Antonio Pulgarin is a Colombian-American lens-based artist who uses photography, photographic collage and mixed media. Recently, Pulgarin announced his first solo exhibition titled, “I stand here, like the sun that frightens the cold/Aquí me paró, como el sol que asusta el frío" on display at the Kingsborough Art Museum in Brooklyn, New York until December 4th, 2019. Organized in collaboration with Guest Curator Edwin Ramoran, the exhibition presents pieces from his personal project, “Fragments of the Masculine”, a visual reflection on cultural and queer identity, memory, and displacement.
Clary Estes spoke with Antonio Pulgarin in the fall of 2019 about his work and vision.----------
My perspective on this is really informed by my upbringing and seeing a lot of people around me, Latinx males and men of color, feeling as though they had to live up to this blueprint of what a man was supposed to be within our culture. And this stubborn machismo pride resulted at times, in people I knew, getting locked up, shot or killed. To me, as a community, if we keep upholding these archaic ideas of masculinity no progress will come from it.
Clary Estes: What was your upbringing like in Brooklyn? How did your early life, family, and community influence your vision as a photographer?
Antonio Pulgarín: I can start off by saying that I’m a Brooklyn boy through and through. I was raised in downtown Brooklyn - specifically in the Wyckoff Gardens Housing Projects, as well as in the surrounding area for many years. As a young boy, I worked in my step-father’s bodega - a bodega that was and still is one of the few family-owned businesses in the area and which continues to serve la gente del barrio (those who have lived there for years).
Working in the bodega, I was fortunate enough to meet and interact with an array of characters from my community. Those dialogues and interactions were experiences that truly resonated with me at an early age and would later inspire my photographic work. Growing up in my neighborhood truly helped shape the lens through which I view myself, the world around me, and making art in general. When I look back now, I realize that those were the formative years of not just my life, but my journey in the arts.
I always felt inspired by the stories of my diverse community - stories that I felt privileged to know and wished that others had a chance to be exposed to. I believe this sense of community and family really influenced my vision as a photographer and especially now as a lens-based artist.
Because of my upbringing, I’m inspired, more so now than ever, to represent for the Latinx community and to uplift those narratives out of our community. In addition, I find myself more passionate about fostering a safe and supportive space for artists of color - in the hopes that their voices are heard. We as artists tend to think about ourselves and our practice first but building a sense of community is so crucial. That’s where my passion lies.
When did you first start photographing and what drew you to photography?
Antonio Pulgarín: I first picked up the camera in middle school, but I’ll be honest, I was initially inspired more by a rebellious act. As long as I could remember I grew up with my mom’s character drawings and doodles on napkins, papers and various items throughout the house. So while in middle school, there were two options to fulfill our art credit requirements: traditional drawing/painting and darkroom photography. My mom pushed for the traditional class and of course, as a rebellious teen, I went for the darkroom photography class… and as they say, the rest is history.
I fell in love with the photographic process; the smell of developer and stop bath in the air, the solitude of creating, but most importantly the idea of the tangible image. This idea of the tangible image and how we can re-contextualize its meaning is something that’s important to my art practice now. As to what drew me to photography, it was this idea of storytelling and telling the stories of the individuals I grew up with and have them heard and seen. Photography felt like the best and purest vehicle for that at the time and that’s what ultimately drew me to the medium.
What themes were you drawn to as a photographer early on and why?
Antonio Pulgarín: Early on in my art practice and career, I was drawn to the themes of family and community. To an extent these themes are still prominent in my work, I’m just approaching them from a different vantage point now. As to why I was drawn to these themes early on, it was simply because it was all I knew at the time and everything I yearned for as a queer Latinx kid trying to find his place in the world.
Now at age 30, family and community have a newfound meaning for me. I’ve learned that as a queer individual that family and community can be chosen and familia is not always necessarily blood. Photography in many ways helped me find my tribe and dive deeper into my connections with others. This is why I’ve always gravitated to the medium.
