Although Roberto Lugo is most known for his pottery work, he is also a poet, educator, and social activist. Lugo uses ceramics in order to display themes of social and racial injustice, poverty, and inequality. His work involves blending traditional European and Asian porcelain forms with an urban graffiti style and modern themes. The porcelain works often feature portraits of individuals who historically haven’t been painted in this medium such as Dr. Cornel West, Sojourner Truth, The Notorious B.I.G., Lugo’s family members, and himself.
Lugo’s relationship with art began with street graffiti from the ages of 14 to 19. Lugo later decided to attend Kansas City Art Institute to become a “production potter” which would involve making basic items, not works of art. He later graduated from Penn State with his Master’s Degree.
Although his feedback from his professors wasn’t always positive, Lugo was inspired by a trip to the library where he spotted a photo of a Worchester Pot (made by England’s royal porcelain manufacturer) in a book. In an interview with the New York Times, Lugo recalled the moment stating, “It was gold and royal blue, and it had a portrait on the very front… I thought, ‘This object looks expensive. Right now I don’t feel too great about myself, so what if I tried to remake this pot and draw a portrait of myself on it?’”
His first creation inspired many others, including the piece “Brooklyn Century Vase” which is a vase featuring the likeness of Jay Z, The Notorious B.I.G., and Jackie Robinson. The techniques that Lugo uses to create these ceramic pieces depends on how elaborate it will be. For his more traditional pieces, Lugo will typically use dark clay to help give the background more color. On the other hand, for his more complex works, he will utilize a process called “overglaze painting” (sometimes called “China painting”) which involves working with a quill pen by hand.
Lugo has been the recipient of many awards, most recently the 2019 Pew Fellowship, a US Artist Award, and the Cynthia Hazen Polsky and Leon Polsky Rome Prize. The Metropolitan Museum of Art is currently displaying a show featuring Roberto Lugo’s artwork, titled Before Yesterday We Could Fly: An Afrofuturist Period Room. The show is ongoing and discusses Seneca Village, a thriving 19th-century predominantly black community of landowners and tenants that was seized by the city in 1857 to make room for Central Park.
This exhibition is particularly meaningful for Lugo, and not just because of its themes. Lugo spoke about having his work displayed at the Met, stating, “When I first started making ceramics, if anybody ever gave me a compliment, my joke was always, ‘Oh, you can go check out my work at the Met’…It reminds me how far I’ve come, but it’s not just about me. People have to look for artists like me, and support us.”