El Museo del Barrio, at 104th Street and Fifth Avenue, was founded in 1968 by artist and educator, Rafael Ortiz. Half Mexican and half Puerto Rican, Ortiz wanted Latino children to know about their culture, especially visually, so he created this “museum of the neighborhood” which is considered New York’s leading Latino cultural institution.
Museum educator Romina Maguira guided us through the exhibit. Greeters felt her pride in her own Mexican heritage as she spoke about one of Mexico’s most illustrious artists: photographer and cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa.
Born in 1907 and orphaned at an early age, Figueroa grew up in his aunt’s family of liberal writers and those seeking social justice. In both his art forms, he wanted to dignify the native people of Mexico, to win back land stolen from them in the Mexican Revolution, and to build national pride.
Starting out in 1927, Figueroa opened his own photography studio and honed his skills by creating “head shots” for actors. These striking photos show the precision and drama that would appear in his later work.
A unifying theme in his photographs and films is the majesty of the Mexican landscape. Under the Mexican sky, his rugged terrains, crashing waves and spewing volcanoes all highlight his reverence for Mexico’s natural beauty.
Figueroa became part of the movie industry at age 25. Between Mexico and Hollywood, he made 235 films and documentaries. He worked well into his seventies and became internationally acclaimed for his cinematography in movies such as The Night of the Iguana, directed by John Huston; Viva Villa! directed by Howard Hawks; and Los Olvidados, directed by Luis Bunuel.
Later in his career, he added some color scenes to his black and white films, but the scenes lacked the power of his black and white work. He felt it was his mission to “guide the camera in capturing not only lights, shadows and colors, but the movement of life itself.”
The exhibit closes on June 27th, and it includes work from the same period by other artists and filmmakers such as Diego Rivera, Sergei Eisenstein and Tina Modotti. To learn about all exhibits, go to www.elmuseo.org