Puerto Rican artists wrestle with life after hurricanes : NPR
Whitney Museum of American Art
One of the most striking pieces in a new exhibition of Puerto Rican artists struggling with life after (and before) Hurricane Maria is a simple electric post, suspended in mid-air as if a hurricane had caught it, right in that minute.
It is a commentary on the almost complete failure of the archipelago’s electricity grid after the hurricane five years ago. But because attached to the pole there is a sign in Spanish – “Value your American citizenship. Vote for statehood” – it is clear that the piece also asks: Where is the American government? Why not solve this very basic electricity issue?
However, would things have been better after the hurricane if Puerto Rico had been a state? Some think not.
“We can talk about what Puerto Ricans are like [already] citizens. So what kind of citizenship is citizenship?” asked Marcela Guerrero, the Jennifer Rubio Associate Curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. She moved to New York from Puerto Rico shortly before the hurricane.
Guerrero is the curator of the exhibition, called “no existe un mundo poshuracán: Puerto Rican art after Hurricane Maria.” It means a post-hurricane world does not exist. And in this case a hurricane, she said, is a metaphor for a force that cannot escape.
Much of this exhibition is about those forces — colonialism, mismanagement at all levels of government, climate change, earthquakes, and the failure of the power grid.
“It’s just – this again. And again. It’s a cycle that always perpetuates unfair conditions imposed on the daily life of Puerto Ricans,” said Guerrero. “I want people to understand that it’s not just an inconvenience. It’s not just that you can’t watch Netflix! You can’t refrigerate medications, [for example]. It makes living very difficult.”
There is a deep anger running through “no existe,” a feeling that the United States never had Puerto Rico’s best interests at heart; that maybe the storm wouldn’t have been such a historic disaster if the government didn’t prioritize investing in beaches instead of basic infrastructure, and if it didn’t seem to care more about tourists than the people who actually live there .
Who is Puerto Rico for?
“B-roll,” a video piece by visual artist Sofía Gallisá Muriente, points out that by juxtaposing lush scenes and tourist offices of an island paradise with remixed camp recordings from the 2016 Puerto Rico investment summit that hailed the -archipelago to investors.
“I am optimistic for the long-term growth prospects for Puerto Rico,” says the video, accompanied by electronic music composed by Daniel Montes Carro. “It has a perfect climate. You can minimize your taxes.”
“I was really interested, what are the images that are being produced to entice people to move or invest in Puerto Rico? And what do they say about us and how we offer ourselves to the world?” Muriente said. “And, you know, most of them are beautiful beaches without people in them. Most of them are, you know, beautiful landscapes still open for consumption, but without locals.”
She said she just wanted to reveal “how sinister” those visual images can be. And they look sinister, with men in suits looking down from helicopters onto empty streets.
We listen at the kitchen table
The show, however, is not all tragedy. And a lot of it is very personal. The 20 artists, some living in Puerto Rico and some in the diaspora, explore love, hope and pride. There are eye-poppingly colorful resistance posters by Garvin Sierra, a painting of another man-made disaster by Gamaliel Rodríguez, and photographic works by Gabriella N. Báez that bring together her late father and herself. with red string.
Ron Amstutz/Whitney Museum of American Art
Mixed media artist Sofía Córdova’s video piece, part of a larger work looking at the scarcity of resources called “beginning chorus,” begins with a cell phone video taken by her aunt. The rain and the wind beat against the windows in the night that the storm hits; the electricity is out. Tell what you are seeing. “It’s getting worse,” she says.
The two-hour work features images of Puerto Rico after the hurricane, where you can see flooded streets and broken homes. But it also shows a quiet beauty: a lizard, a landscape. Through all this he plays intimate interviews of Córdova’s relatives, who process everything they have gone through. You feel like you are sitting around a kitchen table with them, listening to their stories. Get to know them as people who are thinking about a problem: what should they do now?
That’s what Córdova thought.
Individuals sometimes become invisible during and after a disaster — they are only seen as collective victims. But in the hands of this artist, they are whole people, relating their experiences with all their contradictions.
“Caribbean peoples and marginalized peoples and oppressed peoples – our history is never the ones that are put in the big archives,” said Córdova. “So we bear witness to each other. And the stories become such a fundamental piece of struggle and survival.”
“no existe un mundo poshuracán: Puerto Rican Art after Hurricane Maria” lasts April 2023 at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.