Puerto Rican artist Alfonso Muñoz understands women. It hits you when you see his multidisciplinary work. He speaks to the feminine with color and shape, acknowledging who we are and our rightful place in the world. We are present with big teeth, plump hands, Amazonian crowns, and star-strewn Spanish colonial dresses worn by erect figures standing on strong thighs. He celebrates our pain and “agallas” — our guts — and portrays us as infantas, as chambermaids, middle-aged Barbies in high fashion, and queens — always regal, never submissive.
The French-Cuban-American diarist Anais Nin once said that she chooses a man who “compels my strength, who makes enormous demands on me, who does not doubt my courage or my toughness, who does not believe me naïve or innocent, who has the courage to treat me like a woman.”
This is the essence of Muñoz’s work. He has the guts to see women as women.
The influence of a feminine upbringing
“I come from a matriarchal family on both sides, so women were the bosses,” Muñoz said. “It’s always been strong women around me in my life and it’s time they have a seat at the top table.”
His latest work is an exhibition called “A Agallas” — a series dedicated to strong women, adorned by Cubist rooster’s crests and dressed in outfits British designer Alexander McQueen would have applauded.
“It is dedicated to ‘las gallas,’ but we are also talking about the guts it takes today, especially, to be a woman,” he said.
Muñoz, born in Puerto Rico, is based in Santurce, the center of contemporary art in the archipelago. He also spends several months a year in London, where he is part of A&A, an art and design duo with Alasdair Brown.
A multifaceted artist, he expresses himself through painting, photography, and installations to address issues regarding women, queer people, the environment, immigration, and inequality.
He explores how social class and gender ensure a multitude of experiences and dreams. His work is infused with the sense of play; it disarms the viewer, pulling them into the swirling, robust world of female power.
Between 2004 and 2009, Muñoz curated, staged, and photographed over 2,000 images of miniatures — which included vignettes of aging Barbies — capturing in rich detail moments of domestic pain, fear, and regret. His focus is on the maternal — on the female force in families and society.
Muñoz, 59, holds a BFA from the Art Institute of Chicago.
In his first year at university, at 18 years of age, he took a class called “Women Marginalized by History” and it struck him that women — powerful women — had been erased from a history written by men.
“I was already a fan of women, they were my heroes,” he said. “But I finally understood that women had not been “deities” for so long, except maybe for Pacha Mama and other cultures, and that for the bulk of the major religions it’s all about men,” he said. “The vision of God is about man; we don’t talk about her.”
“In the last 2000 years, women’s roles in power and as deities have been reduced and there is only really the Virgin Mary and she is seen as submissive,” he said. “She is the suffering Mother; she is the one that takes all the beatings.”
“A real woman, if she sees her kid crucified, she would have picked up a sword and started chopping heads. No, she took a lot of shit. She suffered a lot,” Muñoz said.
In his paintings, women do pick up the sword and hold the power over their existence. Wearing commander outfits or Spanish colonial finery, they stare out and dare the observer to underestimate them. In Muñoz’s work, women have a magnificent presence.
Yet, there is also kindness and empathy — maternal qualities that are often seen as submissive in women, but Muñoz delivers as powerful. Because for him, the female is responsible for life — and there is nothing more powerful than that.
The meaning of a rooster’s crest on a woman’s head
“It means you have the same armor, the same dress, you can take the same roles that men have occupied,” he said.
Muñoz became known for installations such as The Chickens — an evolving conceptual art installation created in homage to the first great migration of Puerto Ricans to New York City during the 1940s and ‘50s.
But it’s the Barbies that fascinate as soon as one sees them. Muñoz builds snapshots of women’s lives, their lonely lives, and their persistence. They remind one of Pedro Almodovar’s recent short film The Human Voice with the actress Tilda Swinton. Much like Almodovar, Muñoz gives women of certain age permission to lose their minds in couture.
Why Barbies? “Well, part of it is the dolls that I was not allowed to play with as a kid,” he said. “And part of it is playing with them as an adult and how you add everything you have lived and observed into that play.”
“Again, it’s about the story of Mother Earth, who is a Black Goddess, who is being forgotten by all adults, but she still lies in the minds of children,” he said. Muñoz had been doing Gallos Patos before — but this year and helped by the COVID-19 pandemic (which he sees as a global pause button,) he shifted to making them women.
“Women dressed in some fantastic fashion where they looked almost like Commanders,” he said.
We asked, “why the respect?”
“It’s more than respect, it’s a sense of urgency,” Muñoz said. “Things will not get better until the women are also making the decisions. Men have made a mess of the planet.” “This is urgent. All men should be on board and we should all be aware. And I think we are doing it, you know, with the #MeToo movement, it is raising our consciousness in terms of women in the workforce, those are big steps,” he said.
The first time I saw Muñoz’s work, it was the painting of La Infanta — the supposed daughter of Francisco Antonio Garcia Lopez — aka Toño Bicicleta — whose exploits made him a legend on the island (among which were kidnapping, rape, murder, and evading the police for years.) Painting her as a princess in a magnificent dress covered with stars was revolutionary.
Because in Muñoz’s world, women are writ large — powerful — and with a voice all their own. It’s my world. It’s our world.