‘Nasty Women/Bad Hombres’: Determination and Daring at El Museo del Barrio

Sandra Bertrand


When El Museo del Barrio decided to launch uptown:nastywomen/bad hombres, an exhibit of artists living or working in Upper Manhattan’s El Barrio, Harlem, Washington Heights, and Inwood, they didn’t take the challenge lightly.  These artists are individuals whose works engage with the cultural legacy of sexism, racism, homophobia, the power of the media, healthcare or the lack thereof, our natural environment, and violence.  But does that make them or the work “nasty” or “bad” as the exhibit’s title suggests?

After a careful viewing of the show, I’d vote a resounding “no.”  What I did discover in multidisciplinary works whether collage, documentary shorts, photography, painting, textile work or video was a mixture of determination and daring, tenacity and tenderness—even an occasional dose of whimsy.  Only a hint of rage seethed under the surface of the occasional piece.  And, to be expected, youthful passion was present in broad strokes. 

Nostalgia for a foreign homeland is effectively represented in Elan Cadiz’s depictions in Home, 2016.  Colorful paper scraps fill the exteriors of these storybook-like houses, each the same structure repeated in a grid of panels and each one more charming than the next.  Many of the artists represented were uprooted from the Dominican Republic and Leslie Jimenez expresses the social disparity in her Humble Heroes from the Stroller Stories of New York series.  Images of domestic workers and their charges are created by intricately weaving polyester thread on vellum.  These are small, painstaking works of great beauty.  Regina Viquerra’s large violet bouquet constructed entirely of plastic bags is noteworthy, mainly as an example of the esthetic possibility in found objects. 

Such resourcefulness is never better illustrated than in Nari Ward’s Swing. This Jamaican-born artist has taken for inspiration the ubiquitous rubber tire, hung in one of the room’s corners, pierced throughout with aberrant shoe parts – the leather tongues, heels, and toes standing in for the people who once owned them.  It’s both a powerful and poignant work that stays in the mind.


Kenny Rivero has also chosen to reengineer the disparate parts of his life into new wholes.  According to an artist’s quote on the museum’s website, he feels in this way he can “creatively explore, and come to terms with, the broken narrative of Dominican American identity.”  It could be easy in such an array of multi-dimensional pieces to accidentally overlook the singular and haunting, partially- skeletal face of a child drawn against a cold pavement background.  It’s a riveting reminder of one life reduced to its basest reality and one of the show’s strongest images.


Personal narratives are proffered with mixed results, finding a place in a show where the personal psyche is inextricably linked to the world outside.  Ivan Monforte has chosen the video documentary as the way to give his players—in  this case, society’s oft-rejected homosexuals and drug-obsessed—a voice.  One gay young man speaking to the viewer as if to the one causing him anguish appears genuine enough in his complaints, but it’s a one note performance.  As he drones on, we are witnesses to his story, strangers as listeners, but for how long?  I couldn’t help but be reminded of some of Andy Warhol’s early videos of his Factory favorites, i.e., the Screen Tests series from the early 1960s.  Many fans may remember the almost unbearable patience required to experience these artificially-induced slices of life. 


The redeeming factor in such viewing can be the unexpected epiphany from the subject.  In this instance for me, it was when the young man confessed that “loving people can be very ephemeral.”  It’s a risky enterprise, exploring the borders where voyeurism becomes art.


Lauren Kelley in Burlap Interior has a different take on the documentary as art.  She has chosen to place a Black Barbie doll couple in the interior of a car with a narrative evocative of the bored consumer. “Maybe you should take up gardening” the male doll remarks to his female companion at one point. 



The Portfolio and Coronado Print Studio under Moses Ros-Suarez’s guidance is well represented.  All of the prints on display showed an ease with composition.  One memorable screenprint, La Zafra by Miguel Luciano, presents a red monster with feathery organic limbs, a symbol of the sugar harvest. 


Rivero Natal-San Miguel, a Puerto Rican photographer, makes effective use of word signage as part of a larger landscape.  A residential block, marked by a street sign: “Esperanza”, gives us the Spanish word for hope.  Another image gives us a corrugated fence with “Outrage” in large purple letters emblazoned across its surface.


Stephanie a. Lindquist, an artist now working out of Los Angeles, exhibits the object as paradox.  Her Shooter’s Bible is spread open like a family bible, with text and graphics revolving around firearms.  In the artist’s words, she claims to be fascinated by process-oriented art that privileges the formation of art as a rite or ritual. With time, the objects and images near me become props and stages for the plays I create.”


Francisco Donoso proves that abstraction can elicit a strong emotional response in the viewer.  Powerful acrylic grids seem to explode outward, presenting us with a floating universe, amorphous fragmented shapes caught in his net. 


One aspect of this exhibit is to demonstrate just how intertwined these artists are with the social and cultural landscape they left behind and the one they inhabit now.  In such socially turbulent times, the likelihood is great that art will continue to prove itself a strong barometer for interpreting the world as we find it.



El Museo was founded 45 years ago by artist and educator Raphael Montañez Ortiz and a coalition of parents, educators, artists, and activists who noted that mainstream museums largely ignored Latino artists. Since its inception, El Museo has been committed to celebrating and promoting Latino culture.  El Museo’s varied permanent collection of over 6,500 objects, spans more than 800 years of Latin American, Caribbean, and Latino art, including pre-Columbian Taíno artifacts, traditional arts, as well as 20th-century drawings, paintings, and sculptures.


This exhibit, on view until November 5, 2017, is part of the first Uptown triennial in collaboration with The Wallach Art Gallery at Columbia University.  Such efforts help immeasurably in educating Caribbean and Latin American peoples, as well as the larger community on the importance of their artistic heritage.


Author Bio:

Sandra Bertrand is Highbrow Magazine’s chief arts critic.


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