Photographer Ricky Flores, center. Artists

For iconic photographer, imitation is sincerest form of flattery

An exhibit at BronxArtSpace through Aug. 8 combines the work of a renowned Bronx photographer and the paintings of two Brazilian artists who for years admired his iconic photos from afar.

Photographer Ricky Flores, center. Artists
Photographer Ricky Flores, center, and artists Ananda Nahu and Izolag Armeidah, left and right.

Exhibit at BronxArtSpace links Bronx and Brazil

Photos by renowned South Bronx photographer Ricky Flores line one wall at the BronxArtSpace’s “Faces from the Block: Brazilian-Bronx Connection” exhibit, capturing the borough’s vibrant culture in the 1980s.

The rest of the gallery’s walls display a series of paintings adapted from Flores’ photos by two visiting Brazilian artists. 

Eight years ago, the two artists, Ananda Nahú and Izolag Armeidah, came across Flores’ work on Flickr. They were so moved that they began turning Flores’ photos of the Bronx of the ‘80s into murals in their native Brazil. To grab the photographer’s attention and let them know of their admiration for his work, they sent him messages with images of Rio de Janeiro’s mountaintop Christ the Redeemer.

They were familiar with his story: how his Merchant Marine father had sent him a postcard of that Brazilian icon that later inspired a young Ricky Flores to pursue photography from his boyhood years.

“I wanted to see these places, to see what (my father) saw,” said Flores who has worked as a photojournalist for the Westchester-based Journal News since 1994.

The camera, a Pentax K1000, was the first model Flores bought, with a small inheritance from his father. He used it to document the lives of the black and Puerto Rican residents living in the Bronx whose streets he shared during those days of social unrest, and the early days of hip hop culture.

Those images helped build Flores’ reputation as a documentarian of the borough’s urban reality. They were the same images that caught the attention of Nahú and Armeidah, who said that the popularity of hip hop in Brazil is what attracted them to Flores’ work.

The enduring appeal of the Bronx’s culture in other parts of the world, Flores said, stems from the fact that urban communities everywhere face similar struggles.

From that initial contact, a relationship of mutual admiration and respect grew between the Brazilians and the Bronxite.

”It felt organic that these Brazilians would come looking for me, for this work,” he said.

This summer, that relationship culminated at BronxArtSpace on 140th Street in Mott Haven, showcasing the Brazilians’ adaptations of Flores’ work. The trio’s previous attempt at a collaboration in 2013 had to be cancelled because Armeidah couldn’t get funding for the trip.

Evidence of Nahu and Armeidah’s work in Mott Haven is not limited to the display at the gallery. A few blocks away, they have left their mark in the form of a mural they painted on a wall between a grocery store and a Chinese restaurant near Brook Avenue and 140th Street. The mural is adapted from a photo Flores took 30 years ago of a local man named Johnny. In it, a bare chested Johnny is clutching a boombox and sporting a fedora, a foreshadowing of the area’s emerging hip hop culture.

Nahú said that she wants her work to inspire women and people of color, while conveying positive images of minority communities. Murals are the easiest way to spread that message, she said, adding that art should engage communities and cast light on social injustices.

“I don’t like fantasy,” she said. “The job of the artist is to inform through visual information.”

While checking out the mural, Mott Haven resident Jamie Campbell said it left him eager to see more public art work in the area. He was flattered that artists from as far away as Brazil would be inspired to pay tribute to his home borough.

“For somebody to take the time to come out to the Bronx and put up some art, I’m grateful,” Campbell said.

Nahú and Armeidah now plan on taking the exhibit to other locations, including Los Angeles, Sao Paulo and France after the Mott Haven exhibit closes on August 8th.

Flores said that the Brazilians’ murals have revitalized his interest in his own work.

“It turns what happened in the South Bronx into a legend,” said Flores. “We’re icons.”

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