You probably haven't heard of Rafael Santiago, but you're here now and that's about to change. His work doesn't exactly adhere to social media's "community guidelines" and he isn't all that fond of talking about himself either. Santiago has been toiling away in Manhattan’s East Village in whatever space he can find to work from for the last 14 years. While he may shy away from talking about himself and his practice, the work he produces is incredibly vulnerable. His art attempts to make sense of why he was excluded from the promises of the religion he grew up with and ultimately to discover himself.
I had the privilege of meeting Rafael back in 2018 in a small gallery in Bushwick, Brooklyn. I stopped into the space to meet my friend Tracy Nunez (in person for the first time) and see the show she had just installed. While there she introduced me to her friend Rafael. He and I got to talk about art and life for a bit and then later that evening when I found him on Instagram and got to see his work, I was instantly hooked. That’s why I was especially excited to sit down (ok, it was through email, it’s still COVID season out there) and interview him.
Allow me to introduce Rafael Santiago.
MD: Can you give us a little background on how you got started as an artist?
RS: I am not completely certain when I got ‘started’ as an artist. It took me a long time to feel comfortable enough to be able to call myself one, and that’s something I sorted out in my late twenties. If I think back to childhood, I know my first introduction to art-making was drawing. When I was a child I saw my father draw my cousin and was so fascinated. Drawing would become a way of entering a creative flow when I started middle school and continued into highschool. I was encouraged to go to college for photography, which I did, but in high school, drawing was also a creative outlet. (I actually started drawing again in 2020, and it's been such a great reawakening).
My first major exposure to art came when I worked from 2007-2011 at the bookstore of the Whitney Museum of American Art when it was still at the Breuer building. I spent a lot of time looking through art books and discovering artists materials and creative solutions, and I repeatedly visited all of the exhibitions. That was a pivotal moment for me because I realized I loved all kinds of materials and tools, not just the lens of a camera. During that time I discovered I wasn’t merely a photographer, but that there were other tools and mediums I could use, but I felt like I wasn’t allowed to because I didn’t have an education in Fine Arts. Today I consider myself a multi-disciplinary or mixed media artist. In fact, other series of mine have excluded photography or images of any kind. I would use all the materials I could if I had the space and funds - it really boils down to using what is available to me and working within those parameters. Back then, the solution of collage became apparent as I poured through the books at the Whitney.
MD: Any major influences you’d attribute to how you make art, or what you’re exploring with your art?
RS: As I mentioned, my discoveries while working at the Whitney were eye opening, and my first switch away from using the lens was by working in collage via existing imagery. I discovered appropriation, a big influence, through artists like Richard Prince and artists in The Pictures Generation. I am also fond of the Dadaists who altered and repurposed existing political imagery, as well as the readymades of Duchamp. That was the start of my creative awakening, and I also learned from Robert Rauschenberg and Mike Kelly’s works. Discovering John Stezaker really pushed me further into collage making. Interestingly, at first I did not appreciate his collages, but I was fascinated by the images he was using, that he was giving brand new life to, and after more observation, I started seeing the ways in which the juxtaposed images were congruent. That really excited me as a solution for bringing two images together. My first collages during that time, which was 2008-9, dealt with gender identity, and came from fashion magazines like W, Self-Service and Purple Fashion. Shortly after, I began more collages that incorporated myself, revisiting self-portraiture. I took note of major artists that utilized collage in various ways, such as Sterling Ruby, Wangechi Mutu, Ellen Gallagher, Arturo Herrera, and John O’Reilly. My continued use of collage revealed my themes of gender identity, queer identity and self-portrait/autobiography and led me to discover the subject of queer arts as well as further exposure to appropriation art.
MD: My path as an artist has certainly shifted as I’ve become more comfortable being vulnerable through my art. While my own work tends to represent a more abstracted take on these experiences, I’ve always been drawn to your work for how vulnerable it appears. In early works you even incorporated yourself into these works, can you talk about what it meant to you to include your own likeness in your work (realizing that was quite a long time ago)?
RS: In my twenties, my primary tool was the camera. I think my biggest mystery, my biggest puzzle and biggest disturbance during that phase was myself. So I placed myself in front of the lens, often naked, in order to discover myself - however, at the time I honestly was not sure why I was doing it. One of my themes is gender identity, and that was the beginning of my documenting that in some way. Years and years of self-portraits, which I also was embarrassed to mention to people who asked what kind of art I did, but I was ultimately inspired to keep going because it is a valid genre and artists like Robert Mapplethorpe, Cindy Sherman, Lukas Samaras and Catherine Opie (to name a few), reminded me it was ok. All of my work is autobiographical in some way even if my likeness is not visually present. I don’t think I am ever, or will ever, be done with that genre. I love the idea of a lived experience as art, biography as art. Mike Kelly does that well.
MD: When I look at your body of work I see continuing elements or themes: eroticism, flowers and frames. What do these elements mean? Are some of them purely aesthetic or do each of them carry some sort of conceptual layer as well?
RS: I like presenting the work framed on social media and my website so that the viewer can have a complete visual sense of the artwork in a final presentation. So much work is seen digitally first, so I like presenting it this way.
There is definitely meaning behind the eroticism accompanied by the floral elements within a few of my series. I grew up in a religion that promised the rewards of everlasting life and peace on earth in a new paradise. Only persons devoted to the God of that religion would be granted these gifts, but homosexuality is condemned in their teachings, therefore, persons like myself would not inherit such promises. These works place males into ‘paradise’ settings in an interlocked sexual nature as an act of rebellion, but also as acceptance and as an ideal fantasy for me. Within the series ‘In The Garden’, and my other series such as ‘Like Paradise’ and ‘Queer Interludes’, these themes are front and center. For these works I use imagery from 80’s gay male porn which I find on the internet. Some images are higher quality than others which results in varied image aesthetics but to me it’s part of the result in image hunting. I use gay 80’s porn for a plethora of reasons, including my attraction to the retro visual style of the photography - to me there is a beautiful otherness to it.
MD: Oh, one more element, the triangle! The triangle appears in earlier work and now you're using it to frame (?) your work as well, can you talk about what this means to you?
RS: As a queer artist I feel compelled to contribute to my kind. I was looking for a way to enhance the impact of the imagery I use and I wanted to add to the visual appeal of these appropriated images by using traditional methods to unite images, such as triptychs and diptychs. The pink triangle was used to label gays during the Nazi concentration camps, and in 1987, ACT-UP repurposed the triangle in their Silence = Death poster. I suppose I am borrowing the triangle from them.
MD: About your source material: You’re using a lot of material that on their own wouldn’t pass censorship rules for social media platforms, do these concerns ever play a role in how you think about final compositions?
RS: I do include more aggressive sexual imagery in my work.I don’t bother posting the more explicit pieces on social media as they will only be flagged and removed. Sometimes I like using a more aggressive image and sometimes being subtle works better in a final composition.
MD: Thank you for sharing all these great incites. What’s next for Rafael Santiago?
RS: I’ll keep on creating work. That momentum of creating usually ends up determining what comes next. I love meeting and developing relationships with collectors, other artists and curators. It’s been a slow process in meeting people and getting the work out there, but it’s like in that movie “Field of Dreams”, where the lead character is repeatedly told “If you build it, they will come.” If I keep on making the work it’ll grow and eventually be seen more and more.