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"Muerto Rico" is part of ADAL's "The Drowned" series. Photo: Smithsonian Magazine.
"Muerto Rico" is part of ADAL's "The Drowned" series. Photo: Smithsonian Magazine.

"Muerto Rico": The award-winning photograph shows the drowning of Puerto Rico

The Puerto Rican artist ADÁL has been awarded the audience prize in the National Portrait Gallery's Outwin Boochever portrait competition. 

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A woman with her face covered by a red scarf looks at the viewer from the bottom of a bathtub. On her T-shirt can be read two words: "Muerto Rico," a devastating depiction of Puerto Rico, hit by countless disasters and not only natural ones. 

The photograph, taken by Puerto Rican artist ADÁL, was recognized with the prize given by the spectators at the National Portrait Gallery's Outwin Boochever portrait competition, in which a record more than 17,000 people participated online. 

"Muerto Rico" belongs to a series created by the artist in 2017, who took pictures of his friends in the bathtub and entitled Underwater / Los Ahogados. But it resonates strongly in times of pandemic, with the red handkerchief covering the woman's face underwater, something that ADÁL was inspired to do in another hard moment lived on the island, the scourge and the enormous crisis caused by Hurricane María. 

According to ÁDAL, one day when he was walking through Old San Juan, he saw a man wearing the T-shirt shown in the photos, and went over to talk to him. 

"'I don't know who designed that T-shirt but I need to know,'" he said.

To his surprise, the man ended up going to his studio and letting himself be photographed by the artist in the bathtub and wearing the shirt "because he was an artist himself," he concluded.

However, the birth of his work is a little earlier. 

A few decades before, he had been working in New York, inspired by Ellison's The Invisible Man and Carlos Castaneda's The Teachings of Don Juan. He mixed the concepts of how blacks were seen by white Americans and Don Juan's theory about the lace point - which is, according to the shaman, between the shoulder blades lies cosmic energy, but trauma displaces the point. 

The artist believed that both ideas, especially the blurring of the so-called lace point, matched the Puerto Rican diaspora and began taking pictures underwater.

"It was very strange," he told the Smithsonian. The project ended up becoming the book Out of Focus Nuyoricans (Harvard University Press, 1996).

"I said, 'wow', this seems to be what's happening in Puerto Rico right now. Because at that time we had a hurricane, and we had a really bad economic crisis. Puerto Rico is going through big changes, and we feel like we are disempowered? This is making things even worse," explained ADÁL.

As many as 50 people wrote to him asking to join the project and began to appear in his studio in the midst of the economic and natural crisis. 

Taina Caragol, contest organizer and Portrait Gallery curator of Latin art and history, welcomed the award received by the Puerto Rican artist and told the Smithsonian Magazine that "it's an exciting time for Latinx artists.

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