Puerto Rican artist win award at The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery

The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery has announced Elsa María Meléndez of Puerto Rico as winner of the People’s Choice Award for the museum’s 2022 Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition. Held every three years, the Portrait Gallery’s national competition results in an exhibition highlighting the latest in contemporary portraiture from across the United States and its territories. As part of the competition, the Portrait Gallery invites viewers to vote for their favorite finalist included in the competition’s resulting exhibition. Viewers—both in-person and remote— were able to cast votes online for their favorite of 42 portraits included in “The Outwin 2022: American Portraiture Today.” Meléndez’s winning textile work “Milk” (2020) remains on view in Washington, D.C., through Feb. 26, 2023, before the exhibition tours to select cities across the U.S.

Created six months into the COVID-19 lockdown, “Milk” depicts Meléndez charging forward in a large-scale portrait using her own likeness combining silk, drawing and various needlework techniques. The figure carries a limp bull with milk dripping from her breasts in a comment on gender violence which escalated in Puerto Rico during the pandemic. Feminist organizations took to the streets demanding the government declare a state of emergency in response to an increase in domestic abuse against women. The milk reaffirms the strength of women as a life force while the bull, tamed momentarily with breast milk, might be read as a critical comment on how women can also “nurse the beast of patriarchy,” said Meléndez.

“Milk” by Elsa María Meléndez. Canvas with silkscreen, embroidery, ink, and other textiles. 2020 Collection of the artist. Copyright Elsa María Meléndez.

“Our congratulations go out to Elsa María Meléndez whose portrait encapsulates the artist’s fight on gender equality,” said Taína Caragol, director of the 2022 Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition and curator at the National Portrait Gallery. “It is also notable that the voters have recognized an artwork that communicates the universality of the women’s struggle for equity and respect both in Puerto Rico and globally. This is the second consecutive time that a Puerto Rican artist wins the People’s Choice Award. We are delighted for them and for all Latinx artists.”

“The Outwin 2022: American Portraiture Today” will go on tour starting in 2023 to select venues including Orlando Museum of Art, Orlando, Florida, April 8, 2023–Oct. 8, 2023; Ackland Art Museum, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Nov. 3, 2023–Jan. 21, 2024; and Michele and Donald D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts, Springfield, Massachusetts, Feb. 17, 2024–May 5, 2024.

The competition and exhibition are made possible by the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition Endowment, which was established by Virginia Outwin Boochever, a longtime docent at the National Portrait Gallery. The endowment is sustained by her family.
National Portrait Gallery

The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery tells the multifaceted story of the United States through the individuals who have shaped American culture. Spanning the visual arts, performing arts and new media, the Portrait Gallery portrays poets and presidents, visionaries and villains, actors and activists whose lives tell the nation’s story.

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