A tribute to the Bronx's diversity
New exhibit at Bronx Museum shows the sculptures of John Ahearn and Puerto Rican artist Rigoberto Torres, inspired in the vibrant community of the neighborhood
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In 1979, sculptor John Ahearn began making lifecast sculptures (putting molds onto live subjects) which were later exhibited at Fashion Moda, an art space in the Bronx. His art captivated the attention of Rigoberto Torres, then a 17-year-old Puerto Rican transplant who worked at a religious statuary factory. After their first encounter, they started a 40-year long artistic collaboration which can now be seen at the exhibition “Swagger and Tenderness: The South Bronx Portraits by John Ahearn and Rigoberto Torres,” at the Bronx Museum of the Arts.
“I was just looking for something that I could do instead of working in a factory, which wasn’t satisfying,” Torres told The Guardian. “I enjoyed meeting the people I lifecasted — it’s complicated at first, but then over time you become family.”
Inspired and enabled by the people who live in the vibrant community surrounding the Bronx Museum, Ahearn and Torres’ sculptures have been honoring Bronxites for four decades, but this is the first time a large group of these artworks are exhibited together at home for the very people represented. This major survey exhibition — over 60 portraits alongside archival materials from 1979 to the present — mirrors the creative and loving residents of the South Bronx whose personal stories and innovative aesthetics both reflect and shape culture on a global scale.
As the museum curators explain: “Ahearn and Torres are often praised for uplifting their subjects, thus representing social justice, diversity, dignity, and equity. This exhibition conveys how the subjects also uplifted the artists, making these portraits powerful by contributing their knowledge and spirit as well as their physical form. These timeless artworks celebrate the swagger and tenderness — the true power — of our beautiful, stylish neighbors.”
The show aims to bring attention to the value of every individual and family who has helped shape the proud, unique, and influential community.
“Through these sculptures, the people portrayed share their value with the world, not only their physical form, of course, but also their intelligence, creativity, spirit, and radical love that often go unrecognized by the artworld,” said Amy Rosenblum-Martín, co-curator of the exhibition.
Working in communities historically marginalized by the artworld, Ahearn and Torres intentionally collaborated with their neighbors, a process that resulted in dignified representations of people who art museums have long erased or misrepresented. These depictions of their friends or people they encountered on the street were subsequently displayed in public on the very same Bronx streets — decorating apartment building facades, local offices, and commercial storefronts — and hung in people’s homes in the Bronx.
“Ahearn's… partnership with the then 17-year-old high school student Torres was born out of the teen seeing Ahearn's work and recognizing a relationship with his uncle's Bronx statuary company, which produced religious figures for local botanica shops,” notes Bronx-born author Peter L'Official in Urban Legends (2020). Indeed, Ahearn's ‘South Bronx Hall of Fame’ show, whose audience featured many of the African American and Latinx subjects cast by the artist for his painted, lifelike mascarilla (or face mask) statuary, had the effect of transforming the storefront art space into a reliquary for still-living saints for all the community to see.”