If most of the artists in el Museo del Barrio’s current S-Files show were athletes, they’d be modern dancers—highly skilled performers who create intriguing shapes, but deliver such densely-layered messages, they tend to require a lengthy explanation to be fully understood.
In contrast, Yasmin Hernandez is a pugilist of a painter—she punches straight for the audience’s chin with bold, often political images, which while they are packed with symbolism, generally need no captions–let alone an advanced degree in semiotics–to decipher them.
In the past, she’s used her in-your-face approach mostly to crack open typically taboo or uncomfortable topics: The intersection of Lukumi, Catholicism, Espiritismo, and Taino religion in her “Alma Boricua: Gods, Santos and Ancestors” and “Goddesses” installations; the mistreatment of Haitians in the Dominican Republic and women along the Mexican border in her paintings “Dominicano No Corta Can~a” and “Todas Mujeres”; and a comparison of Puerto Rican nationalists’ ongoing fight to Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection in her “Ponce Massacre” installation.
Currently, as part of the S-Files bienal, she is painting portraits of politically-outspoken musicians and poets onto the museum’s doors as part of her “Soul Rebels” project—a series of images she hopes will challenge young Hot 97 addicts to open their ears to other music.
Name: Yasmin Hernandez
Roots: Puerto Rico/Nuyorican
New Yorker for:
All my life besides going to college upstate, and the two years I lived in Philadelphia. I live in Queens, but I’m from Brooklyn.
Day job: From 12 to 12 every day I’m an artist and within that I also work as an art educator.
Soul Rebels is the project I’ve been trying to get off the ground forever, so I’m completely immersing myself in it. El Museo is going to feature 8 of the (paintings), but my list is over 20. I’ll probably paint as many as 30 musicians.
How do you describe your art?
To be very basic, I’m a painter and installation artist.
Soul rebels is a series about artists who use their work to expose and combat injustice..and to unveil what’s been suppressed by colonialism and racism. That’s also how I define my art. Even if it’s a spiritual image, I’m exposing something that was kept hidden because it wasn’t the typical western religion.
What spurred this project?
I work a lot with youth, and this was a response to the negative images they get through the mainstream music industry. I get really tired of seeing this music that young people swear by, and base their identity on, perpetuating all these negative stereotypes. Low self-esteem and lack of self-knowledge are part of the reason youth participate in risky, destructive behavior. My interest is to reveal images that would help them (gain) a sense of empowerment.
In addition to El Museo, this building houses the Harbor Conservatory of Music and the Boys and Girls Harbor charter school, so we have a good amount of youth coming through this space.
What is your inspiration?
My identity and my history. The way that different groups of people came together in the Caribbean is so fascinating to me. I’m such a nerd–the most minute thing for me can have such cultural charge—even walking down the street and seeing a rooster in a lot at 103rd and Park. The day-to-day struggle for survival, how things change from one generation to the next, how we reinvent ourselves as we migrate…all those things inspire me.
What’s the significance of the S-files bienal for young Latino artists?
I find the art world to be so exclusive. Different people or styles become the flavor of the month, and once that happens, you see the same people in shows over and over again.
Shows like the S files give an opportunity to artists who haven’t gotten that kind of exposure for whatever reason…Once one institution says, ok we are going to legitimize this person’s artwork by exhibiting it, then other people will say, oh well, so and so exhibited you, maybe we should too. It opens a lot of opportunities.
Is there such a thing as a Latino aesthetic or one style that dominates right now within Latino art?
Actually this show is very diverse. You will see conceptual art, minimalism, (everything) you see in the mainstream. Latino art cannot be pigeonholed. Even if you just look at Puerto Rican artists across the board, we are so drastically different from one another.
I even feel like a minority in the work that I do, social realism. Other Puerto Rican artists who inspire me– Juan Sanchez , Rafael Tufiño, Lorenzo Homar, Jose Alicea,– they are one or two generations before me. There are very few of my generation I can vibe with and say, hey, we’re doing similar work.
How did you choose your subjects for this project?
The artists had to have a social or political message in their work, and had to embody innovation.
There’s Public Enemy who (revamped) hip hop; Fela Kuti from Nigeria, who created Afro-Beat; and Bob Marley who was part of the whole movement in Jamaica developing what became reggae.
I wanted the artists to be diverse in terms of genre, but I also wanted there to be a relationship with East Harlem and/or El Museo.
Ricanstruction has huge ties to El Barrio, the band is based here. There’s also (salsa musician) Eddie Palmieri who was born in El Barrio, and (poet) Pedro Pietri, who although he wasn’t from El Barrio, this is where he debuted Puerto Rican Obituary.
