Taller Puertorriqueño inaugurated its new building, El Corazón Cultural Center, last week with a packed audience that included Mayor Kenney and many leaders of Philadelphia’s Latino community. Carmen Febo-San Miguel, Taller’s executive director, beamed with pride at the podium after a campaign that lasted 12 years and brought this venerable institution from two small buildings on Fifth Street to a nearly 24,000-square-foot state-of-the-art beauty.
The new building houses a bilingual bookstore and gift shop, 200-seat auditorium, ample classrooms, and a spacious art gallery. Exhibitions manager Rafael Damast curated a provocative inaugural exhibition, Nuestro Tema: Llamada y Respuesta (Our Theme: Call and Response), that engages with 24 Latino artists from Philadelphia to Brazil.
Rafael Damast was born in Venezuela and grew up in New York City. His mother was Venezuelan painter Elba Damast. He has worked as Taller since 2010 and curated over 30 exhibitions in the cozy second floor Lorenzo Homar Gallery. His intention now, with each exhibition in the larger space, is that art should be a mirror for the community, that each Latino child or adult who enters the gallery sees him or herself reflected in the art. Damast seeks an ongoing conversation between the community and artists; thus, in the middle of this exhibition sits a bright orange wall named “Y Tú” (And You), where people can post their comments. On the day I visited, young people lined up to post their ideas.
Volviendo a casa
Prior to inaugurating this beautiful gallery, Taller didn’t have a space to house its art collection and its artworks were scattered throughout different Latino institutions in the city. Based on the “llamada y respuesta,” of traditional "bomba” music, Damast has brought back many works owned by Taller as the “llamada,” or call, and paired them with original works by Latino artists who make up the “respuesta,” or response.
The “llamada” works are displayed on walls painted in white, while their “respuesta” counterparts hang on bright indigo blue ones. For example, San Antonio Train Yard (1998), by Marta Sánchez, is echoed for its shape and abstraction in Head(s) Trauma (2006), by Marilyn Rodríguez. While Evolution (1978), by Domingo Negrón, serves as inspiration for Monserrat (2014), by Daniel de Jesús, both representing deities.
Taller’s permanent collection will be on display for a year, but the response artists will change, starting on March 4, 2017 when a new set of artists will be represented. This gives an opportunity to many Latino artists to collaborate in this ongoing inaugural exhibition. One of Damast’s interests is Latino identity or “Latinidad,” since it involves so many countries and ethnicities, and leaves room for all to be appreciated in this exhibition. He also plans to have future guest curators who will bring their personal vision to this wonderful space.