Adál Maldonado, an influential Puerto Rican photographer and artistic provocateur who explored the psychological and cultural consequences of the Puerto Rican diaspora in New York, died on December 9 in San Juan. He was 72 years old.
His death in a hospital was caused by pancreatic cancer, said Francisco Rovira Rullán, his San Juan gallery owner and the manager of his estate. Mr. Maldonado had returned to Puerto Rico in 2010.
Maldonado’s main theme was identity, a concept that for him constantly changed depending on his circumstances.
As a teenager, he and his family moved from their home in the mountainous Puerto Rican countryside to New Jersey and then to the urban cacophony of the Bronx. The experience left a feeling of displacement that would be the driving theme of his art, making him the epitome of “Nuyorican” – one that spans New York and Puerto Rico and feels at home in neither.
“We’re complex because the slave trade brought so many different cultures and races through Puerto Rico,” he told the New York Times in 2012. “I was raised to feel like I had many different dimensions to choose from.”
For more than 45 years, Mr. Maldonado – who just passed Adál’s job, a nickname suggested to him by the photographer Lisette Model – worked in various media of various genres. His art was often imbued with acrid satirical humor and a subversive political message.
It has been exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museo del Barrio in New York, as well as the Musee d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. Some of his photographs remain in their permanent collections.
His works include photo novels – small photo picture books with words like “I was a schizophrenic mambo dancer for the FBI”. His piece of music “La Mambopera” (2006) contains elements from film noir and science fiction in the representation of a dark future in which Latin American music is forbidden.
Mr. Maldonado used the camera both to document reality and to distort it.
“He consistently played with our expectations of photography, oscillating between questioning and affirming its objectivity and its ability to capture reality,” said Taína Caragol, curator of Latin American art and history at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington.
For his book “Portraits of the Puerto Rican Experience” (1984), Mr. Maldonado photographed 100 prominent Puerto Ricans, including Miriam Colon, Rita Moreno, Jose Ferrer and Raul Julia, to document their importance for American cultural history. The New York City public school system used these portraits in its social science curriculum, and the National Portrait Gallery acquired 15 of them.
One of his best-known endeavors is “El Puerto Rican Embassy”, an elaborate, satirical piece that he created in 1994 in collaboration with the poet Pedro Pietri. Combining poetry and images, the project envisions a Puerto Rico that has achieved self-determination after long in limbo as the US Commonwealth, neither independent nor as a state.
The government in the “embassy” has its own national anthem, which was written in Spanish by Mr. Pietri. its own church, La Santa Iglesia de la Madre de los Tomates (The Holy Church of the Mother of Tomatoes); and its own space program. (In Mr. Maldonado’s report, American astronauts landed on the moon in 1969, only to discover that Puerto Rican explorers got there first.)
Their fictional message issued passports with intentionally blurry images in documents that, while realistic, were actually filled with poetry. By blurring the photos, Mr. Maldonado wanted to convey the political and psychological ambiguity of Puerto Ricans – American citizens who often feel like colonialists.
“Adál spoke of ‘imagination’ as his nation,” said Dr. Caragol of the National Portrait Gallery in a telephone interview. “He used this phrase to refer to the endless possibilities of breaking free from oppressive social and political structures by unleashing the imagination.”
Adál Alberto Maldonado was born on November 1, 1948 in Utuado, PR, where his parents were farmers. After the divorce, Adál and his sister moved with their mother to Trenton, New Jersey, when they were 13. They lived in an apartment above the studio of a portrait photographer who taught Adál how to process and print film, techniques Adál would use to pass on to other photographers, including Robert Mapplethorpe.
Adál’s mother remarried and the family moved to the Bronx when she was 17. He then studied photography at the Art Center College of Design in Southern California and the San Francisco Art Institute, which he graduated in 1973.
He returned to New York in 1975 and helped found the Foto Gallery in SoHo. His first book, “The Evidence of Things That Were Not Seen” (1975), consisted mostly of post-surrealist collage self-portraits along with his portraits of other photographers who had influenced him.
Mr Maldonado returned to Puerto Rico a decade ago when his mother, Mari Santiago, who had returned there in the 1960s, fell ill. She survives him with a son, Lucian, and a sister, Nilsa Maldonado. Mr. Maldonado had never married.
Many years earlier in New York, he had experimented with a series of photos he called “Puerto Ricans Underwater”, which he then put aside. After relocating to Puerto Rico, underwater took on a new meaning when the island began drowning $ 78 billion in debt. The financial crisis turned into a catastrophe after Hurricane Maria hit in 2017, killing around 3,000 people and leaving much of the island in ruins.
Mr. Maldonado began photographing ordinary people, most of them strangers, whom he had recruited online to come to his home and pose in his bathtub underwater. The result was eerie memories of Puerto Rico’s feelings of drowning and helplessness.
Most noticeable is a man who wears a black T-shirt that says “Muerto Rico” or “Dead Rico”. The photo won the People’s Choice Award in a competition at the National Portrait Gallery and was part of Mr. Maldonado’s series “Puerto Ricans Underwater / Los Ahogados (The Drowned One)” published in 2017.
“He gave a church a face when that church was faceless,” said his gallery owner Rullán in a telephone interview.
One of Mr. Maldonado’s latest work was a series above clouds that he observed from the hospital after his cancer was diagnosed.
“I was looking at clouds from my hospital bed,” he told Smithsonian Magazine in June, “and felt like metaphors for the transition and impermanence of things.”