Excluded Histories: A Visual Exploration of Identity over the last 40 Years

Since 1974, En Foco has been dedicated to promoting cultural diversity in the field of photography. While its efforts were originally focused on Latin@s* in New York, En Foco soon expanded its mission to include photographers of African and Asian heritage in the United States and Native Peoples of the Americas and the Pacific.

Over the last 38 years, En Foco has acquired nearly 700 prints from many of the photographers who have taken part in the programs En Foco offers. These prints encompass a variety of subject matter, points of view and photographic styles. Many have historically been excluded from mainstream institutions, such as museums, galleries and in academic settings for a variety of reasons, including structural and institutional racism.

Featured artists such as Adál and Charles Biasiny-Rivera dissect the intricacies of their Latin@ identity through their photographs, while Lola Flash deconstructs racism, sexism, and homophobia through her compelling portraiture. The exploration of identity becomes a critical guide for the inner-workings of an external perception of self and the construction of a contemporary artistic community.

Adál, Conceptual Jibaro Art, 1990.  **
Charles Biasiny-Rivera, Child God, 1998. **
Lola Flash, Kinky D, [sur]passing series, 2003.  **

Some of the earliest work in the collection is primarily represented in a documentary style of photography that emerged during and directly after the civil rights era. This work is the transition between outsider’s cultural representation/interpretation of inner-city life of Latin@s and African Americans to a form of self-representation, as the emerging photographers were those living and understanding the complexities of life in these neighborhoods. These photographers became a crucial aspect in the political and social movements of the time. One example of this earlier work is Louis Carlos Bernal‘s Dos Mujeres, Familia Lopez 1978. Louis Carlos Bernal captures the souls of the Mexican American communities of the Southwest.

Louis Carlos Bernal, Dos Mujeres, Familia Lopez 1978.

The second part of the collection and exhibition is the beginning of the 1990’s when a multicultural discourse is set in place. These photographs and photographers span multiple cultural and ethnic voices, promoting an inclusive nature to En Foco as well as a safe space for artists who have historically been excluded from this medium’s history.

The photographs that stem from the beginning of the 1990’s to present day explore in-depth discourses surrounding otherness, identity and socially constructed ideologies of self. For example, Gerald Cyrus, Los Angeles born, moved to NYC and began photographing on the streets of Harlem capturing a vibrant music scene that reflected the rich cultural discourse of the 1990’s. He brought the jazz scene in African American communities to the visual forefront of America, creating impeccable and nostalgic photographs. His work not only included the musicians but the dancers, bartenders, barflys, hustlers, lovers and others that were prominently part of the jazz scene as well. His photograph, St. Nick’s Pub, Harlem, 1995, is a perfect example of the eclectic community members and scenes he captured.

Gerald Cyrus, St. Nicks Pub, Harlem, 1995.  **

The final part of the exhibition examines the more contemporary works of art from 2000 to the present day. The contemporary work in this collection is not only that of the digital era, but these pieces of work are critical of the contemporary art scene and explicit in their visual analysis of their cultural histories today. Terry Boddie’s series, Residue of Memory 2000/2007, is an investigation of the relationship between documented memory and individual and personal memory in the Caribbean. The juxtaposition of the black and white photograph with the bright yellow hues in the piece, School Days**, reflects the tension between both kinds of memory as well as history and myth, and remembering versus forgetting.

Ana de Orbegoso’s series, Urban Virgins, is, as quoted in her artist statement, “ [a culmination of] colonial paintings, revised and reinvented to reflect contemporary realities and ideals”. Her photograph, La Virgin del Norte, is an example of the transformation from analog photography to digital photography. Here, Orbegoso provides a visual confrontation of colonialism and the transformation of art as propaganda to convey a different message then the Spanish colonizers originally intended with their religious paintings in Peru. Orbegoso re-establishes these images as ones that strengthen the value of Peruvian women, instead of imposing and binding western religion, stereotypes and ideas onto them.

