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Colin and a Queen, 2018

Roberto Lugo

Look closely at Roberto Lugo’s hand-painted porcelain featured in the exhibition Burke Prize 2018. Discover how the artist and social activist’s multicultural mash-ups elevate people historically absent in fine art and make your own mixed-media self-portrait in this object lesson for all ages.


Roberto Lugo uses ceramics as tools of protest, covering their surfaces with hip-hop iconography, graffiti, and portraits of black and brown people from history, politics, and popular culture. Look closely at the left image of Lugo's Colin and a Queen.

  • What does the overall shape of the object remind you of?
  • What is the color palette like?
  • What different patterns can you discern?
  • What other details catch your attention?
  • Focusing on the figure in the center of the work, what do you notice?


The base of the vessel is decorated in the style of a vase or jar from ancient Greece, which often were decorated with mythological stories. The heroic warriors, gods, and goddesses they depicted would have been recognizable to anyone who saw and used these containers at the time of their making, over two thousand years ago.

  • How does this vessel resemble traditional ceramics?
  • Does it remind you of objects made of clay or porcelain that you have seen before? Where?

Lugo decided to include a portrait of a recognizable figure from our own time: Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback. Kaepernick’s 2016 decision to kneel during the pre-game national anthem in protest of racial injustice continues to reverberate today in debates about police brutality and racial oppression.  In 2018, Amnesty International recognized Kaepernick with its Ambassador of Conscience Award, one of the highest human rights honors.

  • Do you think featuring Kaepernick on a vase in 2018 is comparable to featuring the Greek gods Zeus, Poseidon, or Artemis on a vase from 800 BC? In what way?
  • How would you interpret Lugo’s portrait of Kaepernick on the vase? What do you think the artist meant to communicate?
  • Describe the way Kaepernick is depicted. How do his facial expression and his overall appearance add to the story?
  • Why do you think Lugo decided to render Kaepernick’s hair in the style of graffiti?


Lugo describes himself as an artist and an activist. His work raises questions about who has been historically represented in art, and who hasn’t. The artist, who is of Puerto Rican descent and grew up in Philadelphia, often talks about his experience with pottery as a way out of a setting that offered very little opportunity for him and his peers. He stresses the importance of using his art as a way “to speak on behalf of people where I come from,” so they will recognize themselves in his work. On the reverse side of the same vessel (seen in the image on the right), the artist painted a portrait of an anonymous black woman—likely a domestic worker— from a nineteenth-century photograph .

  • How is this side of the vessel similar to the other? How is it different?
  • Why do you think Lugo chose to depict an image of an unknown woman from over a hundred years ago?
  • If you were to suggest a subject for the artist to use on his next vessel, who would you propose, and why?

Lugo now teaches ceramics and is regularly invited to give talks at universities and museums. He likes to sprinkle his talks with moving spoken-word passages, and he frequently emphasizes the power of art. “I feel like the things we do in the visual arts matter most because they challenge the world in a way that people don’t see coming—as opposed to being violent or retaliating with our words,” he says. “We often get to the heart of the matter.”

  • What do you think makes visual art such an effective means of communicating important points?


Lugo filters diverse cultural and pop-cultural influences into an aesthetic that is at once deeply personal and very relatable. He sometimes refers to this process of mashing up high and low, historical and current, as “code layering” (as opposed to “code switching,” the process of adjusting one’s accent and way of speaking to suit the setting and the person being addressed).

Lugo also includes images of himself on his ceramics, and many of his spoken-word pieces are highly autobiographical, such as the powerful introduction to his 2018 NCECA Emerging Artist Talk.

Create a “code-layered” self portrait:

  • Start by making a list of the things that matter most to you (family, music, movies, books, sports, role models, urgent issues in your neighborhood or in the news, etc.).
  • Create a line drawing of your face. Feel free to take inspiration from the way Lugo uses outlines to create striking yet simple portraits.
  • Fill out the drawing with colors, patterns, and references to some of the things on your list. Text and collage elements are welcome, too.

Roberto Lugo
Colin and the Queen,
Earthenware and china paint
6 1/2 × 17 in. (27.9 × 16.5 × 43.2 cm).

This object lesson was written by Petra Pankow.

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