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When people are less important than beaches: Puerto Rican artists at the Whitney

Gabriella Torres-Ferrer, <em>Untitled (Valora tu mentira americana)</em> (detail), 2018. Hurricane-ravaged wooden electric post with statehood propaganda. Private collection; courtesy of the artist and Embajada, San Juan.
Whitney Museum of American Art
Gabriella Torres-Ferrer, Untitled (Valora tu mentira americana) (detail), 2018. Hurricane-ravaged wooden electric post with statehood propaganda. Private collection; courtesy of the artist and Embajada, San Juan.

One of the most striking pieces in a new exhibit of Puerto Rican artists wrestling with life after (and before) Hurricane Maria is a simple electric post, suspended in the air as if a hurricane had swooped it up, right that minute.

It's a commentary on the almost complete failure of the archipelago's electric grid after the hurricane five years ago. But because attached to the pole is a sign in Spanish — "Value your American citizenship. Vote for statehood" — it's clear that the piece also wonders: Where is the U.S. government? Why hasn't it solved this very basic issue of electricity?

Yet, would things have been better after the hurricane if Puerto Rico were a state? Some think not.

"We can talk about how Puerto Ricans are [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 not long before the hurricane.

Guerrero is the curator of the exhibit, called "no existe un mundo poshuracán: Puerto Rican Art in the Wake of Hurricane Maria." It means a post-hurricane world doesn't exist. And in this case a hurricane, she said, is a metaphor for a force you can't escape.

Much of this exhibit 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 an ever-perpetuating cycle of unjust conditions imposed on the daily lives of Puerto Ricans," Guerrero said. "I want people to understand that it's not just an inconvenience. It's not just you can't watch Netflix! You can't refrigerate medicines, [for example]. It makes living very hard."

There's a deep anger running through "no existe," a feeling that the United States has 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 about the people who actually live there.

Who is Puerto Rico for?

"B-roll," a video piece by the visual artist Sofía Gallisá Muriente, points that out by juxtaposing lush, tourist-office scenes of an island paradise with remixed field recordings from the 2016 Puerto Rico investment summit that extolled the archipelago to investors.

"I am optimistic for the long-term growth prospects for Puerto Rico," the video says, accompanied by electronic music composed by Daniel Montes Carro. "It has a perfect climate. You can minimize your taxes."

"I was really interested in, 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, a lot of them are beautiful beaches with no people in them. A lot of them are, you know, beautiful landscapes kind of open for consumption, but without locals."

She said she just wanted to reveal "how sinister" those visual images could be. And they DO seem sinister, with men in suits looking down from helicopters at empty streets.

Listening in at the kitchen table

The exhibit, though, is not all tragedy. And much 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 posters of resistance in eye-popping colors by Garvin Sierra, a painting of another man-made disaster by Gamaliel Rodríguez, and photographic works by Gabriella N. Báez that stitch together her late father and herself with red string.

Sofía Córdova's two-hour video piece, "dawn chorus ii: el niágara en bicicleta," stretches against an entire wall as visitors enter the exhibit.
Ron Amstutz / Whitney Museum of American Art
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Whitney Museum of American Art
Sofía Córdova's two-hour video piece, "dawn chorus ii: el niágara en bicicleta," stretches against an entire wall as visitors enter the exhibit.

Mixed-media artist Sofía Córdova's video piece, part of a larger work looking at resource scarcity called "dawn chorus," starts with a cellphone video taken by her aunt. Rain and wind beat at the windows on the night the storm hits; the electricity is out. She narrates what she's seeing. "It's getting worse," she says.

The two-hour work has images of Puerto Rico post-hurricane, where you see flooded streets and broken residences. But it also shows quiet beauty: a lizard, a landscape. Through it all plays intimate interviews of Córdova's relatives, processing everything they've been through. It feels as though you are sitting around a kitchen table with them, listening to their stories. You get to know them as people who are thinking their way around a problem: what should they do now?

That's what Córdova intended.

Individuals sometimes become invisible during and after a disaster — they're just seen as collective victims. But in this artist's hands, they are full people, relating their experiences with all their contradictions.

"Caribbean peoples and marginalized peoples and oppressed peoples — our histories are never the ones that get put in the great archives," Córdova said. "So we witness for each other. And storytelling becomes such a foundational piece of struggle and survival."

"no existe un mundo poshuracán: Puerto Rican Art in the Wake of Hurricane Maria" runs through April 2023 at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jennifer Vanasco
Jennifer Vanasco is an editor on the NPR Culture Desk, where she also reports on theater, visual arts, cultural institutions, the intersection of tech/culture and the economics of the arts.