The figure lies beneath the water in a bathtub. A red bandana obscures the individual’s face. As one eye looks out warily; the other is concealed by a murky air bubble. The stark message "Muerto Rico" in handmade white letters is emblazoned across the figure’s black T-shirt.
The striking photograph, by the artist known as ADÁL, recently won recognition as the winner of the People’s Choice award in the National Portrait Gallery’s Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition. More than 17,000 cast their votes online—a record for the triennial competition.
“I was very happy and very honored, considering all the talent that was represented,” ADÁL said in a telephone interview from his home in Puerto Rico. “It caught me by surprise.”
“It’s an exciting moment for Latinx artists,” says Taína Caragol, organizer of the fifth annual competition and the Portrait Gallery’s curator of Latino art and history. When the show opened in October 2019, displaying nearly 50 of the 2,600 submissions to the competition, the Mexican-born artist Hugo Crosthwaite took first place with a stop-motion animated drawing, marking a first for a Latinx artist. ADÁL is the second Latinx artist to win its People’s Choice Award.
The competition and exhibition, held every three years and funded by an endowment from Virginia Outwin Boochever, was to have run through August 30, 2020 before traveling to up to four other venues across the U.S. As with the other Smithsonian museums, the Portrait Gallery has been closed since March 14 due to the novel coronavirus, but the show can still be viewed online.
The red mask wrapped around the nose and mouth on the figure in the bathtub certainly resonates in this time of a worldwide health pandemic that has already killed more than 120 residents of Puerto Rico. It’s the latest deadly malady on the island in recent years, following financial and political crises and lingering recovery from the devastation of Hurricane Maria that killed more than 3,000. It was amid those 2017 crises that ADÁL made the portrait and called it Muerto Rico, meaning Dead Rico.
“I was walking through Old San Juan,” ADÁL says, when he saw a man wearing that T-shirt. “I walked up to him and I said, ‘I don’t know who designed that T-shirt but I need to know.’ He says, ‘I did.’ I said, ‘Well, can you come to my studio? I’m working on a project. If you allow me to photograph you in that T-shirt, it would make a great image.’ He said, ‘Yeah,’ because he was an artist himself.”
His name is Bold Destrou, and when he came to the studio directly from a large protest against then-Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, he was carrying his red bandana, ADÁL says. “I said, let’s try that on and let’s get underneath the bathtub [water] and see what happens. And that’s how that image came to be.”
But his project at the time had its roots in work he had done decades earlier in New York, inspired by the books Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison and Carlos Castaneda’s The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge. While Ellison talked of black people who weren’t seen by white Americans, Castenada wrote of assemblage point dislocation. “Every person has a point somewhere in the body, in the back between the shoulder blades where the cosmic energy crosses,” says ADÁL. When trauma causes that assemblage point to shift, it can be as dislocating as when the points of a camera are out of focus.
ADÁL saw that kind of dislocation happening in the diaspora of Puerto Ricans in New York, of which he was one, and started photographing himself underwater. “It was really freaky,” he says. “I took a couple of pictures of that and said, Hm, let me see what happens if I take some pictures of out-of-focus people.”
The project eventually became the 1996 book Out of Focus Nuyoricans published by Harvard University Press with writing from collaborator Pedro Pietri.
Many years later, back in Puerto Rico, he ran across both the out-of-focus collection and the underwater portraits.
“I said, wow, this seems to be what’s happening in Puerto Rico right now. Because at that point we had at one hurricane, and we had a really bad economic crisis. Puerto Rico is going through some major changes, and we feel like we’re disempowered . . . this is making things even worse.”
He took a couple of underwater photographs of friends in his bathtub and posted them online, asking if anyone else wanted to be part of it. “The next day, within hours, I must have had 50 people writing me, saying, oh my god, that’s exactly what’s going on, you put your finger on the nerve of this situation and we would like to be part of it. So people started showing up in my studio. Then right in the middle of it, Hurricane Maria hit. And it became not only a crisis of economics, but it also became an ecological crisis as well. So it kept snowballing.”
Eventually 120 images made a series that became Puerto Ricans Underwater / Los Ahogados (The Drowned) that was also published in 2017. But when it came time to submit an entry into the National Portrait Gallery competition, he knew which one to pick.
“Because it was so dramatic and said Muerto Rico,” he says. “I said, if any of all these images talk about what’s going on, it has to be this one.”
Born Adal Maldonado in Utuado, Puerto Rico, in 1948, he moved to New York City at the age of 17. While studying at the San Francisco Art Institute in the early 1970s, he was encouraged to change his name to the single ADÁL by a famous visiting photographer, Lisette Model.
ADÁL had some previous associations with the Smithsonian before his People’s Choice Award. His piece, El Puerto Rican Passport was displayed in the 2014 exhibition “Our America The Latino Presence in American Art” at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The passport from the mythical El Spirit Republic of Puerto Rico was part of a project with Pedro Pietri, creating a fictional world, since many Americans tend to treat the territory since 1898 as a foreign country anyway.
In 2016, ADÁL received a Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship, giving him access to NASA archives at the National Air and Space Museum to create Coconauts in Space, a re-imagining of the Apollo 11 flight to the moon where a Puerto Rican is there to meet the astronauts. He was to present a theatrical version of the piece in New York this month, but it had to be canceled due to the pandemic.
Recently hospitalized for pancreatic cancer, ADÁL, 71, is working on a new series of photographs of clouds.
“I was looking at clouds from my hospital bed,” he says, “and felt like they were metaphors for transition and impermanence of things.”
"The Outwin 2019: American Portraiture Today” at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery can be viewed online. It is scheduled to travel to other U.S. museums. Currently, to support the effort to contain the spread of COVID-19, all Smithsonian museums in Washington, D.C. and in New York City, as well as the National Zoo are temporarily closed.