According to artist Sofia Maldonado, the stylized female figures on her 92’ x 12’ mural at Times Square (on view now until April 30, 2010) were meant to represent working women who are seldom seen in mainstream media. They are working class Latinas, the kind of women that Rosie Perez brought to the large screen in Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing" more than twenty years ago. Beige and brown-skinned with hair colors that aren't usually found in nature, the women of Maldonado's imagination wear tight clothing, airbrushed fingernails nails and elaborate coiffures fit for a hair show. They skateboard and shake their hips to a distant dancehall beat. And although they're supposed to be enjoying themselves, the mural’s title, “Women Working to Get Ahead," explains why its subjects don’t exactly look happy.
Several African Americans, both male and female, took offense to the large-scale painting that was commissioned by the Times Square Alliance for Women’s History Month. In a recent video that features the painting, viewers stand before it, snapping photos and shouting in frustration. Speaking for the silent, somber figures behind them, the protesters voiced their fears that the mural might tarnish the reputation of dignified black women far and wide.
In response to the criticism, Sofia Maldonado, who was born in Puerto Rico and trained at Pratt Institute recently issued a statement in defense of her work:
“[My mural] illustrates strong New York City women as a tribute to the Caribbean experience in America. Inspired by my heritage, it illustrates a female aesthetic that is not usually represented in media or fashion advertising in Times Square. It recognizes the beauty of underground cultures such as reggaeton, hip-hop and dancehall and incorporates trends such as nail art and Latina fashion.”
But to some, the statement wasn’t enough to heal psychological wounds that stem from the fact that for far too long, media images of women of color have failed to show the full scope of their humanity. For many, these wounds are healing, but they still hurt.
It’s safe to say that the protesters wouldn't have had much say about larger than life sized painting of a wise Latina, like Sonia Sotomayor. But what about a streetwise Latina artist who uses vivid color to make people stop and take a good look at her people, for better or for worse? By giving viewers pause, Sofia Maldonado making them ask themselves questions they'd rather not answer. Is a Boricua popping gum any less worthy of visiblilty than a sister wearing pearls?