Friday, August 05, 2011

Complejo/Complexity: A Dominican Artist Explores Race and Racial Inferiority Complexes

Complejo - M. Tony Peralta art exhibit from Ruben Henriquez on Vimeo.

Complejo - M. Tony Peralta art exhibit from Ruben Henriquez on Vimeo.

Complejo - M. Tony Peralta art exhibit from Ruben Henriquez on Vimeo.

MANHATTAN — A popular t-shirt designer and Upper Manhattan native is setting his sights on the fine art world, exploring issues of race and beauty in a new exhibit at the Northern Manhattan Art Alliance (NoMAA).

M. Tony Peralta, 37, whose "Peralta Project" t-shirts have been worn by rap stars including P. Diddy, Sean Kingston and T-Pain, said he was inspired by baseball star Sammy Sosa's dramatic physical transformation — which led to rumors of skin lightening.

The result is his new exhibit, called "Complejo" (meaning "Complex") which opened at NoMAA Thursday night.

Some of the images in the collection use pictures of Sosa, placing the Dominican sports icon in advertisements for fictional products like "Black 'B' Gone Skin Lightening Cream."

"What makes a man who's already rich and famous go and change his look like that?" Peralta asked, describing the piece. "What kind of issues does he have?"

Other images include a candid photograph of Peralta's sister straightening her daughter's hair as the girl appears to wince.

Peralta said he has long been troubled by Anglo-centric standards of beauty, dating back to his childhood as a Dominican kid growing up in Washington Heights.

Peralta, who was raised on 187th Street and now lives in Inwood, said he was embarrassed by his dark skin and curly hair as a result of pervasive negative cultural attitudes, and attempted to explore those feelings in the NoMAA show, which features silk screen prints on canvas and wood.

"My mom used to say things like, 'I don't know how you got such bad hair — you didn't get it from me," Peralta recalled. "She didn't say those things with malice, that's just how people talk."

Peralta said he created the "Complejo" prints using equipment at the School of Visual Arts in the East Village and was surprised to learn that many of the white students who shared the facility were unfamiliar with the issues discussed in the exhibit.

He noted that his earliest artistic outlets were graffiti and comic books, though he soon came to admire art world stars Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Frida Kahlo.

Though "Complejo" focuses on the experiences of the Dominican community, Peralta noted that the issues he addresses exist in many cultures.

"Being Anglo is the standard thoughout the world," Peralta explained. "You've got Japanese women having surgery to make their eyes wider — that just doesn't make sense."

"Complejo" is Peralta's first formal gallery show and it will run through August 25.

Northern Manhattan Arts Alliance (NoMAA) is located on the 3rd floor of 178 Bennett Ave. at 189th Street.

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