Pablo Delano: A Brief Interview with Repeating Islands

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[Interview by Ivette Romero.] Pablo Delano is a visual artist and photographer born in San Juan, Puerto Rico. He is the son of photographer, filmmaker, and composer Jack Delano and graphic artist Irene Delano. He moved to the U.S. to study painting, then settled in New York City and turned to photography, which he learned from his father. Delano has carried out a broad range of projects including a photographic study of Washington Heights commissioned by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs Percent for Art Program; a book of black and white photographs titled In Trinidad, which explores post-colonial Caribbean identity; and a visual investigation of the built environment of Hartford, Connecticut, done in digital color photography. His latest project focuses on Puerto Rico: “The Museum of the Old Colony” was inaugurated at Alice Yard, an experimental art space in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago. It has since been exhibited at The National Gallery of Jamaica (a fragment), at The 7th Argentine Biennial of Documentary Photography in Tucumán, and is currently on view at the King Juan Carlos I of Spain Center at New York University through March 16th. Delano teaches photography at Trinity College (in Hartford, Connecticut) where he is professor of fine arts.

[Do not miss The Museum of the Old Colony Roundtable Discussion on Thursday, February 16, 6:30pm, at the King Juan Carlos I of Spain Center, 53 Washington Square South, New York.]

pd1-kjcc-feb-2017-a[Installation view, The Museum of the Old Colony at the King Juan Carlos I of Spain Center, NYU. Foreground image: “Alcaldesa de San Juan ondea banderita de PR en Nueva York Felisa Rincón.” Photographer not identified, AP photo, undated, Source: Biblioteca Digital Puertorriqueña, Colección de fotos del Periódico El Mundo.]

Repeating Islands/Ivette Romero [RI/IR]: I am intrigued by the title of your installation / exhibition “The Museum of the Old Colony,” and as I previously mentioned on our blog, ironically, it makes me crave that sugary-sweet Old Colony grape soda that has, perhaps, become an emblem for other Puerto Ricans of my generation; and, of course, the emotions evoked by that title are all very contradictory. What do you want to communicate with this title?

PD: It would probably be very hard to find any Puerto Rican of our generation who grew up on the island and never tasted Old Colony. Yes, it’s sugary-sweet and artificially flavored. Old Colony is a brand originally from the U.S. South. I’ve heard a story of how Old Colony soda came to Puerto Rico. Apparently, U.S. troops (many from Southern states) stationed in Puerto Rico during World War II were very fond of Old Colony and the Army provided it for them. It caught on among the local population and was soon being produced on the island. Old Colony went out of business in the U.S. mainland decades ago, but it’s still manufactured, bottled and sold in Puerto Rico by a local company that bought the brand – the same company that makes Medalla Beer, by the way.

It’s true, the emotions evoked by the title “The Museum of the Old Colony” are very contradictory, I feel that. The title is contradictory and difficult and painful, but also playful. The Old Colony brand is long gone in the U.S., just as around the world –most everywhere except Puerto Rico– colonial rule is a thing of the past. Actually, Puerto Rico is often referred to as the world’s oldest colony. We all know that sugary-sweet drinks are bad for us (“empty calories”) and often leave a bitter aftertaste yet our thirst for these drinks seems unquenchable. Not to mention that Old Colony is artificially flavored, kind of like the benefits that U.S. occupation was supposed bring to Puerto Rico. I don’t want to get too cynical, but I guess all these metaphors seemed irresistible to me, not to mention the irony. On the other hand, Caribbean people – and I think all people who have suffered a colonial regime– have always found many ways to cope, and one of them is humor, sometimes self-deprecating humor. So, in addition to being quite serious, there is also something carnivalesque and performative about “The Museum of the Old Colony” title. The Caribbean is full of contradictions!

pd2-waiting-for-uncle-sam-pdelano[Image from the installation of The Museum of the Old Colony at the King Juan Carlos I of Spain Center, NYU. “Waiting for Uncle Sam – On the Beach at Porto Rico (recto).” Photographer: B. L. Singley, Source: Stereo card by Keystone View Company, 1900.]

RI/IR: The description of your installation at Alice Yard (Trinidad) mentioned that the positioning of the pieces in “The Museum of the Old Colony” challenges established protocols of museum culture and that the installation “references traditional historical or anthropological museums and their use of ethnographic imagery and didactic text panels.” How does this spatial choice add to your incisive examination of the manifestation of colonial power?

