American artist John Ahearn (Binghamton, New York, 1951) and Puerto Rican artist Rigoberto Torres (Aguadilla, 1960) collaborate in portraying everyday people. Their exhibition was part of Witte de With’s investigation into the depiction of the human figure and the question of the relevancy of mimetic impulses.

Ahearn and Torres have lived and worked amidst the Latino-American population in the South Bronx in New York since the end of the seventies, portraying their neighbors in the tradition of the realistic, religious portraits that the Spanish colonists brought to the Americas.

Working about ten miles away from the dense concentration of commercial galleries and highly prized artist’s lofts in Tribeca and Soho, Ahearn and Torres have sought to break from the art establishment by reclaiming a place for art in the fabric of daily life and by renewing the ancient role of the artist in society.

The casting process requires close collaboration with the models and happens in a very public way, usually out on the sidewalk in front of friends, family and neighbors. From the heads, busts, and reliefs, one cast remains in the neighborhood, either in people’s homes or in public places such as waiting rooms or courtyards, while a copy enters the art world. The castings and installations of the busts and reliefs are community events.

The South Bronx Hall of Fame is an alternative to the Hall of Fame of Great Americans, a grand public monument not far from the Bronx, designed by the acclaimed American architect Stanford White, with a procession of classical portraits of distinguished citizens by leading sculptors. In contrast, Ahearn and Torres chose to represent citizens that have rarely been memorialized in art or given pride of place in national monuments and museums. Their art documents the lives in the ghettos, revealing the heroic dimension of everyday people and enabling them to identify with an art that affirms their existence by representing their own reality.

Cool project

The exhibition included a survey of the work Ahearn and Torres have created since 1979. At the occasion of the exhibition, a special project was realized in collaboration with the neighbors of Witte de With: the Cool Project (Cool being the name of the neighborhood). The results, three group portraits of local residents, Ed de Meijer, Nelly Alegria and Koenrjbiharnie Firipersad; Natoucha Verkerk, Patricia Nijhoff and Lisa Kolet; and Mario Boeyen and Antonio Dias, were permanently installed in the neighborhood of Witte de With.

The project emphasized the importance of the processes of creation and collaboration.