WASHINGTON HEIGHTS — From his studio uptown straight to the walls of a Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C., artist M. Tony Peralta hasn't taken the usual path to artistic fame.
Peralta’s latest project, the “con rolos” series — or “with rollers” — featuring iconic figures like Celia Cruz, Frida, Wonder Woman and Dora the Explorer, began as a screen-printing project in his studio — and are now a centerpiece of a new exhibit on the Latino immigrant experience at the Smithsonian’s Anascostia Community Museum.
“I didn’t go the traditional route in wanting to be an artist,” said Peralta, 42.
“In the art world, for you to be ‘an artist’ or part of the art world, you had to have graduated from Yale or have an MFA from a prestigious school. It’s like I asked the question, 'because you didn’t go that route, does it mean you can’t be an artist'?”
Peralta said that despite not going the traditional route, his work has resonated with the communities he represents and that’s what ultimately matters to him.
“The people support me… because of how relevant my work is. It’s work that represents a group of people that are underrepresented,” he said. “And the work I’ve done all through the years, reached this woman in Washington D.C. You don’t understand how happy and surprised I was.”
The woman it reached, Peralta said, was Ariana Curtis, anthropologist by training and Latino Studies Curator for the “Gateway” exhibit in the Smithsonian’s Anascostia Community Museum, who was busy building an exhibit with a “Dominican Hair Salon” section early this year.
“When I was building the Gateway exhibition, I realized we needed some levity,” Curtis said, adding that, when visiting Washington Heights and other parts of New York City, she noticed Dominican hair salons were “a space for entrepreneurship for women and ... fellowship.”
Marcia Baird Burris, spokeswoman for the museum said Anacostia is one of the smallest Smithsonian museum sites, adding that they’re different in that the space is more “issues oriented.”
Burris added that the research and exhibition Curtis has created speaks to issues on inclusion, social justice and how the “Latinx” community is integrating into the U.S.
Curtis said when she reached out to Peralta earlier this year, the goal was to acquire the "Celia Con Rolos," Frida and Dora the Explorer. But the Frida piece had already been sold to rapper Swizz Beatz, Peralta said, while "Dora the Explorer" was too large for the museum’s small space.
Curtis said that in addition to Peralta, there were other artists from North Carolina, Baltimore and the Dominican Republic included in the exhibit, along with work from activists and community organizers.
But Peralta's rolos pieces were among the few permanent acquired pieces from the event.
Peralta said he realized the deep connection people had with rollers and the hair salon after the success of his "Complejo" exhibit, where he featured the "Doña Con Rolos" piece.
“I wanted to continue with that concept, but I just didn’t know how,” he said. “Then a few years passed and it came to me to do an iconic woman in rolos.”
Peralta said that although "Dora the Explorer" was the first concept that came to him, he quickly realized he could continue doing the project with different iconic women, totaling nine when the collection was completed last year for an exhibition in lower Manhattan.
“The reason they’re in hair rollers is to make them more relatable. It’s for people to see themselves — especially women,” Peralta said. “It’s taking somebody like Celia Cruz and making her more human.”
The collection is ongoing, Peralta said, adding that he recently painted the MTV cartoon character, Daria, as one of the “con rolos” prints. Peralta also made a print of then-presidential candidate Donald Trump donning hair rollers that appeared in the Lower East Side and East Harlem.
The exhibit, which opened Monday, Dec. 6, Curtis said, is free and available to the public until Aug. 6, 2017. The museum is located at 1901 Fort Place SE, in the Washington D.C. community of Anacostia.