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Puerto Rican Artist Creates Exhibit With A Political Edge

Underwater photoe xhibit

A photograph from a new exhibit by Puerto Rican photographer Adál Maldonado

Being underwater in a confined space, unable to breathe, triggers an instinctual alarm—it’s uncomfortably close to actually drowning. For celebrated Puerto Rican photographer Adál Maldonado, it’s also a biting metaphor for the state of the island today.
In his new series, Puerto Ricans Underwater, Adál presents Boricuas of varying ages, lifestyles and occupations, each of them submerged in a tub, their bodies restricted by its size and their faces obscured beneath the bathwater. The resulting images are subtly eerie and chill-inducing; they evoke the shock and burn of accidentally inhaling water.
But that’s only the first-glance effect. What do these photographs mean in the context of Puerto Rico’s colonial state?
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Photography Exibiit: Adál Maldonado

“I think mainly and most importantly, it’s the sense of denial of self-determination by having the federal government sort of impose their agenda on you. That feeling that you get from not being in control of your own life,” Adál says. “That will manifest differently depending on different people…but I would say that’s pretty much it; not having a voice, feeling impotent inside of your own condition.”
But before he’d settled on the final out-of-focus effect, Adál tried out the underwater idea—ultimately, though, it was set aside. A few years ago, he recalls, he revisited the concept when taking photos of a visiting friend, Jeannette Betancourt, a Puerto Rican visual artist living in Mexico. It wasn’t until a month-and-a-half ago, however, that he began developing a complete series.
“I was like, oh my God, this happened 20-something years ago, but it seems to be appropriate to what’s happening in Puerto Rico right now,” he says.
Adál’s storied artistic history is rich with political and social commentary. The Nuyoricans series was an outgrowth of a project with the late Pedro Pietri, a founding member of the Nuyorican Movement of the ’60s and ’70s. Together they created El Puerto Rican Embassy, “a mythological state” replete with manifesto, passport and other identifying documents for citizens, as well as a
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