Miguel Luciano’s Pure Plantainum (2006) is a precious object. The question is, what makes it so? Is it prized because of what it represents (a plantain), a complex icon in Puerto Rican and other Caribbean cultures, or because it is covered in an expensive material, platinum? “In the Spanish speaking Caribbean,” Luciano explains, “the plantain is a signifier of national culture, and is also embedded with layered vernacular references to race and class. As plantation workers were identified by the notorious ‘stains’ that plantains left on their clothing, class and labor associations became increasingly radicalized. For example, one who has dark skin might be labeled as having inherited ‘la mancha del plátano’ or ‘the stain of the plantain,’ a racist colloquialism that persists in vernacular expression, equating blackness to a stain upon skin or culture.” In his interactions with young people in Brooklyn, New York, Luciano witness the birth of another attributed meaning: Latino pride.
Since the beginning of his career, Luciano has explored the rich links between history and popular culture. Born in Puerto Rico and raised on the island and in the United States, Luciano fluently interweaves references to both places, exposing the fissures and tensions between the two. He approaches each project like a DJ. Luciano conducts historical and primary research, and then returns to the studio or community laboratory to remix what he has found. His Pure Plantainum series, which consists of sculptures and photography, was born from his interest in an icon that first appeared in colonial Puerto Rican art. Across time plantains have signified Puerto Rican cultural and political sovereignty, maligned African ancestry, and masculine identity. Luciano’s bejeweled creation – which houses a decomposing plantain within – fuses these meanings and offers insights into how the meaning of symbols changes through migration. His sculpture, with its shiny and pristine exterior, is clearly a treasured object, which, like the goal of Puerto Rican political independence, may be hard to attain. For racialized Latino youth in the United States, the plantain functions as a badge of pride, a resistant emblem that proudly announces their ties to their imported roots. By fashioning an object that assumes the bling-bling guise of hip-hop culture – where extravagant platinum jewels are a sought-after commodity – Luciano further calls attention to the ways in which Latinos are staking a claim in a culture they, too, helped produce. For these reasons, Luciano’s consumerist fantasy is nuanced in a different way than Jeff Koons’s stainless steel Rabbit (1986). While both sculptures revel in reflective surfaces and parody the excesses of consumer culture, Luciano’s inventions, like those of Pepón Osorio, expose the link between consumption and cultural resistance.
Craftsmanship is a central part of Luciano’s art. Each new project requires that he hone new skills or work with outside collaborators to achieve a highly polished look. The results are works that take on the appearance of objects that could exist in the world; however, their hyper-embellishment requires a second look. Luciano does not necessarily try to fool his audience, although he sometimes does, but to encourage viewers to pause and consider the meaning of a popular culture we all so easily consume.
Luciano is also a dedicated collaborative public artist whose recent projects have taken a commemorative turn. In Pimp My Piragua, Luciano created a decked-out version of a piragua cart (or shaved-ice pushcart), complete with a glassy fiberglass exterior, flat-screen monitors, and a rocking sound system. For Caribbean migrants, piragua carts have long functioned as quick start-up businesses during tough economic times. Luciano’s exaggerated and functional cart literally calls attention to Latino ingenuity and allows him to playfully parade this marker of Latino culture and history through rapidly gentrifying urban communities.