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StoriesNayda A. Cuevas ’15

Using Portraiture as Activism

MFA in Visual Art alum Nayda Aurora Cuevas' portrait series counteracts negative social constructs by contributing new and positive images of Latina women.

Small can be mighty. Nayda Aurora Cuevas' 3” x 5” portraits prove it. 

Painted on wood panels roughly the size of an iPhone, the compact portraits reinterpret selfies posted by women who identify as Latina. Viewed separately, every face represents an individual who’s challenging cultural stereotypes. Seen together, the artist’s 100 portraits create something much bigger—a portal into the true diversity behind the word “Latina.”

Inspired by an eponymous Tumblr blog, the MFA in Visual Art program alum’s “Latina: Reclaiming the #Latina Tag” series seeks to counteract negative social constructs by contributing new and positive images of Latina women.

“I want my viewers to be able to perceive race as something different than what they’re used to seeing in the media,” explains Nayda, who relocated from her native Puerto Rico to Florida as a child. “In my portraits, I turn selfies into a means of activism. I explore identity—specifically my own identity—in hopes of creating a dialogue about what it means to be a Latina in the United States.”

Grouped in long, staggered rows, Nayda’s portraits highlight the many differences that one cultural identity can embody. Most recently exhibited in “People Looking: Then and Now” at the Fitchburg Art Museum, the series celebrates women’s diverse physical attributes—variety in skin tones, eye colors, and hair textures—as well as their distinct personas and attitudes. Through this increased representation, the artist is pushing back against society’s homogenized and often “hyper sexualized” portrayals of Latinas. “It was exciting to be able to showcase such broad diversity in one word: Latina,” says Nayda.

In addition to generating conversation about diversity, Nayda explores the role portraiture can play in remembering. To commemorate those who lost their lives in the Orlando, Florida Pulse nightclub shooting—a massacre that largely affected the Latino LGBTQ community—Nayda began painting selfies of the 49 victims.

“We see so much destruction and harm in the world that we tend forget that these things happen,” recalls Nayda. “I’m interested in slowing down the gaze and allowing viewers to become witness to others’ lives. I’m hoping that my portraits inspire others to keep talking about the victims and remember these individuals.”

Remembrance is a theme that ties back into the artist’s latest work, an art book that chronicles her family’s involvement in Puerto Rico’s fight for independence. After months and months of meeting with historians and sifting through documentation, including suppressed FBI files and family photographs, Nayda gained a new perspective on the strained relationship between the U.S. and Puerto Rico. Unearthing this “dark history” further highlighted issues around her dual identity as a Puerto Rican and an American. These issues inspired the book’s title: Puerto ameRican.

“In Puerto Rico, we’re American citizens by birthright, and we have been for 100 years, but we would not ever say that we’re American because it’s a tricky situation,” explains Nayda. “The book, like my paintings, is based on my identity—how my identity is always, not in question, but up front and center anywhere I go,” says Nayda. “Yes, I’m a Puerto Rican, yes, I’m an American. Both contribute to my identity. And what does that mean?”

That big question continues to drive Nayda. Whether she’s writing or “pushing paint around,” the artist has come to view art as means to “tap into larger social issues” and to “open the door for others to think outside of the box.”

View Nayda’s CV for a list of recent and upcoming exhibitions.

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