The Art of Radical Empathy

Rubenstein guest lecturer Wanda Raimundi-Ortiz talks about art, identity, and healing.

Wanda Raimundi-Ortiz, the Bronx-born artist known for her powerful visual and performance pieces, spoke with students and gave the 2017 Daryl Reich Rubenstein Guest Artist Lecture on campus last week.

“Why are we here?” Wanda asked the audience in her opening remarks. Her answer began with a hilariously told but poignant story about being a Latina art student in small-town Maine—her first foray into the world outside New York City and the Puerto Rican community she grew up in. That experience, of living in the cultural crossroads and the courage required to navigate it, remains at the heart of her artistic endeavors.

Wanda’s paintings, drawings, and performance pieces often use archetypal images to tell stories that have been ignored or suppressed, calling out the anxiety and injustice people of color face in their daily lives because of racism, gun violence, and police brutality. She spoke movingly about the “extra layer of worry” parents of brown, black, and multiracial children endure and the reality that “someone out there will make assumptions about [her] child based on his appearance.”

Wanda’s art helps her, and her audience, deal with the anguish and foreboding that accompany that reality. Her Pieta, performed last spring at the National Portrait Gallery, references Michelangelo’s statue of Mary holding the lifeless body of Christ. In her piece, accompanied by the music of the Howard Gospel Choir and DJ Stereo 77 (Alejandro Ramirez), Wanda sat quietly onstage as, one by one, 33 people of color joined her and mourned with her. Through this “act of collective grief [in] response to the violence against brown bodies,” she hoped to convey a simple, human message: “I will hold you and do the best I can to support you.”

At the end of her talk, an audience member asked Wanda whether she thought works of art could help heal the wounds and divisions of our country. Yes, she said, art can give solace to those experiencing trauma and grief. But at the same time, it remains deeply personal. Her own art is an act of both self-protection and resilience: “The work is how I work out my fear, my anxiety. This is why I do what I do the way I do it.”

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