How has photography influenced your life? What are some of the challenges that you have faced as an aspiring professional photographer and artist?
Antonio Pulgarín: Photography has changed how I process the world around me. It’s such a vital part of who I am. As a result, I’ve encountered some hardships as I’ve pursued this as a career. Perhaps the most challenging was finding my place in the art world as a Latinx artist and finding my tribe in the process. Another challenge has been the ownership of my narrative throughout the creative process and not being made to feel less than for centering my work on my own personal narrative. Unfortunately, this has been a struggle for not just myself but several creatives of color in our industry. Luckily, we are in a renaissance of sorts where the narratives of people and artists of color are being heard and seen more. However, the fight to be heard continues.
Communion 1972, 2017. By Antonio Pulgarín
How has your work evolved throughout the years? For example, earlier on, your work focused a great deal on portraiture with a more documentary approach. “Fragments of the Masculine” seems to break somewhat from that practice and instead marry archival photography with conceptual art. How has your methodology changed throughout the years?
Antonio Pulgarín: Both my methodology towards photography and art-making have certainly evolved over the years but I still find myself pulling from my past, which is still very much part of my present. I find myself pulling from the themes I originally started with; family and community, and expanding upon those themes further. However, I will say that at some point I found myself re-accessing my personal relationship to photography. I wanted to deepen my exploration of the medium and challenge these ideas that I had been taught about photography throughout the years. Essentially, I got to a point in my creative process where I wanted to explore photography from a different lens than I had previously, but I didn’t know how or what that was going to look like at first - And that was a scary notion for me.
The idea of completely unpacking everything I knew and challenging myself to explore new territories in my work really made me nervous, but I was ready to take that chance. I began building a more comprehensive archive of family images and really taking the time to process my relationship with those images before I began the process of creating. Shortly after I began reproducing each archival image, in various sizes and paper finishes, I began to experiment, rip, tear, and re-contextualize each image. Removing information and replacing it with a different perspective and, in some cases, a reimagined narrative. As my practice evolved and shifted I had to focus the lens upon myself and I found myself having to honor my own narrative in a very intimate and self-reflective way.
At the core of it, all my current work will always be influenced in some capacity or another by my earlier portraiture/documentary work. This is very evident in the archival images I tend to gravitate to and the threads they share with my earlier work. I’m not crazy about labels per se, but I find myself today identifying more as a lens-based artist vs being known as a photographer. However, with that said, photography will always serve as the foundation for my work and my practice.
I currently find myself interested in exploring the dialogue in which the photographic medium can have with other mediums and what that looks like in regards to my practice.
The exhibition presents work from your project, “Fragments of the Masculine”. What is this work about?
Antonio Pulgarín: Originally, this long term personal project began as a reference to my relationship with the man with whom I share my namesake, my uncle, Antonio Pulgarín. In 1987, my uncle passed away in a tragic car accident and two years later I was born. My mom gave me his name as a means of honoring is legacy. Throughout my childhood, I grew up surrounded by stories and images of my uncle. It wasn’t until I got older that I started appreciating the connection we shared through our respective namesake.
Four years ago, I began collecting images of my uncle but was unsure of how to incorporate them into my practice. In 2017, I began exploring photographic collage as a means of addressing my connection to this archive of images.
Somewhere in the initial process of experimentation and research, I came across a set of polaroids of my biological father while he was imprisoned in New Jersey. Here I found myself confronting a man who was never present in life yet somehow I felt a thread that tied his images to those of my uncle. I could not ignore this reaction and gut instinct so I began incorporating my biological father’s images into this project. At this point, I had no idea that these works would become what everyone else knows now as “Fragments of the Masculine.” All I knew was that there was something beyond me and my narrative tying these works together.
It was not until I had a few finalized pieces and began viewing them as a group for the first time that I began to see an unexpected narrative emerging. That’s when I started to see that this new body of work was about more than just my own personal relationship with these images. The project was also about challenging these ideas around machismo culture, beliefs that I grew up with.
