Gamaliel Ramírez. Foto: Johanny Vázquez Paz
Chicago Puerto Rican artist has just died after a long struggle with emphysema and cancer. Gamaliel was an artist I knew from my earliest days in the city, as I got to attend and participate in events at the Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center and as I came to work with him a variety of community related cultural and art projects.
Born to Puerto Rican immigrant parents living in South Bronx, New York, Gamaliel Ramírez moved with his family to Chicago in 1955. Struggling with an undiagnosed case of dyslexia, he was forced out of the school system at 16, and then decided to teach himself how to paint. As part of his education, he frequently visited the Art Institute of Chicago, to study the standard European masters, but eventually found himself drawn to U.S. and Latin American artists whose work was also accessible at the Art Institute. Before long, he and Óscar Martínez surfaced as the two most important Puerto Rican visual artists and muralists to emerge out of the 1966 Division Street revolt, to create murals and other modes of popular public art, often working with other artists and young people on projects throughout the city in the 1970s.
Resisting allegiance to any particular political line or group in the community, Ramírez nevertheless sought to make his mark in relation to the underlying problems of racism and colonialism affecting his community. For this reason, he joined with Salima Rivera, David Hernández to found two community arts organizations, ALBA and Taller, where he worked with many young artists and poets to forge a sense of community in the face of oppression. He was the feature artist in the collection of Latino poetry and art for Nosotros, a Chicago Latino-only issue of the national journal, Revista Chicano-Riqueña (1977). That issue was mainly Puerto Rican, but a few Mexicans also appeared among the poets featured; and in fact Gamaliel often participated in Mexican projects, including work on the interior walls of Benito Juárez High School, and carrying out several art collaborations, above all with sculptor Roman Villarreal, on Chicago’s far southside.
Over the years, Gamaliel remained one of Chicago’s most active Rican artists, teaching classes and working with numerous cultural arts organizations, curating exhibits, participating in festivals, and facilitating workshops in silk-screen printing, drawing, and painting, often working with inner city kids to project mural art on neighborhood walls. One of his paintings was selected for a Chicago meeting of the Latin American Studies Association in 1998; and it became the signal image for my own organization, LACASA Chicago (www.lacasa.org). One of his most famous murals, “A Sea of Flags,” on Division Street, served as the cover for a major book on U.S. Puerto Ricans in 2005.
Gamaliel Ramírez: David Hernandez in Sea of Flags (detail)
In his art, Ramírez often draws on cubist collage techniques and surrealist icons to project a view of Puerto Ricans and of other minorities in hostile urban environments. Famous for his striking self-portraits and colorful dreamscapes, his work often combines urban and Afro-Caribbean motifs creating a cultural cosmology that both represents and awakens people to their world and their struggle.
Hounded in recent years by failing health, he sought better conditions in Puerto Rico, where he developed mural projects and working on endless computer art projects, and exhibited in Río Piedras, Yauco and various other places on the island. I remember my brother-in-law and I taking him to an exhibit of his work in Bayamon in 2017 (he could barely make it on his own). Luckily, I was able to interview himself extensively and he provided me with an endless stream of visual images to accompany the interviews as part of the Puerto Rican art component of a largescale Chicago Latino Art Project friends and I developed for the Smithsonian Institute in the past several years. The hope was that new recognition would come and he would launch a new phase of his career. However, some weeks after the mega-storm María, he fell from a ladder and entered into a series of complications that eventually took his life. His daughter and grandchildren flew in from Chicago to visit him as often as possible; Wilfredo Nieves and Johanny Vázquez set up a fund to help with his medical expenses; and I was fortunate to reach him and give him a copy of my new book with one of his paintings on the cover, and in effect, say goodbye. Some days later, he breathed his last. His legacy is secured with the Smithsonian archives; however, his friends are now at work fundraising to bring his studio art back to Chicago.
A modest initial fundraising tribute program by Guild Complex Palabra Pura is scheduled for the Bruqueña Restaurant, on Paseo Boricua,2726 West Division Street, Chicago, Illinois, on June 20th, 7-9 pm. during Chicago Puerto Rican week, with poet-friends Johanny Vázquez Paz and Eduardo Arocho reading from their work, and me reading from the book which bears his cover art, and also showing a “slide show” of his work. Proceeds will go to shipping his art work and helping to build his extend and deepen his legacy.
Always warm, always joking, always looking for the creative touch that will lift his work and speak to others, Gamaliel has left us, but he shall remain.
Gamaliel Ramírez: Untitled
For key web sites, including key statements about his life and work, plus photos and images of his art, see https://gamalielramirez.weebly.com/exhibition-record-resume-and-artist-statement.htm;
https://iuplr.uic.edu/iuplr/chicagolatinoartchive/artists-profiles/artist-profile/RamirezGamaliel; and in the context of other Chicago Rican artists, http://lacasachicago.org/components-and-publications/iii-cprap-the-chicago-puerto-rican-artists-project/
Marc Zimmerman has authored and edited some 30 books, including Lines on the Border, The Italian Daze (2017), and The Short of it All: Dreams and Scenes of Memoir Fiction (2018). He is a regular contributor to El BeiSMan.