, which is not far from the museum, but also touches on developments elsewhere in the city.

It gives particular attention to links between the Young Lords and Taller Boricua, a print workshop started in East Harlem in 1970 by a group of Puerto Rican artists — Marcos Dimas, Adrián Garcia, Carlos Osorio, Manuel Otero, Martin Rubio and Armando Soto.

Still in operation in a converted public school building at 106th Street and Lexington Avenue, the workshop was originally across the street from the barrio headquarters of the Lords, who occasionally appropriated prints for Palante covers. Mostly, though, the exchange was in the form of aesthetic influence: The workshop’s presence seemed to inspire members of the party who were artists.

Denise Oliver-Velez, an African-American member of the Lords who designed several Palante covers, was one. She was also one of the few women to gain a place in the party’s governing hierarchy. Like many other male-dominated radical groups, the Young Lords were inherently sexist and promoted a form of revolutionary machismo in their original statement of purpose. She would have none of it. Under pressure from her and another female member, Iris Morales, the group revised the statement to read: “We want equality for women. Down with machismo and male chauvinism.”

Those words appear in the Bronx show and again in the installation at El Museo del Barrio, organized by Rocio Aranda-Alvarado and sharply designed by Ignacio Vázquez-Paravano. There are brilliant, monumental prints here by Antonio Martorell, Juan Sánchez and Rafael Tufiño, although the general mood is dark.

A photograph by Geno Rodriguez records a demonstration after a teenager named Martin Perez died while in police custody. An issue of Palante records the death, under similar circumstances, of Julio Roldán, a Young Lords member. When the Lords staged an anger-fueled funeral procession for him in the streets of the Barrio, they were fully armed.

A 1970 video of the poet Pedro Pietri reciting his chantlike “Puerto Rican Obituary” feels like a lament for the end of a certain type of activism. The Young Lords Party was already beginning to narrow along hard ideological lines and splinter into competitive factions. It had bought into American gun culture, becoming its own enemy in the process. The group had lost its connection to the grass-roots communities it was meant to serve.

The Pietri poem, however, ends with a direct address to the people of those communities, exhorting them to carry on and to find joy where they can and in who they are. The exhibition at Loisaida Inc., which opens next Thursday, is pitched in that key. Organized by Wilson Valentin-Escobar and Libertad O. Guerra, it’s about the cultural legacy that the Lords left, a populist activism that produced vivid images and had the imaginative lift of performance art.

By Holland Cotter, July 2015

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