PD:  Whether they are tiny or vast, museums always have a curatorial point of view. Someone is making decisions about what is included and what is not – about how and where within the given space objects and images are displayed, and about the role of text; that is, how the objects are explained in words. “The Museum of the Old Colony” could be described as an ironic parody, or maybe an attempted mockery, of a long tradition in the world of museums that involves the creation of institutions that serve to validate and justify racist attitudes and entrench white European superiority and exploitation by objectifying or “othering” colonized peoples and cultures. The most horrifying examples of this sort of practice include those in which living human beings were forced to serve as “exhibits.”  For example, a Congolese man named Ota Benga was put on display in a cage with monkeys at the Bronx Zoo in 1906. In 1897, a group of Inuit people from Greenland were brought to New York’s Museum of Natural History as living specimens to be studied. In museums in the U.S. and across Europe, scientific racism was illustrated with displays of skulls, skin color charts, and of course photographs depicting “exotic customs and folkways.” So, while such overt examples are now mostly gone, subtle manifestations of these attitudes still exist in some museums; not just in anthropological museums but in art museums as well. Given Puerto Rico’s history of over 500 years of colonial rule, and the overwhelming amount of visual material produced in the last 100 years to justify Puerto Rico’s colonial status, I thought it might be interesting to turn this museum trope on its head – to more or less chew it up and spit it right back at the colonial overlord. And have fun doing so. But it’s more than fun. Beyond the fun, it’s quite serious and empowering; to take ownership of it.

pd3[Detail, original image caption from the installation of The Museum of the Old Colony at the King Juan Carlos I of Spain Center, NYU.]

RI/IR: The recent description of the installation at New York University’s King Juan Carlos I of Spain Center indicates that the “repertoire of images and subjects form a visual history of the political and cultural hegemony imposed by the United States on virtually all aspects of Puerto Rican life.” How did you manage to weave in the historical standpoint with the personal? Is it possible for you to separate these two perspectives?

PD:  Not really, and there is no attempt or desire to do so. The “Museum of the Old Colony” is a work of art, not a reference work or a historical text or a sociological analysis. It’s a personal reflection, from the gut, driven by intuition-based, not data-based curatorial choices. It’s not meant to be authoritative in any sense – or to represent anything but my own take on the past and present situation of the place I was born and raised; the one place in the world where to this day, even after living away from the island for so many years, I most feel that I belong. Having said that, of course the source material is all archival. I have collected the images, in one form or another, over many years. And, given the importance of the documentary tradition in my personal trajectory, not a single image is altered. My intervention involves the choices and sequencing.  I also use the original texts and captions that accompanied the photographs.

But the last thing I want is to create a museum of memorabilia or of valuable, irreplaceable, collectible objects. “The Museum of the Old Colony” is a conceptual piece; neither the Museum as a whole nor any fragment of it can be commodified nor does it have any intrinsic monetary value. The images and texts derive their power from their content; they are reproductions printed on inexpensive bond paper and pinned to the wall with pushpins. If any component of the Museum gets damaged while displayed, it can simply be replaced. There are no velvet ropes, no picture frames, and no “do not touch” signs. When The Museum was exhibited at the 7th Argentine Biennial of Documentary Photography last October, one of the very large images was vandalized. I simply e-mailed the digital image file to the Biennial staff, and they printed out a replacement.

pd4-sf2083[Installation view: The Museum of the Old Colony at the King Juan Carlos I of Spain Center, NYU. Foreground image: “Luguillo [sic] Beach Condominium 02/1973.” Photographer: John Vachon (Documerica Project), Source: U.S. National Archives.]

RI/IR: Has the installation changed in any way as it has moved from place to place, say, from the Caribbean—Trinidad’s Alice Yard—to the U.S. in the ongoing NYU show? Does the setting modify the exhibition?

PD: Yes, definitely, each new venue requires reconceiving the installation; both the physical design and the tone or overall vibe of the image sequences. Exhibit venues vary a lot in size and configuration. I’m lucky to have the capability, if I choose, to make new prints based on the parameters of each space. I have to consider the balance between number of images and their size. But what’s more interesting, I think, is the way the location, or context, impacts actual choices of images and groupings. For instance, in Trinidad –a former British (and previously Spanish) colony which became independent in 1962– everyone is familiar with the concept of colonialism and many people know not only that Puerto Rico is a former Spanish colony, but also that it was invaded by the U.S. and remains a U.S. territory. So, a photograph of sugar cane workers is going to resonate differently in Trinidad, where it would immediately be associated with the exploits of the “plantocracy,” than it would, say, in Argentina, where the general public is not particularly familiar with Puerto Rico or with certain realities we take for granted in the Caribbean. In Argentina, though, there’s a recent history of military dictatorship. So images of the military will have a particular poignancy.  At NYU, in a city with a huge Puerto Rican population, I was sure to include images that relate to the diaspora. To anticipate your possible next question: no, I don’t see making these adjustments as a compromise to my personal vision. The project remains deeply personal because my decisions remain grounded in my own lived experience and my intuition.

