Immigrants, Superheros, and the Resurrection of Christ: The Works of Grimaldi Baez

Immigrants, Superheros, and the Resurrection of Christ: The Works of Grimaldi Baez

An Essay by Janette Chien and Wayne Kleppe

“All we ever see of stars are their old photographs.” -Alan Moore

Reduced down to its core, boxing is about one thing: punching the other guy really hard. Boxer Hector “Macho“ Camacho elevated the sport to another level. His record was impressive: four championships in three divisions; seventy-nine victories against six losses. He was both a salesman and a product, known for his flamboyant style and larger than life persona. Camacho approached each fight with a signature costume, wearing a single curly lock of hair centered on his forehead, like Superman.  Camacho moved from Puerto Rico to New York at the age of three, and was raised by a single mother.  He had a rough childhood but found an outlet for his aggression through boxing. His life came to embody the struggle of many Puerto Rican immigrants in the United States. However, despite his triumphs in the boxing world, his ego and addiction to drugs would eventually take hold. In 2012, Camacho was shot and seriously wounded while sitting in his car. Four days later his mother decided to remove him from life support. He died on November 24th, 2012.

Attleboro, Massachusetts. Torn from his childhood home in Yabucoa, Puerto Rico, six-year-old Grimaldi Baez found himself lost in a new place of immigrants and refugees. Faced with the collision of the old world of San Juan that his parents longed for and his new “American” home, Baez found solace in the graphic language of comic books and cartoons. These were elements of North American pop culture that Baez could consume and feel connected to, as he spoke no English. As a child, Baez would trace from comic books, developing a visual language that would resonate for years to come. He migrated towards the Superhero, the embodiment of his isolation.  Superheroes are often torn from their place of birth, and discarded in a new world foreign from their own. They create personas to live through as a means of coping. This is what Camacho did, in body and spirit. And this is what Baez found comfort in.

After completing his undergraduate degree at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, and receiving one of the college’s most prestigious grants, Baez returned to Puerto Rico to reclaim his identity… literally. A mistake made decades prior, which had gone unnoticed, meant legally that Baez did not exist.  In this unusual absence of legal identity, Baez found himself in a San Juan courthouse to prove his Puerto Rican birthright.  Upon returning to his island home, Baez felt a profound sense of isolation. His perception had shifted over time. He had been “Americanized” and the Puerto Rico in his mind’s eye had changed over the years, transforming the island into an idealized fantasy. Unmoored by this realization, Baez found himself again, an outsider in a place he supposed to be able to call home.

In this exhibition, “A CEMI-WASTE OF MACHO TIME: something for us to believe in,” Baez sources both Dürer and Rembrandt’s works depicting the resurrection of Christ. He inserts “Macho” Camacho into these iconic scenes, rendering a satirical portrait of the boxing legend in the ring; a portrait that holds strong religious allusions that run deep throughout Latino culture.  While Baez refuses to depict Camacho as a ‘god,’ he opts to explore notions of martyrdom and iconoclasm in this exhibition.  Baez’s interest in the hero syndrome, defined as: “a state which affects those seeking recognition through means of creating a situation which only they can resolve, or a general yearning for self worth,” allows his work to come from a complex place of both glory and failure.

Baez’s work is heavy with catharsis. Just as Camacho used boxing as an outlet for his aggression, we indulge in the fantasy of superheroes to release our own. We glorify heroes because their abilities — their supernatural powers — represent all that is unattainable in our daily lives. But with glory, comes alienation. Just as Superman led his secret life, Camacho’s glory only existed within the boxing ring.

Baez questions our investment in these superheroes that are simultaneously glorified and demonized by placing Camacho, quite blasphemously, in this religious context. At the same time, Baez also questions our relationship to religion, as these iconic images traditionally evoke the same feeling of catharsis. But here the boxer who ultimately falls to drugs and violence corrupts this sentiment.

Baez leaves us with a heavy feeling in our chests. In conversations, Baez describes an image he grew up with: the cowboy riding into the sunset. For him, this image symbolizes leaving Puerto Rico, partaking in new adventures, and seeing the island from the outside. It is tinged with the bittersweet nostalgia of missing home.  In this exhibition, Baez utilizes the power of these complex symbols in order to question our cultural, religious and historical moorings and the value of the benevolent hero.

Grimaldi Baez, Ink Drawing, 2012

Grimaldi Baez, Ink Drawing, 2012

Janette Chien is a visual artist and writer from Hong Kong who lives and works in Philadelphia, PA. She holds a BA in English and a BFA in Studio Art from Tufts University and the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. She currently works at The Arc of Philadelphia, PDDC as a Program Specialist for their Cultural Arts Center. http://janettechien.wordpress.com/

Wayne Kleppe is a professionally trained printmaker, currently living and working in Philadelphia, PA. He holds a BFA from Tufts University and a Diploma from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. He has completed residencies at Proyecto ‘ace (Buenos Aries) and Frans Masereel Centrum (Belgium), and has worked professionally at Muskat Studios (Massachusetts) and Artist Proof Studios (Johannesburg).

To download a .pdf version of this essay, click here.

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