Contemporary Craft in Focus: Roberto Lugo

Remixing classical ceramics and underrepresented figures with a hip-hop style

colorful vase with portrait of man

Roberto Lugo, Juicy, 2021, glazed stoneware with enamel paint and luster, 19 7/8 x 13 3/8 x 9 3/8 in., Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the James Renwick Alliance in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Renwick Gallery and the 40th anniversary of the Alliance. © 2020, Roberto Lugo, Image by Dominic Episcopo courtesy of Wexler Gallery 

Artist Roberto Lugo remixes luxury porcelain objects with hip-hop style. He adorns classical pottery forms with hand-painted portraiture and surface design that incorporate his North Philadelphia roots. Through his works, he reimagines traditional European and Asian ceramics, highlighting themes of poverty, inequality, and racial injustice. 

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The reverse of Juicy depicting Tupac Shakur

In Juicy, Lugo appropriates the form of the ​“Century Vase,” a large vessel depicting George Washington created for the U.S. Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876. Lugo replaces the framer of American democracy with framers of American hip-hop, the Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur. 

The title, Juicy, comes from Biggie’s first single from his debut album ​“Ready to Die” in 1994. The song tells the rags-to-riches story about Biggie’s childhood in poverty, his dreams of musical greatness, his time dealing drugs, and how he transformed the music industry. The song resonates with Lugo’s own life story. Born in Kensington, Philadelphia, to working-class Puerto Rican parents, Lugo began his creative career tagging the walls of the city. Then, as the artist often recalls, ceramics saved his life, reorienting his priorities toward art, social justice, and community service. 

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Roberto Lugo, Frederick Douglass and Anna Murray Douglass Vase, 2021, glazed ceramic with enamel paint, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase through the Smithsonian Latino Initiatives Pool, administered by the Smithsonian Latino Center, 2022.5

I put these stories on pottery because pottery lasts forever. It is how we know about cultures past, and I refuse to have our stories forgotten. We are here and demand to be seen as sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, and not dispensable beings.

— Roberto Lugo

In Frederick Douglass and Anna Murray Douglass Vase, Lugo celebrates the contributions of the great abolitionist and his wife. While Frederick Douglass’s life story is well known, Anna Murray more quietly supported her husband’s projects, their growing family, and local anti-slavery causes. When the family lived in Rochester, New York, Anna Murray opened the family home to freedom seekers as part of the Underground Railroad.  

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The reverse of Frederick Douglass and Anna Murray Douglass Vase depicting Anna Murray Douglass

As in Juicy, the artist surrounds his figures with bold patterns in vibrant colors and urban elements such as graffiti-style bubble letters. Lugo uses his artwork to honor figures who have been traditionally underrepresented and, through the combination of subject and style, explores the intersections of identity, representation, empowerment, and storytelling. 

This Present Moment: Crafting a Better World marks the 50th anniversary of SAAM’s Renwick Gallery by celebrating the dynamic landscape of American craft. The exhibition explores how artists—including Black, Latinx, Asian American, LGBTQ+, Indigenous, and women artists—have crafted spaces for daydreaming, stories of persistence, models of resilience, and methods of activism that resonate today. In order to craft a better world, it must first be imagined. This story is part of a series that takes a closer look at selected artists and artworks with material drawn from exhibition texts, the catalogue, and artists' reflections.

Join artist Roberto Lugo at SAAM for the Clarice Smith Distinguished Lecture Series on Wednesday, September 14, at 6:30 p.m. ET. Register today to attend in person or watch online.