Vassar College’s annual MODfest is running from Jan. 27 to Feb. 5. One exhibit being featured is Ruben Natal-San Miguel’s “Women R Beautiful.” It features a collection of photos that display diverse images of women across the country.
Before Natal-San Miguel was known for his art, he was a financial controller. He worked in the North World Trade Center tower and survived the attack on September 11th. After 9/11, he moved around and eventually ended up in Harlem, where he was inspired by street culture.
But Harlem’s street culture is disappearing. Natal-San Miguel said that “gentrification was causing a lot of businesses to disappear and I’ve always been interested in the storefronts, or you know, the history of them along with people.” Feeling the responsibility to capture and revive the culture, as more people began to move to Harlem, the original culture was looked down upon, and so Natal-San Miguel’s work became a way of social activism.
Natal-San Miguel challenges what we see in mainstream art. He diverts the Eurocentric norms by taking pictures of many women of color. He takes photos of same sex couples and transgender women. He takes photos of mothers and children, and women with different features.
Miguel has a knack for people with distinctive personalities which makes his photos stick out so much. One of the things that make his photos special is that they are never planned or staged, he only takes pictures of people that he comes across in his everyday life. He likes to photograph people in their own environment so it’s more personal. Miguel doesn’t want his work to reflect social media or celebrity culture. He says when photographing someone “I want that direct connection, that approach, that trust that is pulled within me.”
His most notable photograph called “Mama (Beautiful Skin)” features a woman with vitiligo with her arms crossed in front of a bright red truck. The woman was a young mother and Natal-San Miguel said he could tell she was very bold and strong. The image was taken in the South Bronx right after Natal-San Miguel was almost mugged. She saw that he was taking pictures and immediately asked that he take a picture of her.
“Beautiful Skin” received a lot of attention in the media after a particular picture of it was taken. The daughter of one of Natal-San Miguel’s friends, Sophia, was inspired by the confidence in the photo. Sophia had facial deformities and seeing a woman with vitiligo helped her to understand that beauty came in all forms. A picture of Sophia standing in front of the photo ended up in People Magazine and on the local news.
Another photo from Natal-San Miguel’s collection that sticks out is called “Nykki & Ari Valentine (Morning Glories).” In the picture, there are two Puerto Rican transgender twins. He was drawn to their interesting style. Although New York is known as a concrete jungle, there is some greenery in the South Bronx which is where the photo was taken, in front of some morning glory vines.
Although his work is compared to artists like Garry Winogrand and Kehinde Wiley, Natal-San Miguel says he isn’t necessarily influenced by any other artist, but rather that he is inspired by the people he photographs. Sometimes his photos are similar to other art, but it only happens by chance. For example, one of his photos is named “Chinese Girl Without the Pearl Earring” because the woman’s pose is so similar to the famous “Girl with the Pearl Earring” painting.
One of the biggest influences on his art is his mother. His art is a celebration of his mother’s memory. He said he grew up seeing how women were mistreated and marginalized. Natal-San Miguel pursues his work in honor of strong women like his mother. Hence why “Women R Beautiful” features such an array of women.
“I think the exhibition is just simply to celebrate inclusiveness and otherness,” he says.
You can still see “Women R Beautiful” at Palmer Gallery through Feb. 5th.