Mary C. Curtis (Journalist), Charlotte, North Carolina. Friday, November 22, 2019, 4:21 PM, (56 degrees). © Ruben Natal-San Miguel. The Mint Museum. Gift of Dana Martin Davis, 2020.
Mary C. Curtis (Journalist), Charlotte, North Carolina. Friday, November 22, 2019, 4:21 PM, (56 degrees). © Ruben Natal-San Miguel. The Mint Museum. Gift of Dana Martin Davis, 2020.

Expanding the Pantheon:
Women R Beautiful

November 24, 2020–June 20, 2021

We are pleased to present The Mint Museum’s first online exhibition. This exhibition features 26 photographs from Ruben Natal-San Miguel’s Spring 2020 exhibition at Postmasters Gallery, New York City. Please click on the photographs below to read Natal-San Miguel’s caption, but be sure to click the quotation icon to see the full image on your screen.

For the last two decades, Ruben Natal-San Miguel has been challenging the expectations of who gets memorialized and celebrated in our art spaces. His portrait Mama (Beautiful Skin) has been one of the most impactful photographs in the Mint galleries in recent years. The woman—arms crossed, shoulders back—stares at us, the viewer, with confrontation that may outshine her own confidence. The bold red backdrop—a van, with slight reflections in the refulgent surface—highlights not only her stalwart posture, but also, her skin, an effect of vitiligo. The details—her skin, her cornrows, the white Tshirt, even the red van—are not elements often seen in an art gallery or museum. This is Natal-San Miguel’s mission: to introduce a new range of venerated beauty for our consideration.

Originally trained as an architect, Ruben Natal-San Miguel’s obsession with photography began in 2002. With his affinity for distinctive personalities, he amassed a collection of powerful portraits, often positioning assured faces in distinctive surroundings. Highly crafted coiffure, fabulous fashion accessories, and a bold background hue distinguish his images. Primarily, he photographs while exploring New York City, traveling wherever the subway will take him, from Staten Island through Manhattan and far north into the Bronx. Each encounter leaves a distinct impression in his mind, as well as on his camera. His extensive captions record the details that locate the image in a specific place and time.

As he builds his massive archive, Natal-San Miguel broadens the range of visages museum have historically presented, redefining expectations of beauty, value, and representation. Some he does with subtle strength as in Mama; other times, he is cheekily obvious with titles, as in Not Just Another Vanilla Portrait. Some have direct art-historical references as in The Kiss, which introduces displays of homosexual affection where we usually see heterosexual. Consider Chinese Girl Without the Pearl Earring: it confronts the Eurocentric history and features that dominate high culture, but also, tackles class distinctions as symbolized by the pearl, an object of prestige and luxury in the East and the West, and out of reach for most people in both places.

Natal-San Miguel constructed his latest series, Women R Beautiful, as a critique of Garry Winogrand’s 1975 series Women Are Beautiful. Both are, in theory, a census of women on the streets of New York City, but Natal-San Miguel highlights Winogrand’s narrow perspective.

Shot over the 1960s and 1970s during the swell of the sexual revolution, Winogrand’s Women are Beautiful presents women owning their identity and position in the public space. His tilted angles and hurried compositions, clearly captured in an instant, introduce a feeling of movement and vitality, allowing the photograph to transcend a static image: he brought the energy of a crowd into photography. This feeling of now made him a favorite with magazines and museums. The Museum of Modern Art’s renowned photography curator, John Szarkowski, who compiled Winogrand: Figments from the Real World, the definitive catalogue on Winogrand’s career, summed it up:

Winogrand’s pictures realize a conception of photography that is richer, more complex, and more problematic than any other since the Second World War. They also provide a picture of America during those years—of the flavor and texture of life since Truman—that seems to me so true, clear, and tangible that it almost persuades me that I stood where he stood.¹

But that perspective was a very specific, very privileged one. While there is a range of ages, body types, and “looks,” Winogrand’s women are white, fit in the Greco-Roman statuesque tradition, and are often seen in moneyed spaces—Park Avenue, Fifth Avenue, tony restaurants. Winogrand said he wanted to capture his subjects’ sexual freedom, which in turn, inevitably sexualized the women he was celebrating. There was also a parasitic relationship between Winogrand and his subjects; as he would take the picture quietly and publish it widely without the subject’s consent. Winogrand described his dissembling approach to a Cambridge audience in 1974:

 

There’s all kinds of games you can play when you’re shooting. I do when I’m shooting; I take advantage. People are generally innocent about how a camera operates. I can aim a camera at people and if I look like I’m giving my attention over there, they don’t think I’m taking their picture. Fascinating.²

 

While Winogrand’s project has a certain mastery and magic, it also perpetuates a white straight male’s manipulative view of the world. “I found them dated, and they disturbed me, to some extent,” Natal-San Miguel remarked. “I knew that he was a little intrusive with women, and misogynistic in a way. I wanted to do an update.”³

Natal-San Miguel expands the world of beautiful women. His portraits of femininity span all body types, ages, skin tones, and definitions. While he still controls the images and the choices, he shares agency. Most of his women know they are subjects; their names and Natal-San Miguel’s detailed captions personalize the personalities emanating from his photographs. Because of this, any sexuality or personification emanating from the subject is just as much a projection from the sitter as an imposition by the photographer.

