UCF Art Professor, Performance Artist Lands Spot in Smithsonian Exhibit

A University of Central Florida artist will perform her powerful and poignant portrayal of the fear of losing a child to violence and intolerance at the Smithsonian IDENTIFY: Performance Art as Portraiture series May 6 in Washington, D.C.

The IDENTIFY series focuses attention on activism, visibility and experimentation through portrayal.    

Pieta is the newest installment of Wanda Raimundi-Ortiz’s “Reinas/Queens” series, in which she develops regal characters that speak to broken relationships, racial intolerance, anxiety and other issues often affected and defined by race and ethnicity.

In Pieta, Raimundi-Ortiz reimagines Michelangelo’s iconic Renaissance sculpture of the Virgin Mary holding her deceased son, Jesus, but with her own artistic twist.

As with the others  in her series, like the “Bargain-basement Sovereign” and “Gringa Reina,” Raimundi-Ortiz taps deep into her own fears, anxieties and grief to create Pieta. The latter is deeply rooted in her worries as a mother to a young child.

“I find myself fearing the inherent injustices people of color will endure based on their skin, and grieve for parents of fallen children,” she said, referring to the families of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and others. “I create a live performance portrait for which I sit and cradle 33 people of color, the same age as Jesus at the time of his execution.”

In a recent performance at Knowles Chapel in Rollins College, Raimundi-Ortiz, in her elaborate costume, held each of her volunteers for 3 minutes and 33 seconds. In Washington  she will also rely on 33 volunteers who are people of color to hold. She said she worked with the staffs at the National Portrait Gallery and the National Museum of African American History & Culture, artist Tsedaye Makkonen, and contacts in New York City to recruit the volunteers. She embraces them, she said, “because it’s almost like we all need to be consoled, to be held” in dark times.

The artist said she considers every detail of her performances. She wanted to use Knowles Chapel because it is beautiful, and represents an affluence just a short distance from the historically black, but increasingly gentrified neighborhood of Hannibal Square in Winter Park.

There was dramatic lighting, and Raimundi-Ortiz worked with Amy Galpin, Rollins’ Cornell Fine Arts Museum curator, to bring the physical vision of Pieta to reality.

The music is curated to span across cultures, addressing the breadth of cultures affected by violence. While the Knowles presentation included a special performance by the UCF Gospel and Cultural Choir, in keeping with the spirit of community, the Smithsonian performance will feature the Howard University Gospel Choir.  The music is curated by Raimundi-Ortiz and her friend Alejandro “DJ Stereo 77” Ramirez.

Raimundi-Ortiz’s costume was designed by UCF associate professor and costume designer Kristina Tollefson, weighs more than 20 pounds and reflects the Renaissance, with contrasting silks and velvet that are both heavy and shimmery in light. Her headpiece resembles a halo in the Catholic tradition, but is made of braided hair. See a video of the performance here.

She expects the performance will take a lot out of her. “It’s a deeply emotional piece,” she said. “I’m usually in a state of deep meditation and it can be very exhausting.”

She feels she represents more than just herself in her art.

When she is creating, she feels the characters bursting forth to tell their stories – and all the while she struggles with all they represent.

“I keep them [characters] locked up, you know, because if I let them out I can’t function,” said the UCF assistant professor of art and performance artist. “Once they’re out [in the performance] it’s like autohypnosis. I’m present. I listen with my hair, with my hands, my heart, my toes. It’s profound.”

In creating Pieta during the past year, she thought about the shootings of black youths that made national headlines, and was deeply troubled by increased intolerant rhetoric in national politics.

“All of this was happening just as I was trying to depict these feelings of helplessness and injustice,” Raimundi-Ortiz said. “This national debate became a backdrop. I am Latina, my skin is light. I know what I have experienced in spite of my features. I have brothers, sisters, cousins who have brown skin, and I will never experience racism and intolerance like they will.”

Raimundi-Ortiz’s work has been a finalist in Smithsonian-organized shows in the past, but this is her first time honored as a guest artist. The IDENTIFY series, according to Smithsonian literature, intends on “pulling back the curtain of time to acknowledge those who are missing from the museum’s historical collections.”

Raimundi-Ortiz’s “Reinas/Queens Series” so far has been performed in several cities around the country, including Winter Park, Miami, Charlotte, N.C., Chicago and New York.

Recently nominated for the 2016 United States Artist fellowship, Raimundi-Ortiz was named one of 2016’s Women Making History by UCF’s Center for Success of Women Faculty. She was a 2016 Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery’s Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition semifinalist and top 10 finalist for the statewide 2015 Orlando Museum of Art Florida Prize in Contemporary Art.