“Fragments of the Masculine” was born from that moment of realization. It was then when I was able to dive deeper into the project.
An Encaged Lineage, 2017. By Antonio Pulgarín
What is the meaning of the title of the exhibition, “I stand here, like the sun that frightens the cold/Aquí me paró, como el sol que asusta el frío”? What is the concept of the exhibition? Why is the title of the exhibition different from the series?
Antonio Pulgarín: The exhibition at Kingsborough Art Museum primarily features work from Chapter One of “Fragments of Masculine”, which focuses on my relationship with my uncle and my father. The exhibition also presents some selects from Chapter Two of the project, which gives viewers a look at how I address the relationship between my stepfather, Jose Baez, and me.
With my step-father being Dominican, a huge part of my upbringing was influenced by the Dominican culture. As someone who identified solely with his Colombian heritage, I had to confront a sensation of being both an outsider and an insider within the Dominican culture. This was an interesting dynamic to deal with as a young person on top of trying to navigate a relationship with my stepfather.
Dolores y El Rio de Papa Firo, Photo-Based Installation, 2019. By Antonio Pulgarín
When the opportunity for this solo exhibition first presented itself, I made a conscious decision to not title the exhibition after the name of the project. I wanted both the title and layout of the exhibition to reflect this personal story that I wanted to convey to my audience.
The title of the exhibition draws its inspiration from a lyric in the song, “La Tierra del Olvido,” by Colombian singer Carlos Vives. It’s a song that I woke up to almost every morning in my mom’s apartment in Brooklyn and it’s near and dear to my heart. When I reflect on that song, I think about home and how this idea or concept has changed throughout my life. This song also makes me think about mi querido Colombia, and all those whom I have lost over the years. The title is a verse in the song: “I stand here, like the sun that frightens the cold/Aquí me paró, como el sol que asusta el frío. For me, the sun represents my truth and my story and the frighten cold represent these old ideologies that I’m choosing to confront and deconstruct. To get even deeper, the title for me also represents my apprehension to revisit the past and yet be able to see connections to it.
We will be seeing work from the first two chapters of “Fragments of the Masculine”. Should viewers expect future new chapters?
Antonio Pulgarín: To be perfectly honest and transparent, I’m not sure if there will be future chapters of this project. Right now I envision the project as two chapters but I would not rule out the possibility of a third chapter. I recently lost my Godfather, George Velez, and if there was to be the third chapter, then he would be the focus.
My Godfather had a profound influence on my upbringing and my ties to these ideas centered on masculinity, so yes if the project extended to a third chapter then he would be the focus. However, that would require permission from my aunt and my cousins. Only time will tell. The loss is still fresh in our hearts and in our minds. With that said, I wanted to kindly include that this exhibition will be dedicated to the loving memory of my Godfather and all the lessons he bestowed upon us, he is truly missed.
Chapters One and Two are not entirely finished. I am still working on new pieces for both chapters. Ultimately I see this work expanding into a book format and I see that as a fitting conclusion to this work. I have other ideas and approaches to confronting the themes of gender, queer and cultural identity, and masculinity, in my work - so I very much look forward to diving into those further. Needless to say “Fragments of the Masculine” is only the beginning of my curiosity and exploration in my practice.
A Memory Lost, 2017. By Antonio Pulgarín
In “Fragments of the Masculine,” you present images of both your uncle in Colombia during what looks like his time in the military, as well as your father which were images he sent to you, while he was in prison? Can you explain the deliberate intention to juxtapose both image sets?
Antonio Pulgarín: As you mentioned the archival images of my biological father and uncle represent very specific times in their lives. Throughout my childhood, these men were never physically present in my life for different reasons. So it was only through these images that I was able to connect with these men, which inherently linked the depiction of the military and the prison system to my ideas of masculinity. For me, juxtaposing these two extremes served as a visual representation of the two spectrums of masculinity.
