My latest installation, recently on view at the National Museum of Mexican Art, is the most difficult piece I've ever had to produce. It remembers my only child, Jeff Abbey Maldonado, Jr., who was murdered at age 19, just 16 months ago.
The installation is a contemporary ofrenda, or altar, meant to celebrate sprits who have passed into the next realm and return for a night to be with their loved ones. This is celebrated in Mexico on November 1 at midnight. Instead of the usual offerings, such as sugar skulls and candles, my ofrenda focuses on the music and message of the young Jeff, Jr.—aka J-Def—and may very well be the first hip hop ofrenda shown at the museum.
Walls painted a bright red and blue represent the earth and sky, respectively. The red earth symbolizes our ancestry as Native and Mexican Americans. It's our color. The blue suggests the spirit and the afterlife. Yellow appears in the presence of gold vinyl albums, more than 80 of which spell out the name "J-Def," representing the music yet to be made by this young artist. I used the primary colors to indicate a desire to organize my thoughts amid the randomness of the whole experience. Hundreds of glitter drops, representing our tears and sorrow, fall from painted clouds then disappear among handwritten messages. I remember one morning shortly after the incident: There wasn't a cloud in the sky, yet it rained just over our house. It didn't surprise me, but I took it as a message and it became part of our story.
Jeff Abbey Maldonado, Jr., was killed one day after his 19th birthday. He was on his way home from the barbershop, preparing for his first public performance, when the van he was riding in was fired upon by a reputed gang member in broad daylight. Jeff, Jr., suffered a mortal wound and was pronounced dead at 8:20 p.m. on July 25, 2010.
The Pilsen community rallied around my family in our time of need. Pilsen youth began a fundraising car wash to help pay for funeral expenses. The community organized marches protesting gang violence and held candlelit vigils. Artists painted murals in memory of Jeff and the positivity of his words and example. His alma mater, Perspectives Charter Scohol–Joslin Campus, created a scholarship in his honor, and the first recipient received $1,000 in assistance to study music at Columbia College Chicago.
Throughout this time, I began working on my installation. I pretty much cleared out the local thrift stores looking for vinyl albums. The idea was to emphasize music, since that was the dream Jeff was living. He was enrolled at Harold Washington College where he was working toward his Associate's degree. He then planned to transfer to Columbia College Chicago and get into music management.
In the meantime, Jeff, Jr., wrote and recorded lyrics with such producers as Brute Cite and Ghetto Division. He just got better and better and was really speaking the truth. His death is a tremendous loss to our family and to his friends and followers and the community at large.
My wife Elizabeth and I are producing a J-Def documentary, and Jim Quattrocki created a six-minute music video incorporating some of the footage. It combines two of J-Def's most evocative portraits of the neighborhood he grew up in—its dangers and the struggles young people face walking along Pilsen's 18th Street.
The documentary,19 and a Day: The Life and Times of Jeff Abbey Maldonado, Jr., is near the post-production phase. Working with local filmmakers Pemon Rami and Masequa Myers, I hope that the film will serve as both a commemoration for Jeff and a cautionary tale for the youth of Chicago. Our streets are not safe and the sociopolitical problems run deep, but it just takes one person with a gun to drastically alter the lives of so many innocent people. We have war in our streets. I think it's high time we start holding people accountable for their actions.
Jeff Abbey Maldonado is a Chicago-based artist whose work has been exhibited in galleries, museums, cultural centers, and universities, including the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum and Jan Cicero Gallery. He is the recipient of the Community Artist Assistance Program Grant, the Governor's International Exchange Program Grant, and the Illinois Arts Council Special, as well as numerous commissions. His work has been featured in National Geographic Travel Magazine, The Daily Herald, Contemporary Chicago/a Art by Arizona State Univeristy, and in Francisco Hinojosa's book Mexican Chicago. He has coordinated 18th St: Pilsen Open Studios as part of Chicago Artists Month.