Mundillo nuestro: by Antonio Martorell and his friends
"Mundillo nuestro" (Our Little World in Bobbin Lace), the stage curtain commissioned by the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico to Antonio Martorell for its Raúl Juliá-Banco Popular Theater, is a monumental piece that far exceeds the traditional dimensions of lacemaking. The inspiration for the piece emerged from several projects and exhibitions that Antonio Martorell had worked on, ideas that wove together to produce this tour de force of collective labor under his direction.
Early on in his artistic career, Martorell began to incorporate pieces of lace, embroidery, and textures alluding to the manual work of seamstresses and weavers into his work as formal and thematic details. His childhood years among fabrics, ribbons, and embroidered pieces in his mother’s shop, the Las Muchachas Bazaar, and at the feet of the Singer sewing machine in his house impressed on his memory those elements of beauty and sensuality. The finishes on a dress, a runner, or a tablecloth, the cuffs or collar of a blouse, delicate handkerchiefs, and mantillas are referents Martorell always returns to in his art.
Mundillo lace is made in stages from precise patterns that guide the hands in the crisscross of threads that make up the web—a veil or latticework that extends outward to the limits of the pattern that serves as support in that back- and-forth, over-and-under weaving of the threads. The weaving process, which dates back thousands of years and is performed singly or in groups, as a craft or industrially, with all its technical and formal variants, is a fundamental element in almost all the world’s cultures.
The exhibition "Mundillo nuestro: by Antonio Martorell and his friends" exhibits several common threads (as it were) that can be traced throughout his life and artistic career. Exposed to films, plays, and musical theater from a young age, Martorell soon began recognizing the natural links between stage, museum, life, and daily experiences. In the Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña (ICP) Graphics Workshop with Lorenzo Homar, he worked in support of the ICPR’s theater festivals and for independent productions by such companies as the Taller de Histriones. He created posters and stage settings, designed costumes and even makeup for dancers in the performance of Las Loas. His immersion in the contemporary arts of Mexico City in the early eighties led him to explore the art of installations. And beginning in 1984, with his return to Puerto Rico, he took part in collective workshops and graphic-theater pieces with Rosa Luisa Márquez. From those experiences in experimental theater, he transitioned onto the stage as an actor and, on other occasions, as a performance artist.
His bond with the theater that arose out of Augusto Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed and the Bread and Puppet Theater of Peter Schumman (to which he was led by Rosa Luisa Márquez and the Teatreros Ambulantes de Cayey) enriched his stage-design work for the opera and his monumental portraits of the principal exponents of Puerto Rican bel canto. The MAPR’s commission for a stage curtain for the Raúl Juliá-Banco Popular Theater came in recognition of Martorell’s work at the intersection of the plastic and theater arts. He had already presented the series Mundillos Desencajados (“Worlds Shaken, Dislocated, and Distressed”), world maps woven in large format, at international exhibitions in Copenhagen and the Whitney Biennial in New York. The idea of a bobbin-lace curtain originated with two key figures in the history of the MAPR’s foundational project: architect Otto Reyes and the director of the museum project at its inception, Adlín Ríos Rigau. The Borinquen Lacers, a weavers collective, had already worked with Martorell to make the large-scale "mapas desencajados.”
The shift in size of the map was a challenge that some of the weavers looked on a bit doubtfully, and with good reason, since the design was a great departure from the traditional idiom and scale of bobbin lace. The modification of the geographical layout was also a concern; one of the weavers, a geography teacher, was taken aback with the various maps studies that Martorell created. During those years, many changes were occurring in the planet’s geopolitics. The fall of the Berlin Wall, the war in the Balkans, the disappearance of the Soviet Union, tensions in the Caribbean, and anticolonial struggles in the Third World kept constantly reconfiguring the map. The composition of Martorell’s drawings and designs responded in the last resort to the political leanings and ideas he had held since his studies in diplomacy in Washington, D.C.
Over the years, in collaborative work and in the design of silkscreen posters, Martorell became adept at calligraphy and typography. His visits to the treasures of the Casa del Libro with the great graphic artists Lorenzo Homar, Rafael Tufiño, José Rosa, and Rafa Rivera broadened and deepened his graphic education. With this immersion, he began to create print portfolios dedicated to key figures in literature, politics, popular culture, philosophy, and poetry. And in those works we begin to see his strong preference for calligraphy, which takes on greater and greater prominence in the compositions. Indeed, with calligraphy Martorell began to do “lettered portraits,” as he called them. The arabesques and filigrees that suggest the details of the faces expand into virtually the entire plane of the image. In these works we also see a loving web of twining leaves and vines weaving laces made of words. Geography and literature, poetry and politics entwine and disentwine in the universe of the artist and his friends.
"Mundillo nuestro" speaks to us of our cultural complexity in this time of challenges stemming from global transformations and the enormous political, racial, social, financial, and religious tensions we live in. Massive migrations, border conflicts, and threatened sovereignties show both the fragility and resilience of our cultural fabrics. This interwoven lace supports the knowledge deposited in it for centuries for resisting both natural and imposed erosion. The paths of the threads, their crossings and ties, born of the lacemaker’s art, sustain us all in these days of retrogression, resistance, and struggle.
-Humberto Figueroa, Guest curator
*This exhibition is sponsored by the Special Joint Committee on Legislative Donations for Community Impact.