Shey Rivera Ríos: Dismantling Colonial Fantasies about Puerto Rico


Jasmine Dreame Wagner (Hyperallergic) reviews Puerto Rican artist Shey Rivera Ríos’s new installation, La isla fantástica/ Fantasy Island, which is on view at AS220’s Project Space (at 93 Mathewson Street) in Providence, Rhode Island.  

According to the AS220 description, the installation/performance artist emphasizes three key points: “her connection to her homeland, the sense of displacement she experienced in leaving her roots and the acceptance she’s found at AS220, where she serves in an administrative capacity as its artistic director.” See excerpts from Wagner’s review and interview with the artist (see full review, interview and artwork at Hyperallergic.

[. . .] In Shey Rivera Ríos’s Fantasy Island, an immersive installation currently on view at AS220’s Project Space in Providence, Rhode Island, the island “miracle” that’s marketed to mainland American consumers is simulated and détourned using sculpture, video and GIF, sound, a series of talks, and a zine. (Rivera is also the artistic director of AS220.) From the gridded walls of her “office” to the glass desk where she “works,” Rivera re-creates a late ’80s luxury advertisement interior and uses it as a gathering place where she and her audience can discuss colonialism’s abuses with sincerity. On screens displayed throughout the installation, GIF collages juxtapose Puerto Rico’s pixilated landscape with flashing and scrolling financial and religious iconography.

Rivera challenges the calcification of colonial narratives by interrogating mainstream takes on the island’s culture. Her work brings to light how gentrification is not only an occupation of a physical place but also a takeover of the territory of the imagination, how it alters landscapes while working to reshape our hopes, desires, and visions of possible futures. Fantasy Island asks us to question the obsolete utopias sold to us in luxury real estate advertisements — in particular, the ones that call on Modernism’s tropes of order, harmony, and structural integrity to sell a miraculous experience, while denying the disorder they wreak in co-opted cultural, economic, and environmental landscapes.

Jasmine Dreame Wagner: Tell us about the landscape and the debt crisis in Puerto Rico and how Fantasy Island explores themes of inflation, development, and displacement in San Juan and the surrounding mountains, beaches, and rainforest.

Shey Rivera Ríos: Puerto Rico has been on a slow decline toward a deep economic crisis for the past decade, caused by our colonial status and the way the island is used as a hub to grow and incentivize corporations without creating systems to support the island’s own economic advancement. The island’s debt is currently $120 billion. We’ve seen the largest migration in our history within the past five years: up to one million Boricuas have left the island and moved, primarily to south Florida and New England.

Fantasy Island is an attempt to create space for dialogue on this topic and on three big -isms: imperialism, colonialism, and capitalism. As a physical and virtual space, Fantasy Island re-creates the interior of a 1990s luxury real estate office in Puerto Rico. The piece speaks to colonial perspectives on Puerto Rico as a tropical paradise, a vacationer’s dream, a vision of exotic luxury (the island’s name means “Rich Port” in Spanish), in the face of a profound economic crisis that affects the lives of millions of local residents. It speaks to how Caribbean islands are used to create fantasy experiences for American and European tourists, visitors who remain detached from the sociopolitical and historical realities of the island and the imprint of colonization.

This piece is about disconnection. The viewer enters a space defined by black-and-white grid lines, a simulation of some sort of digital space without a true location. The installation aims to create the feeling of being displaced. Where am I? In a large monitor, a blue sky with white clouds plays on a loop. Two monitors display animated GIFs featuring manipulated images of mansions and luxury condos, spackled with religious iconography and American dollar signs. Majestic palm trees, an office desk, a Greek bust fill a landscape reminiscent of vaporwave album covers and Tumblr blogs. The room features an altar crafted with both digital and analogue tools, an altar to Nana Buruku, grandmother of the Orishas in the Yoruba mythology and spirituality. The altar is a modified version of Fra Filipo Lippi’s “Madonna with Child and Scenes from the Life of St. Anne” (1452). This is a tribute to Caribbean syncretism: Saint Anne is correlated with Nana Buruku in Yoruba spiritual practice. West African slaves were able to continue their spiritual and religious practices by aligning their own deities with Catholic Saints. There’s so much to Puerto Rico that people in the mainland United States don’t know. [. . .]

Read the full review at

For artist’s page, see

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