Titanic portraits: from Barack Obama to the girl of Belfast city
Cuban-American artist Jorge Rodríguez-Gerada made a name for himself with a huge land portrait of Obama. Now he is making his mark on Belfast’s Titanic Quarter
Jorge Rodríguez-Gerada at the site in Belfast’s Titanic Quarter where he is working with volunteers and communities from Belfast to create a giant portrait of a Belfast girl. Photograph: Press Eye Photography
Jorge Rodriguez-Gerada’s huge land portrait of Obama: ‘By using sand, I was deliberately making the image impermanent – a premonition, I suppose, that all that hope and euphoria would disappear’
When CNN failed to broadcast footage of Jorge Rodríguez-Gerada’s massive land portrait of Barack Obama – planned to coincide with the 2008 US presidential election – the artist figured he must be doing something right.
“The piece never made it to air. Some senator said something incredibly important that had to be reported on instead. Coincidence? I don’t know. I always thought it was a little fishy.”
Rodríguez-Gerada admits he “got it in all directions” for the image of Obama’s face, which evokes a pop-art style and was made with 650 tons of sand and gravel over 2½ acres. “Politicians on the right came at me because I hadn’t chosen one of them. Those on the left came at me – well, because they hate everything American,” he says with a wry laugh.
The Cuban-American artist chose Barcelona for his Obama extravaganza not only because the city had become his adopted home, but to “show that this election would have an impact all over the world”.
Like the sand mandalas of the Buddhist tradition, it has since faded with the wind and the weather. That’s part of the point, according to its creator. “It was a response to the huge outpouring of hope and expectation that Obama stirred up,” he explains. “The world was in such a bad place; people really wanted a hero.
“To me that was the interesting thing about the election that the news channels should have been discussing. Instead, they were talking like it was all about this one man, saying he was ‘more famous than Britney Spears’.
“By making his face into an icon I was questioning that tendency. By using sand, I was deliberately making the image impermanent – a premonition, I suppose, that all that hope and euphoria would disappear like sand being blown around a beach.”
New York movement
Since his early days as a pioneer of the “culture-jamming” movement in New York City, Rodríguez-Gerada has been a socially aware, political artist, which is perhaps part of the reason he has been chosen as the first artist-in-residence at the Belfast Festival at Queen’s, a post that has seen him transform five acres in the city’s Titanic Quarter into one of the largest slices of land art ever made.
His Identity series featured anonymous, charcoaled faces staring out from unprepossessing gable ends in cities as diverse as Ljubljana, Buenos Aires and Amsterdam. These ordinary faces – although they invariably looked soulful and beautiful, as rendered by the artist – were meant to question our media culture, our definitions of beauty, and how much an individual’s life is worth in terms of the global marketplace.