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Musing on the Barrio

He's one of the world's best known Latino artists, but Raphael Montaez Ortiz regards ethnocentricity as a trap

He’s one of the world’s best known Latino artists, but Raphael Montañez Ortiz regards ethnocentricity as a trap

By Elizabeth Dwoskin

Growing up on Manhattan’s Lower East Side as the only Latino among Orthodox Jews, Raphael Montañez Ortiz (Ed.D., ’82) was a self-described shabbos goy—a non-Jew who turns on appliances and performs other services that Jews cannot do during Sabbath. He also dreamed of becoming a rabbi.

“In the Jewish community, the role models were teachers, and I admired what the teachers did to inspire my passion for knowledge,” says Ortiz. “I came to feel that my future, if not my life, depended on it.”

Meanwhile, his cousins in Spanish Harlem—with whom he used to spend his pre-adolescent summers—were dropping out of school and getting involved in gangs. “For those of us who are disenfranchised of development of intellect, our culture is designed in its logic to betray us,” Ortiz says, “even as we defend the way it affirms our identity and way of being.”

Not necessarily what you’d expect to hear from one of the world’s best-known Latino artists and founder of the legendary Museo Del Barrio—the first and best-known museum in the United States devoted to Latino art and culture. But like the Museo itself, Ortiz, who is Puerto Rican, embodies many seeming contradictions, and his relationship to both his own community and the wider art world has been complicated and at times, stormy. At 76, he still performs his famous “piano sacrifice” concert, a set-piece of ritualized rage in which he literally deconstructs a keyboard. Earlier in his career, Ortiz was the firebrand who picketed and protested the Museum of Modern Art until it invited a few artists of color—including him—to join its board.

Yet Ortiz is also the iconoclast who rejects identity politics. He never wanted to be pigeon-holed as “Puerto Rican.” He frequently warns his students at Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of The Arts (where he has taught for nearly 40 years), that ethnocentricity is “a trap” that can deter them from winning a place in what he calls “the larger Post-Structural Evolutionary Developmental World of Research in Art.”

“Only the underclass is, in disenfranchisement, socially engineered to defend itself stereotypically through ethnocentricity,” he says.

Ortiz founded the Museo Del Barrio in 1969, at the height of the civil rights movement. Though he himself had been exhibiting works since the early ’60s at the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum (he was featured in the latter’s 1965 Young America exhibition and has since participated in two of its Biennials), he was responding, in part, to an outcry for representation within the art establishment of non-European cultures and peoples.

As a teacher at New York City’s LaGuardia High School of Music and Art, Ortiz was also responding to a specific request from Martin Frey, then a superintendent for the City’s Department of Education, to create programming that would bring the culture and experience of Latino students into the public school curriculum.

Ortiz came back to Frey with a different idea: Why not create a museum and get the City to fund it?

“It was his solution to what he saw as the social and cultural inequities facing Latinos and Puerto Ricans,” says Chon Noriega, the Director of the Chicano Studies Research Center at the University of California, Los Angeles, who is writing a book about Ortiz. “He wanted it to be an access point for Latino artists whose work was reflecting local and cultural realities, that their work could be part of the world dialogue about the arts.”

When Frey promised exhibition space and financial support, Ortiz began camping out at the New York Public Library, researching Puerto Rican history and the culture of the Tainos, the pre-Columbian peoples that inhabited the Caribbean. He journeyed to Puerto Rico and spoke to anthropologists and artists while documenting the culture of the under-class living in tin shacks in the shadow of the luxury beachfront hotels. He partnered with the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican barrio social action organization, to take pictures and record thousands of hours of audio interviews in Spanish Harlem about daily life in the barrio. (The results of this work appeared in 1970 as “Boricua Aqui Y Alla,” a multimedia exhibit at the Museum of Natural History in New York.)

Ortiz also met with the directors of Puerto Rico’s and New York’s elite Museums of Natural History, asking them to donate objects to the fledgling collection of an institution that still existed only in his head.

“I had lots of chutzpah,” he says.

The museum opened in two classrooms before moving to a couple of storefronts in East Harlem. In 1977 it found a permanent home in the neoclassical Heckscher Building at 1230 Fifth Avenue, where it forms the northernmost tip of Museum Mile. Ortiz left Museo Del Barrio in 1971 to commit himself fulltime to university teaching at a point when the Museo’s permanent collection still consisted of only a handful of works, but his legacy was unmistakable. The momentum had begun for the country’s first museum dedicated to Latino heritage.

Ortiz, whom TC honored in spring 2010 with its Distinguished Alumni award, continues to exhibit his own work. “He never had the romantic vision of the artist in his studio,” Chon Noriega says. “His was more of an intellectual and social vision of the artist.”

Indeed, since learning to draw from an uncle who was known for painting palm trees on local bodega storefront windows and facades, Ortiz, the son of a garment district seamstress, has absorbed his share of formal schooling. He attended New York City’s Art and Design High School and then Pratt Institute on the Korean War Disabled GI Bill, switching from architecture to fine arts and earning his B.A. in art education and M.F.A. In 1982 he earned his doctorate from TC in Fine Arts in Higher Education.

While Ortiz has never had much interest in creating folkloric images of roosters, idyllic tropical beaches or Taino-Arawak straw huts or sacred objects, he certainly has sought to preserve such works in the Museo del Barrio. By contrast, his own creations—which are in the collections of the Pompidou Centre in Paris, the Ludwig Museum in Cologne, Germany, the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Everson Museum in Syracuse, the Chrysler Museum collection in Virginia and the De Menil Collection in Houston—tend much more to the avant-garde. Ranging from multimedia to performance, these works incorporate both indigenous-shamanic cultural practices and domestic objects. In one work in the 1950s, Ortiz hacked film to pieces while chanting. He was an early proponent of using computers in art and in 1982, by scratching a laser disc, created a “stammering” progression of images he called “dances,” intended to reflect “a hypnotic disconnection between time and space.”
Yet in a way, Ortiz has never strayed far from his childhood artistic impulses.

“As a child I enjoyed making art because it gave me a sense of power in my world,” Ortiz recalls. “As an eight-year-old drawing family portraits, I could make adults sit still.”

To view a videotaped interview with Ortiz, visit

Published Friday, Dec. 17, 2010


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