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artist statement

In Transitions is a series of interdependent portraits by myself and adult residents living at transitional housing facilities in the Bronx. To date, we have co-created over one hundred interdependent portraits. Ten pieces from the series are on display in the group exhibit, Art for Change: the Artist and the Homeless Collaborative, at the New-York Historical Society (NYHS) Museum. This artwork contributes to the history of artists who are changing the systems of representation that marginalize individuals by delimiting agency and erasing visibility.

In Transitions began as an artist-in-residency project at BronxWorks in 2017 at three transitional housing programs. At the onset of the pandemic, I continued the portrait series in person as an essential worker. I witnessed the residents' requests for visibility and agency intensifying, repeatedly overhearing, “Why won’t anybody give up some power?” In response, I added an extra day and two more facilities to my weekly schedule.

Doing the interdependent portraits elevates the residents visibility, agency, dignity and social support. Our teamwork and shared expectations render the depictions. Each portrait reveals that we share the power of representation. This agency involves at least two types of portraiture: self-portraiture and individual portraiture. In the mixture, our conversations may include inviting onlookers to join-in, which fortifies the social scaffolding and compounds the agency further. For an example from the Art for Change exhibit, Jose Garcia asked his friend Ann Marie Beniot to join us, she was so glad there was a constructive way to participate. Ann Marie added her perspective to Jose’s portrait by photographing us at work and contributing to our conversation. Hence, her photograph is a double portrait, Jose making his self portrait and me making an individual portrait of Jose.

Interdependent portraits support the residents’ emancipatory potential to represent themself as they want to be seen and gain recognition in their community. Framing the artwork and hanging it on the walls of the housing facilities expands our clients’ visibility. These portraits serve as positive mnemonic devices, a tool for facilitating conversations about and amplifying our clients’ accomplishments, creativity, work ethic and personal narrative. For example, as demonstrated in the photograph above, J.L. Torres is speaking to a reporter about his portrait. In recognition of their move to permanent housing, the residents may choose to take their portrait with them, and/or display it in a public exhibit.

Shift to Permanent Housing is a film made in a way that is akin to the drawings on display at the NYHS, it follows the same portrait formation principals. This piece expands the form of portraiture into video and reveals our teamwork and shared expectations. Peter Jimenez and I met many times since early 2016, most of our sessions were private at Peter’s request. We co-created four interdependent portrait drawings and took still pictures of our sessions. In 2019, on his last day at the Living Room Safe Haven, we planned to do something special. We agreed, a video would be a great way to remember our time together, to say goodbye, and key to the moment at hand, trying something new.

Just the two of us are in the film, and neither of us show our faces, save the drawn portrait. The film captures our conversation and our hands drawing together on paper, Peter is drawing his self portrait and I’m the portraitist drawing his individual portrait. Hence, the video shows the mixing of the two dominant portrait types into a new formation of portraiture, an interdependent portrait. Another aspect of note, since Peter’s literal face is not on film, our portrait drawing of him is an index that draws attention to Peter outside of the video. It operates akin to his drawn portrait hanging on the Living Room wall (which he does at the end video). Hence, the film is not a documentary, but rather a video portrait.

For me, every time a resident transitions to permanent housing is a moment of joy, so witnessing Annie, Jorge, and Peter’s transition was brilliant. The teamwork and shared expectations that rendered their portraits made their transition more personal. I feel the politics, economy and ethos in our country tied to Western declarations of individualism, as an affront. These values are disturbing and unfair. They’re a romanticised ideal that does not capture the lived experiences of anyone in the US, and are particularly harmful to Annie Faye Wilson-Rodgers, J.L. Torres, and Peter (three artists in the exhibit who have transitioned to permanent housing). I feel honored to be a part of fortifying the social scaffolding and building community with these residents.

Interdependent portraits promote the dignity of residents living at BronxWorks transitional housing facilities by weighing against the stereotypes of homelessness. Our face-to-face work ethic and value of each person’s contribution repeatedly stirs-up conversation that challenges the overinflated American dogma of self-reliance. What we are doing deflates aphorisms such as, ‘pull yourself up by your own boot straps.’ To emphasize our shared humanity, and to do so on such a large stage as the New-York Historical Society Museum, is imperative at a time when homelessness and the related stigma is increasing. As we finished up Annie's portrait she turned to me and said, "This artwork belongs in a museum. Where people can see it. People need to know we're ordinary people, going through a struggle."

BronxWorks is a group dedicated to helping Bronxites improve their economic and social wellbeing with diverse programs that feed, shelter, teach, and support over 60,000 community members. All of the documentation for each interdependent portrait is supported by signed release and consent of the participants. Art supplies for these portraits are generously donated by local businesses through the work of Materials for the Arts.

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