Manuel Acevedo reimagines the streets of his hometown of Newark, New Jersey, a city shaped by periods of unrest and urban renewal initiatives that tore down existing housing to erect massive housing projects.
MANUEL ACEVEDO: Hi, I'm Manuel Acevedo at the Smithsonian American Art Museum to talk about my work.
“Altered Sites” started in 1996. El Museo del Barrio was invited to do a collaboration with ICP for the first collaboration between the International Center of Photography and El Museo del Barrio. So basically, they asked me to propose a project. I said, "Hey, why don't we do this?
Why don't we think about what it would be like to create kind of revisions of El Barrio? Let's do a survey of the community. Let the young students photograph it and talk about what they'd like to see."
I introduced them to a drawing technique where we use the photograph as reference. We'd lay a piece of vellum over the photograph itself, so the image became kind of a ghost image. The idea was to create a drawing where you can alter the site without physically altering the photograph. They would use pencil to create these revisions of the community.
Two years later in 1998, I come across this lot. It was just kind of calling me. It was almost like a kind of a spiritual calling—like, "Photograph me, please." There was something about its barren state and something that felt very foreign, and I photographed it. I didn't know exactly how the structure should look. It was very intuitive. As I started to think about this tower, I also wanted it to be something that was kind of in this in-between stage of whether it was being constructed or being taken down, which is what I was experiencing with some of the architecture and some of the ruins in the city.
You'll notice that in most of my drawings, they seem to be very skeletal. I take advantage of the fact that also this kind of represents a state that Newark was in, kind of starting this Renaissance, the Newark Renaissance. What the Newark Renaissance represented to me was the possibility of building something but also never finishing it. I started to see multiple structures in the state of limbo. It was very easy to formally integrate these structures that they became questionable images of whether they were real or not.
The birds for me symbolized another world. I had also lost my father in '97 and when I made this piece, I had also started thinking about ways of communicating through birds to my father. I started to build this mythology around it. Every time I looked at a bird, I saw the possibility of that bird being a messenger as well.
The technique for “Rising” is a little different. “Rising “came out of one particular photograph that seems to be composited, but the tractor and the stolen car and the homes are all part of this image. What I did was superimpose the death mask of Pedro Albizu Campos, who was a revolutionary individual who fought for the independence of Puerto Rico, that I located through an institution in Ponce called El Museo de la Masacre. In the back room, there was a room that was dedicated to Albizu and there was his death mask. Interesting enough, when I spoke to the folks that were running the museum, I said, "I'm working on this project. Is it possible to photograph his death mask?" They invited me to come back the next day, and they took the glass off the showcase, and allowed me to photograph it. I superimposed his face into the landscape thinking about kind of Mount Rushmore, kind of the equivalent. Here's this hero who becomes an integral part of our mountain in this landscape in Aguada, Puerto Rico.
Smithsonian American Art Museum (8th and G Streets, NW)
America’s urban streets have long inspired documentary photographers. After World War II, populations shifted from the city to the suburbs and newly built highways cut through thriving neighborhoods, leaving isolated pockets within major urban centers. As neighborhoods started to decline in the 1950s, the photographers in this exhibition found ways to call attention to changing cities and their residents. Down These Mean Streets: Community and Place in Urban Photography explores the work of ten photographers—Manuel Acevedo, Oscar Castillo, Frank Espada, Anthony Hernandez, Perla de Leon, Hiram Maristany, Ruben Ochoa, John Valadez, Winston Vargas, and Camilo José Vergara—who were driven to document and reflect on the state of American cities during these transformative years.
Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art presents the rich and varied contributions of Latino artists in the United States since the mid-twentieth century, when the concept of a collective Latino identity began to emerge. The exhibition is drawn entirely from the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s pioneering collection of Latino art. It explores how Latino artists shaped the artistic movements of their day and recalibrated key themes in American art and culture.