Antonio Pulgarín: In one instance, masculinity could be associated with notions of honor and pride while on the flip side there’s this sense of toxic masculinity and the consequences that come with upholding that ideology. My perspective on this is really informed by my upbringing and seeing a lot of people around me, Latinx males and men of color, feeling as though they had to live up to this blueprint of what a man was supposed to be within our culture. And this stubborn machismo pride resulted at times, in people I knew, getting locked up, shot or killed. To me, as a community, if we keep upholding these archaic ideas of masculinity no progress will come from it.
With that said, I also grew up with some positive examples of masculinity so I wanted to showcase that as well in the work. I wanted to start a dialogue centered on these ideas on masculinity, which was also informed by my genuine experiences with the theme.
What's your most personal piece in the show? Why?
Antonio Pulgarín: That’s a tough one but I would have to say it’s one of the newest pieces in the exhibition entitled “Like the Son That Frightens the Cold.” It’s a photo-based installation that includes two wallpaper designs printed on adhesive canvas with framed images of my step-father and myself layered over them. The wallpaper designs are comprised of childhood photos of both my step-father and I and the images repeat throughout the designs. The images that are layered over the wallpaper are intimate portraits of my father and me, respectively, taken from the back perspective. In those images, we are both posed in front of fabric backgrounds with their own flower inspired design.
The components of this installation all come together to create a piece that speaks on the complexities of my relationship with Queer and Latinx culture, masculinity, and, of course, my step-father. There was a period of time when he and I were not close and having to navigate the dynamics of our relationship was difficult. So as physically layered as the piece is, it is emotionally complex as well. I think it’s also interesting to see myself taking a sculptural and installation approach to my practice.
This piece really serves as the beginning of that new phase in my work. I’ll also say this piece means a great deal to me because it’s the very beginning of Chapter two of “Fragments of the Masculine,” and I’ve been sitting on this idea for years now. To finally see it come to life is just overwhelming. I’m excited for what the future holds creatively.
As a Latinx photographer in America, what advice do you have for other Latino artists and photographers?
Antonio Pulgarín: My biggest piece of advice is to find your tribe and not be afraid to own the personal narrative in your work. It’s ok to make work about who you are, your culture, where you and your ancestors came from, and to realize that your voice is a powerful tool - especially in today’s political climate.
Latinx photographers and artists of color need to get their work out there. Network and do not be afraid to let your work be seen. I would say a small portion of the work that comes with being an artist is the art-making but then it’s what you do after. We as artists have to wear many caps: Artist, Accountant, Networking Manager, Grant Writer, etc. but as Latinx and artists of color we have to work that much harder.
Yes, history has shown that the realization is that Latinx artists, artist of colors, and entrepreneurs of color have had to work that much harder to be seen and or heard, however, we are now living in a renaissance of sorts where our narratives are starting to finally get attention. It’s up to us to keep that going and to make sure we aren’t just the “current trend” in art.
How do we do that - by supporting and uplifting one another, by building and fostering communities that help pay it forward for generations to come. We have to do the groundwork to leave things better than when we found them.
What are some of the conversations you wish more people in the photography industry were having?
Antonio Pulgarín: I wish that the conversation in the photography industry would stray away from this “purest” standpoint on the medium. Conversations of what gear and lighting photographers use is just not something I’m interested in hearing or much less talking about. The equipment shouldn’t define how good a photographer is and I think we have to leave those conversations behind. I’d also like the photography world, in general, to start talking about how photographers and lens-based artists are approaching the photographic medium from a different perspective. I can’t tell you how many “purest” photographers have tried to discredit my recent work as “not actual photography” because it didn’t fit this blueprint or definition they attribute to the medium.
Let’s focus on the content of the image and even more importantly, let’s talk about racial equity in the photography industry, as well as the art world. Let’s talk about hiring more photographers and artists of color to do the work, especially if it pertains to their culture. This idea that hiring cultural outsiders to come into a community, that isn’t theirs, to document something that doesn’t belong to them, is so outdated and we have to get past that. Photography as a medium is always evolving and we as a community should be too.
Interview by Clary Estes / Editor: Adriana Teresa Letorney