RI/IR: How has this experience in putting together and showing “The Museum of the Old Colony” allowed you to examine your own relationship with the island where you were born? Is there a degree of healing or restructuring that has resulted from this artistic examination or would you consider this questioning more of an “open wound” that requires ongoing attention?

PD: Earlier you mentioned contradictory emotions. That’s very Caribbean. Isn’t the Caribbean the land of “in-betweenity?” So, yes, all of that is true, it’s not a question of “or,” the answer is “all of the above.” Yes, “The Museum of the Old Colony” feels like a warm embrace, but also like a stinging, open wound; if that is a contradiction it seems completely normal to me. One of the things that I find so powerful in the images that I’m working with is that even when the pictures were taken with the express purpose of justifying colonial exploitation and normalizing white U.S. supremacy, the dignity, humanity, and beauty of the Puerto Rican people transcend the intended purpose of the foreign photographer. As for the open wound, I have one word: PROMESA. The definitive insult; the ultimate imperialist move. What better use for the Old Colony than to feed the vultures?  OK- there is a strong streak of cynicism that runs through The Museum of the Old Colony, but also (and I hope you and others can see this) a hint of hope. Hope that we can take this head-on and see it for what it is. And, personally, I see a lot of hope in the young people of Puerto Rico who are choosing to stay and fight and find ways to rebuild. And, despite the dumbfounding problems, I see hope in the ongoing extraordinarily high quality of the work product of the island in the sciences, literature, publishing, the arts, etc.

pd-5kjcc-feb-2017-b[Detail from the installation of The Museum of the Old Colony at the King Juan Carlos I of Spain Center, NYU. “Women Nationalists Guarded.” Photographer not identified, taken 1950, Source: AP Wirephoto.]

RI/IR: I am the proud owner of your book In Trinidad, which features black and white photographs taken in Trinidad and Tobago, and, at another moment, I would like to ask you more about your work in Trinidad then and more recently at Alice Yard. But for now, I wanted to inquire about the concept of legacy. There is something in your gaze—a cultural sensibility imbued in the images and emotions you capture—that, inevitably, reminds me of your father, Jack Delano, and his photographic narrative of the Puerto Rico of the 1940s. Do you feel linked to a family/community legacy through your work? Which elements, if any, have you consciously chosen to incorporate into your work, and which would you say set you apart as a photographer?

PD: It’s interesting that you mention my photography from Trinidad because one of the driving forces behind that work –besides, obviously, my fascination with the culture and how much I enjoy spending time there– is the inevitable comparison to Puerto Rico. To experience a post-colonial Caribbean country caught up in the process of building itself as a nation when your own country remains one of the world’s oldest colonies is inspiring but also triggers a lot of complex emotions. My time in Trinidad certainly provoked new kinds of thinking about Puerto Rico, which contributed to dreaming up the project that became “The Museum of the Old Colony.”

The question of legacy is a little difficult for me to talk about because legacy is such a loaded word. The idea of legacy is more abstract and a bit daunting compared to the idea of a family bond. Of course I love my father’s work and I helped him with editing and darkroom work; we discussed his work a lot and we were very close. It seems inevitable there would be elements of my father’s work that are echoed in mine but it’s hard to say if that happened consciously or subconsciously – something about the value and dignity of people, a respect for the human experience, and (I like to think) a formal rigor to the work. Our humor is very different, though. I think his humor was very witty and perceptive but more gentle. Mine can be more sarcastic. Also, I have an appreciation for things like kitsch; that sensibility was not really part of his personality. It’s hard to say the degree to which the historical context each of us lived shaped our outlook. In any case, if the question of legacy is going to be discussed at all, I am more comfortable leaving it to others.

Please see more on the artist’s work at http://www.pablodelano.com/

For more information on The Museum of the Old Colony, see http://www.pablodelano.com/news-for-2914/museum-of-the-old-colony/

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