Each and every one of these photographers have not only created visually stimulating pieces of artwork, but they have challenged us to alter our preconceived notions of belonging and speculative spaces, inspired us to embrace our multi-faceted and layered identities and to explore in-depth the discourses surrounding the misrepresentation of our histories. These prints and others by Jane Tam, Larry McNeil, Sama Alshaibi, Kunié Sugiura for example, are all extremely valued not only for the impressive and creative elements but for the resonance of power and state of reflection they so generously provide.

Please join us for the Opening reception at Aljira, a Center for Contemporary Art on Thursday June 28th, 2012 from 6-9pm. We are so lucky to have this inspiring exhibition so close to New York City where many of these artists reside! For the full list of artists in the exhibition, click here.

There will also be a Curatorial Panel on July 10th featuring Deborah Willis, Curator, Educator, Photo Historian; Brendan Wattenberg, curator at the Walther Collection; Elizabeth Ferrer, Curator of En Foco/In Focus and Director of Visual Arts at BRIC/Rotunda Gallery;  and Miriam Romais, En Foco Executive Director.

And an Artist Talk on July 17th featuring Terry Boddie, Lola Flash, and Samantha Box.

Both the Curatorial Panel and Artist Talk will also be held at Aljira, A Center for Contemporary Art, 591 Broad Street, Newark, NJ 07102.

Terry Boddie, School Days, 2000/2007.  **
Ana De Orbegoso, La Virgin Del Norte.  **

*The “@” symbol is used in order to create gender inclusivity in this context.

** This print, or a similar one by this artist, is available as part of En Foco’s Print Collectors Program.

Art & Cocktails Benefit Honoring Deborah Willis

Honoree Deborah Willis, Photo © Ray Llanos 2011

On the evening of November 1st, the En Foco familia gathered at the home of board member Sid Baumgarten, and Terri Paladini Baumgarten, to celebrate the achievements of photo curator, historian, and woman extraordinaire Deborah Willis, and to raise funds for our nationally traveling permanent collection exhibition En Foco/In Focus: Selected Works from the Permanent Collection.

En Foco’s co-founder and director-emeritus, Charles Biasiny-Rivera, wrote an essay in the late 80s which still rings true today. In it, he emphasized the importance of “creating our own mentors, seers and visionaries who are found among our communities, who remind us of our own destiny – and the strength & dignity resulting from that knowledge.” Deborah Willis has long been a mentor for not only our organization, but also for many of the photographers we have worked with and in this spirit, we presented her with En Foco’s first award for making a notable difference in photographic history and beyond.

Named among the 100 Most Important People in Photography by American Photography magazine, Dr. Deborah Willis is Chair and Professor of Photography and Imaging at Tisch School of the Arts, New York University. She is one of the nation’s leading historians of African American photography and curator of African American culture, as well as a 2005 Guggenheim and Fletcher Fellow and a 2000 MacArthur Fellow. Among all these achievements, her pride and joy is also sharing that she is Hank Willis Thomas‘ mom.

         Deborah Willis accepting her award reading, “En Foco honors Deborah Willis whose dedication brings cultural diversity in photography into focus”   Photo © Ray Llanos 2011

Her projects include Posing Beauty –African American Images from the 1890s to the Present, Let Your Motto Be Resistance: African American PortraitsBlack Venus 2010: They Called Her ‘Hottentot’ (editor), Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers 1840 to the Present. Most recently, Dr. Willis’s book, Michelle Obama, The First Lady in Photographs, garnered her the 2010 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work – Biography/Autobiography, and she is the recipient of the 2010 Society of Photographic Education‘s  Honored Educator Award. On this evening, it was truly an honor to present her with En Foco’s Award.

