The Mint Museum and other Charlotte arts institutions have closed their doors again in an effort to curb rising numbers of COVID-19 infections. That means now through Feb. 2, when the Mint plans to reopen, is a good time to view the museum’s first online exhibition, “Expanding the Pantheon: Women R Beautiful.”
It includes 26 of 51 digital photographs by New York City-based artist Ruben Natal-San Miguel, and serves as a critique of Garry Winogrand’s 1975 series, “Women Are Beautiful.” Those photos were published as a monograph and have been exhibited across the nation at museums including The Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago.
Both portfolios showcase women in New York City.
But Natal-San Miguel’s digital take, nearly 50 years later, challenges Winogrand’s perspective of women and beauty. A gay man from Puerto Rico, Natal-San Miguel found Winogrand’s work dated — a white, straight, male’s view of the world, he said in the text that accompanies the exhibit.
Natal-San Miguel features religious and ethnic diversity, along with transgender subjects and some in drag. Hair curlers and Halal food carts, fire hydrants and script tattoos each add elements of life in New York City today.
A ‘SLICE IN THE LIFE’
As viewers make their way through the slideshow, they are encouraged to read artist captions. According to the Mint’s Jen Sudul Edwards, who curated the exhibition, the captions are an important way to include the artist’s voice.
In “Negesti (A Harlem Queen),” a vibrant backdrop of red, yellow and mint green highlights the portrait of a woman wearing a three-tiered choker-style necklace made from shells and brightly patterned and textured clothing. The Mint’s accompanying narrative describes it as a “celebration of African ancestry and power.”
The artist explains his encounter with the subject in the caption: “Every time I interact with my family, there is conflict, resentment, and drama,” Natal-San Miguel said. “The minute I left my apartment to go to Orchard Beach, I turned a corner on 125th and Fifth Avenue and ran into Negesti. Her beauty, style and soul was what I truly needed to rinse myself off from how toxic families can be.”
In “3 Muslim Girls,” Natal-San Miguel showcases women in traditional robes and headscarves, standing together, hands clasped, with the elevated steel tracks of a train in front of them. Natal San-Miguel was struck by the “cinematic NYC moment: The subway, immigrants, religion and tradition in the Boogie Down Bronx all blended up together.”
“(The exhibition) gives a very slice-in-the-life feel,” Edwards said. “You have all of these different faces and bodies and personal styles — I feel like you could be walking down the streets of New York and these are all of the people you’d see.”
You might find one of the subjects on the streets of Charlotte, too.
Local journalist Mary Curtis, featured in one of the images, wears a large, hand-beaded necklace and appears “statuesque from the autumnal change around her, the organic frisson of her beaded Joyce J. Scott necklace emphasizing the balanced poise of her person.”
With this portrait, Natal-San Miguel wanted to celebrate the dedication and bravery of the award-winning journalist who has covered politics, culture, and race for years. (The photo of Curtis will be on display in the Contemporary Gallery at Mint Museum Uptown when it reopens.)
“There’s a lot of political and social content in my photos,” Natal-San Miguel said. “It has become a responsibility for me. This is bigger than me having a photo on a wall.”
‘AN IMMEDIATE EXPERIENCE’
The Mint’s previous attempts and engaging audiences during the coronavirus pandemic, including walk-throughs and gallery talks, “didn’t feel as powerful,” Edwards said. “This format, with photos online, is more of an immediate experience.”
Natal-San Miguel’s work also fits in with the museum’s work to confront the predominantly European nature of what appears on gallery walls.
“Everyone (in the museum industry) has been talking about the importance and responsibility that museums have to make sure their representation in their galleries is covering everyone, not just the Eurocentric experiences we’re used to seeing,” Edwards said.
For this exhibition, she worked with the artist to choose images that translated best online.
One portrait may seem familiar: “Mama (Beautiful Skin),” hangs in the Mint Museum Uptown’s contemporary gallery.
As the Mint describes it online, “The woman — arms crossed, shoulders back — stares at us, the viewer, with confrontation that may outshine her own confidence. The bold red backdrop — a van, with slight reflections in the refulgent surface — highlights not only her stalwart posture, but also, her skin, an effect of vitiligo. The details — her skin, her cornrows, the white T-shirt, even the red van — are not elements often seen in an art gallery or museum.”
And that’s Natal-San Miguel’s goal: Shifting the definition of beauty and who’s celebrated for it.
“The security guard said that his niece has the same skin condition as ‘Mama’ on the wall,” Natal-San Miguel said. “There’s no price tag for that.”
“(I want people to) see themselves, or develop empathy for the experience of people like that,” he said. “These people have the same right to be in the world and to be celebrated as anybody else. I’m looking for empathy, equality and celebration of all people from all walks of life.”
In addition to a celebration of diversity, the work is symbolic of two women in the artist’s life. In November 2019, Natal-San Miguel’s mother passed away. The same day, he learned that his friend and neighbor Jennifer Schlecht, an advocate for women’s reproductive health rights, was murdered by her husband, along with their 5-year-old daughter, the New York Times reported. It reported that her husband had taken his own life.
According to Natal-San Miguel, the portfolio is his way of memorializing the lost women while working on personal healing.
“A lot of my work is about redemption and celebration, and recognizing people who have been marginalized in society for decades,” he said. “My way to connect with them is to celebrate them.”
ABOUT THE EXHIBIT
What: The Mint Museum is virtually exhibiting Expanding the Pantheon: Women R Beautiful by New York City-based artist Ruben Natal-San Miguel.
Where: Online at https://mintmuseum.org/women-r-beautiful-online-exhibition/
When: Now through June 20
This story ran in The Charlotte Observer on January 21, 2021