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Adál Maldonado. Photo: GFR Media / Adál
Adál Maldonado. Photo: GFR Media / Adál

Adál Maldonado passes away: A Puerto Rican photography pioneer and master surrealist

A mentor of surrealist photography and the Nuyorican movement, Maldonado left an interesting figure with strong ties to his community

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The renowned artist and photographer Adál Maldonado recently died of respiratory failure arising from pancreatic cancer. He died at the age of 72, leaving behind a rich legacy deeply aware of his roots in the arts, but especially in the surrealist photography scene at the end of the 20th century.

His death has been confirmed by close friend, Taina Caragol, curator of the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. 

Maldonado was born in Utuado, Puerto Rico, and moved to New York at the age of 17 — a profound jump many Latino artists have made and one that would mark his identity discourse. A visual narrative that would be traversed and inscribed by the Puerto Rican diaspora, the problems of migrants and the perception of Latin America. 

In the 70s and 80s, photography underwent a small revolution. There were echoes of the avant-garde and an expansion of the aesthetic field with other important figures in New York City like Robert Mapplethorpe and Cindy Sherman. 

Dabbling in surrealism in those years not only implied inheriting the deconstructive spirit of the original French forefathers, but it was also a reclaiming of those same techniques to bring something new and urgent to the debate between the represented and invisible. 

It is in this panorama of innovation in New York that Adál created his first work — surrealist collages based on portraits that he used to encourage the Nuyorican movement created by poets and musicians of Puerto Rican descent and living in New York, many of them from the Bronx. From the margins, they were on a mission to reclaim their roots.

In 1994, together with the poet Pedro Pietri, he founded the project El Puerto Rican Embassy and celebrated biennials representing his island.

He was a prolific artist that not only explored the capacities of 20th century surrealism in photography, but also continued to innovate as a graphic creator, author of performance installations, and playwright (with a work like La Mambopera). 

As a cultural promoter, the recognition of his work in the 21st century has also served to give visibility and recognition to the succeeding generations of Latino visual artists. 

Up to 20 of the first works from the Nuyorican photography boom were acquired in 2014 by the aforementioned National Portrait Gallery. They show a young Maldonado playing with self-portraiture in front of his lens, recreating one of his most important creative avenues, which he redefined in an interview a few years ago:

"Initially I was thinking about how the Puerto Rican reaffirms his identity outside of Puerto Rico, so we thought that as part of that process we could invent a new ritual, a ritual that could replace the old rituals and traditions," he said. 

With a whole legacy of new rituals for new genealogies and new dialogues with one's roots, the community bids farewell to the figure of an artist who worked far beyond egos and techniques to provide a glimpse of a possible future to those who now inherit the baton in the relay race. 

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