By Julia Munemo
Miguel Payano ’03 divides his life to date into thirds. He spent his first 10 years ensconced in the Dominican community of New York City, the first child in his family born in the U.S. At 11, he earned a scholarship to boarding school and spent the next 10 years living and learning in majority white communities in New England. And immediately after graduating from Williams, he moved to Beijing, where he has lived for the last decade. “I am truly inter-cultural,” he says. “I feel a connection to each of those places and all of those people, and that is key to my work.”
A visual artist, Payano can’t remember a time when he wasn’t, as he calls it, “making work.” As a young boy, he’d use his mother’s lipstick to create images. Payano discovered his interest in Chinese language in high school. He was fluent in spoken Spanish but wanted to take intermediate classes to build a writing foundation. His teachers suggested he learn a new language instead, and a family friend advised him that Chinese would be the future.
“As a visual person and an artist, I found Chinese characters beautiful and compelling,” he says. “I was drawn in by the fact that they’re abstract images and words at the same time.” He spent a year in Beijing after high school, where he enrolled in the local secondary school and lived with a Chinese family. He came to Williams with a solid foundation in the language, and he spent each college summer in Mainland China or Taiwan.
Having double majored in Chinese and studio art, Payano saw moving to Beijing after graduation as the obvious next step. “I knew what I could do there to survive as an artist,” he says. He earned his M.F.A. at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing while making ends meet as an English teacher, translator, interpreter, and freelance designer. His final master’s project was called “Enveloped.” Using ink on paper, Payano covered the walls and floors of the installation space with images that represented how overwhelmed he felt by the Chinese world. The project’s positive reception helped ease those feelings and launched him into the Beijing art world.
One of Payano’s recent projects draws heavily on his inter-cultural identification. “Lian-pu Leaders” is a series of portraits of the 2013 G20 world leaders rendered in Beijing opera masks. He found more than 1,000 masks, each representing certain characters, then researched contemporary political figures so he could choose the right masks for each one. “Obama is wearing the mask of the Monkey King,” Payano says with an ironic grin. “In Beijing opera, the Monkey King is a hero, but using that phrase in this country pushes all kinds of buttons.” Buttons Payano believes art should push.
As for the lasting effects of his time in New England, Payano credits Williams with helping him find his voice. He says, “When artists make art, they are speaking, and in many important ways I established a foundation for my visual language at Williams.”