Negesti is a celebration of African ancestry and power, her powerful hands crossed in front of her bare torso in a gesture of resistance instead of defense. Three Muslim Women, in resplendently patterned robes and headscarves, stand with their hands clasped, their stability mirrored by the elevated steel train tracks in front of them. Similarly, the award-winning journalist Mary C. Curtis emerges statuesque from the autumnal change around her, the organic frisson of her beaded Joyce J. Scott necklace emphasizing the balanced poise of her person.

Natal-San Miguel also expands the definition of woman, including drag and trans beauty in his splayed fan of femininity. Ongina (Dragcon) has a face composed of such painterly construction, it could be an Ingres nymph. In the electrified texture of her tinseled backdrop, her iridescently speared crown, and her glittery tulled top, her smooth, cinnamon skin and placid expression become an island of contrived repose. If it weren’t for the hints of tattoos on her skin, one could mistake her for a statuesque deity. What is undeniable is her spectacular, careful articulation of femininity.

When Natal-San Miguel brought the idea to me of distilling his Women R Beautiful project into an online exhibition, it seemed the perfect way to recognize a number of markers. Of course, there is the critical positioning of his series with the 50th anniversary of Winogrand’s Women Are Beautiful, but it is also the centennial celebration of the 19th amendment, when women achieved the right to vote in the United States. Unplanned, but equally elevating: the online exhibition opens the month that the United States elected Kamala Harris, the first female, African-American, and Asian-American Vice President. But he was less compelled by the historic markers than the personal ones.

It is a difficult anniversary for the photographer: November 2020 marks one year since his beloved mother passed away in Puerto Rico. Also in November 2019, his neighbor, Jennifer Schlecht, a tireless advocate for women’s reproductive health rights at the United Nations Foundation, and her 5-year old daughter were brutally murdered by her abusive husband. In an effort to heal personally and to memorialize the memories of these lost powerful women, Natal-San Miguel assembled the Women R Beautiful portfolio.

Originally opening in March at Postmasters Gallery, New York City, the show was immediately shuttered by COVID. Bringing it to an online platforms ensures many can appreciate the strength and beauty conveyed by his Women R Beautiful images.

—Jen Sudul Edwards, chief curator and curator of contemporary art

Please visit Mint Museum Uptown’s American and Contemporary permanent collection galleries to see Natal-San Miguel’s Mama, 3 Muslim Women, Boxers, and Mary C. Curtis-Journalist, in person beginning January 2021.

Ruben Natal-San Miguel is an architect, fine art photographer, curator, creative director and critic. His stature in the photo world has earned him awards, features in major media, countless exhibitions and collaborations with photo icons such as Magnum photographer Susan Meiselas. Gallery shows include: Asya Geisberg, SoHo Photo, Rush Arts, Finch & Ada, Kris Graves Projects, Fuchs Projects, Whitebox Gallery, Station Independent Projects Gallery and others. His work has been featured in numerous institutions: the New York Public Library, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Griffin Museum of Photography, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, African American Museum of Philadelphia, The Makeshift Museum in Los Angeles, University of Washington, El Museo Del Barrio and Phillips Auction House. International art fair representation includes: Outsider Art Fair, Scope, Pulse, Art Chicago, Zona Maco, Mexico, Lima Photo, Peru, Photo LA, and Filter Photo Festival in Chicago, IL.  His photography has been published in a long list of publications, highlights: New York Magazine, The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Time Out, Aperture, Daily News, Out, American Photo, Artforum, Vice, Musee, Artnet and The New Yorker. In 2016 Natal-San Miguel’s Marcy’s Playground was selected for both the billboard collective and website for Apple. His photographs are in the permanent collection of El Museo Del Barrio (New York City), The Center For Photography (Woodstock, NY), The Mint Museum, The Bronx  Museum for the Arts, and The Museum of the City of NY.

Above: From A World History of Photography. ed. Naomi Rosenblum. (New York: Abbeville, 1997), 527.