For many North Americans, the lasting news image of Hurricane Maria, the monster storm that laid waste to Puerto Rico in 2017, wasn’t of the storm itself, but of a political photo-op that followed, when former President Donald J. Trump visited more than two weeks after the disaster had left the island desperately short on power, fresh water and food.
Trump was escorted to an emergency distribution center where, in a kind of cartoon version of imperial largess, he began lobbing rolls of paper towels into a crowd. The gesture read to some as a rebuke: “Clean up your mess.” (Trump had earlier confided to Twitter that Puerto Ricans “want everything to be done for them.”) Turning his back on the mild scramble that ensued, he purred to reporters: “There’s a lot of love in this room, a lot of love.”
There actually is a lot of love in the exhibition titled “No existe un mundo poshuracán: Puerto Rican Art in the Wake of Hurricane Maria” at the Whitney Museum of American Art in Manhattan. There’s also a tremendous amount of anger and sorrow, along with much beauty, in a carefully textured and moving show that is also among the first major surveys of contemporary Puerto Rican art in a leading United States museum in nearly 50 years.
(The last one I can recall was “The Art Heritage of Puerto Rico: Pre-Columbian to Present” in 1974, a collaboration between the Metropolitan Museum of Art and New York’s small, budget-challenged El Museo del Barrio, which has been consistently showing work by Puerto Rican artists living on and off the island since it opened in East Harlem in 1969.)
Organized by Marcela Guerrero, a Whitney associate curator, along with Angelica Arbelaez and Sofia Silva, present and past museum fellows, the exhibition takes its Spanish-language title from a line in a poem by the Puerto Rican writer Raquel Salas Rivera, which Guerrero translates twice, as “A post-hurricane world doesn’t exist” and as “there isn’t a world post-hurricane.” In her syntactically slippery second rendering, two ideas interlink.
One is that the social and economic hardships experienced by residents on the island not only continue today, five years after Maria, but have always, in some form, been there as a product of longstanding colonialist exploitation. (Designated an “unincorporated territory” by Washington, Puerto Rico exercises self-governance but is effectively a U.S. colony).
The show itself, with 50 works by 20 artists, most of whom will be new to visitors, takes us straight into a very specific world, the one created by Maria’s arrival in Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, 2017, as recorded in a feature length documentary-style video by Sofía Córdova. Projected on a large screen at the exhibition entrance, the film starts with a flickery cellphone video taken by the artist’s aunt Maggie in her home a few hours after the storm hit and the island’s already tentative power grid had failed.
By the phone’s light we see rain leaking in through closed windows and under doors, and we hear her aunt’s reassuring accounts of how various household pets are faring. The view of crisis broadens as the film moves, in daylight, outdoors to shots of flood water surging through city streets, and to interviews with residents trying to come to grips, materially and emotionally, with the chaos.
Interjected into the documentary flow are images of symbolic, even poetic responses to crisis. A cloud-strewn aerial view of the island is accompanied by a vintage pop song extolling Puerto Rico as “the pearl from the Caribbean.” In an extended sequence, we see a woman, possibly housebound by the storm, performing a strenuous calisthenic dance on the balcony of her home. And in a series of clips repeated throughout the film, another woman, mysteriously masked, guides us, like a cautionary spirit, through half-ruined tropical forests.
Several themes the film sets up, political and personal, are elaborated on in work by the show’s other artists. Some give us history, and the sense that the past and present are, for better and worse, continuous.
In a painting called “Collapsed Souls” by Gamaliel Rodríguez, the image of an exploding ship, done in bruisy blues and blacks, recalls the battleship Maine, whose destruction in Cuba in 1898 sparked the Spanish-American War, which led to the United States claiming Puerto Rico as its own. But the painting was directly inspired by the 2015 sinking, in a hurricane, of an antiquated U.S. cargo vessel on its way from Florida to San Juan with food, building materials and medical supplies — North American imports on which the island remains cripplingly dependent as a result of punishingly restrictive U.S. shipping laws.
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