And finally, Julia de Burgos, who was a poet, very feminist, very nationalist, very ahead of her time. She died here on the corner of 105th and 5th, right (next to) El Museo. She was found in the street, and her friends had to identify her. A very tragic story.
Who else do you plan to include?
Curtis Mayfield, Bad Brains, Nina Simone, Ray Barretto, KRS-One, James Brown; Sylvia Rexach, Andres Jimenez…
What do you plan to do with these images after showing them?
These panels are such an awkward dimension, 19 inches by 76 inches high. I think they look like bookmarks. So my dream is raise money to print these as bookmarks (for young people) with song lyrics or poetry on the back. I’d also love to have a series of posters printed that could be sent to youth programs across the country. The same way you have a picture of George Washington in your classroom, there would be posters of Public Enemy.
How do you prepare to paint?
I think I’m addicted to stress. Most of the time, I do a lot of research. In the case of Bob Marley, I knew his music, but I never want to feel like a carpetbagger, so I read Catch A Fire which is a 400-page biography, and got a stack of 10 or 12 CDs. My I-pod has something like 115 Bob Marley songs that I combed through…so that what would come forth would be a legitimate portrayal. The same thing is going to happen with the next round. I have a 300-page book of Julia de Burgos’ poems and I’m doing a lot of research on her life.
Its almost like you are honoring ancestors/doing egun work with some of these pieces…
I never expected this to happen—but spiritual concepts have begun to dominate in my work. With Fela Kuti in particular, I was thinking about a documentary I had seen, and I said, oh my God, Fela’s so macho. So I started to think of (Yoruba thunder orisha) Chango, el gran macho. Once I had that theme, it dictated the color scheme, the numeric patterns, with the depictions of four women’s faces, four cowrie shells, four clusters. It’s interesting because part of Fela Kuti’s (rebellion) against colonialism was to celebrate traditional Yoruba culture. Although he was the son of a Protestant minister, every night that he performed, at 2:00 in the morning, he would stop and do a ceremony at his altar, for his ancestors.
A lot of times when I paint, I can make the figures and it doesn’t come across the way I want it to. I go through this very painful, frustrating struggle, and then the smoke clears, and this whole wonderful thing presents itself, but it’s not me controlling it. It’s almost like me serving as a conduit, like some sort of (spirits) are like, Yasmin, this is what needs to come through in this painting.
It’s almost like the artist becomes a spiritual medium but instead of giving verbal evidencia, you are giving images.
My maternal grandfather was an espiritista. Most of my aunts and uncles, and my mom, are all mediums. So from my earliest memories, I remember sitting in (misas). According to my grandfather, when I was a child, he told my mom that at some point, it would be my responsibility to carry on that tradition. While I still have a lot to learn, somehow I believe my art serves as the tool (for that).
Who is the audience you would most like to see this art?
Youth is key, of course, as well as people of color in general. When you are a person of color, particularly a child, it’s so helpful to see a positive reflection of yourself. As a high school student at LaGuardia, I would go to these museums, the Met and MOMA, and as much as I loved the art, I would not always feel a reflection of my own experience.
In the current show that’s up at the Studio Museum of Harlem…there are several images of people bathing in fire hydrants. How empowering, how legitimizing it is in the mind of a young person to see that depicted in a dramatic, black and white photo, hanging on the wall of a museum.
Even if someone (sees my work) who may not know who Ricanstruction is, they can say, hey, that’s a Puerto Rican guy with dreadlocks, or even, hey, those are people of color playing instruments. People of color seldom play instruments anymore. Music programs have been (cut) from schools, and then hip hop has perpetuated this idea that you just rap over a beat, so the need to play instruments no longer exists…
Those are the kinds of things I want people to see, and say, wow, it’s beautiful to see us in that light.
Why do you think critics tend to be so unfriendly towards overt messages and/or representational art?
It’s not just representational art–there is a tendency to want Latinos to be part of the mainstream—to have art that’s not “visually Latino”. But I want to be unapologetic, I don’t want to be conceptual and abstract. As to why people reject it, it makes the show less threatening if they can see it as a minimalist show that could just as well be in Chelsea, (instead of saying), go to El Museo, because you’re going to El Barrio.
I’m an artist educator, so I know the youth audience, and I totally created (this project) with youth in mind. 70 percent of my approach was wanting youth to understand the work…to have messages youth could easily pick up on.
What do you like most/least about working in New York?
Most—how you have a little bit of the world here. You can be exposed to other cultures before ever visiting their respective countries.
Least–the pace. This is a city that has you living at a pace where you are bound to die by the age of 45. It’s incredible the way people work, the fact that it can be 4 o’clock and people haven’t eaten lunch yet. I love to be in the Caribbean where I see people enjoying life. I like being in New York but (creating) an oasis where I can live at my own pace.