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Omar Banuchi Finds His Niche in the Puerto Rican Web (Part I)

Categories: Caribbean, Latin America, Puerto Rico (U.S.), Arts & Culture, Citizen Media, Technology

First part in a series about digital art by Puerto Rico’s Omar Banuchi.

It was 11th February, two days away from Saint Valentine’s, and already the social networks had started circulating a series of images [1] [es] as colourful as they were peculiar. Actually, it’s about different picture cards that keep reappearing in my newsfeed, shared over and over again by my Facebook connections. One of these shows a close-up of a middle finger raised at the viewer. The ‘bomb park’ red nail polish stands out dramatically- the same red that colours the heart of the ring seen in the picture. The backgrounds are all bright and sharp; the lines, from one postcard to the next, all follow the same thick strokes.

Some of these postcards carry messages, as if they were a bizarre meme mocking Hallmark cards. There is, for example, a neon-green cat [2] [es] licking between his legs, with a thought bubble that would feel completely at ease in the nearest comic, proclaiming “Saint Valentine's Day isn't going to be so bad after all…”. In another, a fantasy green animal [3][es], with an elephant's trunk and impossibly large eyes -framed in yellow so that the description of the little howler would remain short- walking above the catchphrase “animal love is what it is”.

Omar Banuchi's Valentine postcards spread rapidly on the Internet in Puerto Rico.

Omar Banuchi's Valentine postcards spread rapidly on the Internet in Puerto Rico.

Meanwhile, on the artist's webpage [4] [es] where the postcards started running Banuchi declares, “I know they're very old. I always wanted to make new ones, but there we go. Use them wiselyDownload and share”.

Welcome to the world of Omar Banuchi. The sensitivity, that of scoffing love- on the national day of cards and cheap chocolate- with ironic distance, and at the same time paying tribute to the feeling, has been his signature style.  His pictures normally leave the same slightly spooky impression, as if you could access the real image of its subjects by just peeling back this highly delineated layer that will never stop being playful.  But its on the surface where his art operates, whether it be the bright surface saturated with complimentary colours or the tablet by brand Wacom that serves as a canvas. Banuchi is a digital illustrator, and his office is nourished by the tools that new media bring. The truth is that behind the majority of his pieces there is a photo or photomontage that he has drawn and upon which he paints.

Hugely influenced by the culture of fan boy from comics such as Marvel or DC, Banuchi has fully installed himself in the indie scene of Puerto Rico, where his pixelated brush strokes connect with a small, but growing, public. This is a scene where you can find comics like “Days” [5][es], an autobiographical series he created with Rosaura Rodríguez, his closest creative partner. On the other hand he has become an official artist of “We got carried away” [6] [es], the latest multimedia and musical project of Eduardo Alegría [7], a veteran of the independent movement in San Juan. To this project he adds his part of the work which leans more towards the element of fine art, where he maintains a presence through Galería Yemayá [8] [es], a space that reunites various Puerto Rican creators influenced by urban art. His work can also be found in alternative shops such as Executive Manolo [9] in Santurce, where pins and cards can regularly be found.  But above all, his art is shared on the web; his Facebook pages and Tumblr [10] are the easiest ways to get a first taste.

Omar BanuchiThe work challenges formats and prejudices of what it really means to draw: Banuchi feels completely at ease creating pieces that end up hanging on the wall of a gallery, just as he does printing pins that could end up on a San Juan hipster's backpack. There is no paper or charcoal, nor oil or canvas. Instead, the drawing is made with a plastic toy that appears very similar to the system that is used to sign digitally after making a credit card transaction. There are those that don't see art from this approach, to which Banuchi answers with more viral illustrations. The rest, it could be said, is digital love.


[Click on this link [11] in order to access a video of Omar Banuchi working.]

“I started to draw like this in 2008”, the artist recently told me in Café Luna, a small coffee place in Río Piedras that is near the Medical Centre, in the shade of Los Robles condominium, where Banuchi lived for a long time. It is only recently that he has moved away- albeit not very far- from this apartment complex, with its socialist block look, in the Caribbean where his mother still lives. Now he lives around the corner, in an apartment that is close by to the one in which he grew up.

“My ex-girlfriend bought a tablet to draw with [12]”, he continued, explaining the way in which his technique met with technology. “She went on a trip and left me with the tablet so I started to draw with it”.

Before meeting Banuchi, I met his self portrait [13].  Drawing himself is something that he does a lot, so he had given me the impression that he was a black boy with a shaven head. However, when the time came, the person that I met was a pretentious-free young white man of 29 years, with his head held high and bright eyes that gave him a dreamy look.

“If I'm honest I have a whatever racial thing when I draw myself”, he would end up explaining to me with a relaxed approach littered with phrases in English. Banuchi tends to move about and express himself in a relaxed manner, just as his figures, and it's clear that the subject of couples’ relationships is a recurring theme. In fact, the root of his current work, which he describes as a way of digitally tracing a photo, came about in his student days while studying at Bellas Artes (Art) in the University of Puerto Rico in Río Piedras, when his goal was to become a photographer. Even then he was already investigating his own love life.

“Really, everything started with my final project in digital photography class”, he told me. “I made an autobiographical digital scrapbook. It had all the stories of previous girlfriends that I'd been out with. The point is that I drew on top of the photos with Photoshop. It looked half done, because I did it with the computer mouse, but the point was for it to look half childish. Afterwards, when I was lent the machine it was like, ‘wow, I have more control and it looks cooler’. I continued like this until I eventually removed the photo underneath and only the drawing remained”.

The childlike edge to his work remains, even though it complicates itself with the outlook of –a sometimes lecherous- boy that never stopped collecting Spiderman comics. Together with the ludicrous mix of desire and the want to capture the everyday goings-on of the world that surrounds us. There is something restless about the twentysomething in his illustrations, when everything that happens in this intense decade of growth feels big and important. After this comes the ironic wink, the distance that the illustrator imposes on his subject, preventing his theme from falling into a commonplace category or cliché.

“The colours and the form caught my attention”, Rosaura Rodríguez [14] [es] would tell me later about her first encounter with Banuchi's art.  “It's very accessible, everyone can understand it”.

To see him work, with a stylus that serves as a plastic charcoal over a digital paper that is a screen, might be a revelation. The way in which he remains completely absorbed by the photos that he draws attracts much attention. I recently had the opportunity to see him in action, when I went to visit him in his new appartment. The place still has an aspect of dormroom about it, with comics filling his bookshelves and a small gas heater that still has not been used. Instead, a single electric burner doubles up in the kitchen.

“From photography is what comes from him”, Beto Torrens, the Director of the Yemayá Gallery [15] [es] explained to me later about what Banuchi exhibited. “Usually he starts with a normal photo- point and shoot- and this is what makes many identify with the piece. It's the photo that the world takes, but with a graphic design edge that gives it the colours and wide lines”.

The images are published with the artist's permission.