Curator Elizabeth Ferrer and honoree Deborah Willis, Photo © Mark Denning 2011

Just as our honoree has brought to light so many photographers of the African diaspora, our permanent collection aims to do the same with artists of diverse cultures. Since it’s founding almost forty years ago, En Foco has celebrated the right of artists of Latino, African, Asian and Native American heritage to self-representation and a space where they can be welcomed, validated, and encouraged to be active participants in the art world. As a leader in documenting the efforts of these artists, En Foco developed a permanent collection of images spanning the past four decades.

Honoree Deborah Willis and longtime En Foco supporter Bill Aguado, Photo © Ray Llanos 2011

In an effort to get this work seen by the public, we worked with curator Elizabeth Ferrer on a nationally traveling exhibition, En Foco/In Focus: Selected Works from the Permanent Collection, which opened this fall at Light Work in Syracuse, New York. Thanks to the Art & Cocktail ticket purchases, donations, and Print Collectors Program purchases we were able to raise $8,000 help meet to the matching fund requirement for our National Endowment for the Arts American Masterpieces grant. These funds will hep toward our goal to travel the show around the country and publish an extensive exhibition catalog.

We extend our heartfelt thanks to the following contributors for helping to make An Evening of Art & Cocktails a huge success:

Board Secretary Sidney Baumgarten, Bill Mindlin, Anthony Beale, Board Chair Susan Karabin, Photo © Ray Llanos 2011

Bill Aguado
Lacy Austin
Sidney Baumgarten
Geraldine Botwinick
S Brookes
Mark Brown
Martisa Cholmondeley
Crosswell Collins
Gerald Cyrus
Anne Damianos
C. Danny Dawson
Ana de Orbegoso
Roni Diamond
Douglas Eklund
Elizabeth Ferrer

Board Member Frank Gimpaya and Executive Director Miriam Romais, Photo © Ray Llanos 2011

Lola Flash
Reggi Reich Gerber
Frank Gimpaya
Terrence Jennings
Donna Marie Jones
Harold Kooden
Saori Kurioka
Ayana Jackson
Anders Jones
Mariamma Kambon
Susan Karabin
Ray Llanos
George Malave
Nancy Mercurio

Hostess Terry Paladini Baumgarten and Paula, Photo by © Ray Llanos 2011

Groana Melendez
Bruce & Jennifer Miller
William Mindlin
Miraida Morales
Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe
John Nicholas
Lorie Novak
Jacqueline Nussbaum
Ann O’Connor
David Pacheco
Terry Paladini
Sandra Perez
Alex Picciano
Gloria Picciano

Lola Flash, Miriam Romais and Ana de Orbegoso, Photo © Ray Llanos 2011

John Pinderhughes
William Robbins
Luis Rodriguez
J. Thomas Roland, Jr.
Shari Rueckl
Donald Taffurelli
Hank Willis Thomas
Len Walker
Lewis Watts

We still have a little way to go to meet our grant match — if you would like to contribute towards our Permanent Collection project, you can still make a secure online tax-deductible donation HERE, or by calling En Foco at 718-931-9311.

Lewis Watts, Miriam Romais, Hank Willis Thomas, and Lacy Austin, Photo © Ray Llanos 2011
Photo © Ray Llanos 2011
Photo © Ray Llanos 2011
Photo © Ray Llanos 2011
John Pinderhughes and Deborah Willis, Photo © Ray Llanos 2011
M. Liz Andrews and Awam Amkpa, Photo © Ray Llanos 2011
Anthony Beale, Deborah Willis and Ayana Jackson, photo © Ray Llanos
Miriam Romais, Deborah Willis and Lorie Novak, Photo © Mark Denning 2011
Groana Melendez and Lola Flash, Photo © Ray Llanos 2011
Jamel Shabazz, photo © Ray Llanos
Betty Wilde-Biasiny, photo © Ray Llanos
Alex Picciano (left), board member Miraida Morales (middle), and friends, photo © Ray Llanos
Hilary Thorsen and Danny Dawson, photo © Mark Denning