Evidence of Things Not Seen: Pablo Delano’s “The Museum of the Old Colony”

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Is this photo meant to be provocative and ironic? Yes, indeed (please, do not kill the messenger)! The images above are from the catalog of “The Museum of the Old Colony: An Art Installation by Pablo Delano,” which opened on January 30 and will be on view through March 14, 2020, at The Center for Art, Design and Visual Culture of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC).

What’s on my nightstand? The catalog for “The Museum of the Old Colony: An Art Installation by Pablo Delano.” I was overjoyed to receive this streamlined catalog, which includes stunning photographs with details from the exhibition and a beautiful essay by Maurice Berger, research professor and chief curator at the CADVC/UMBC: “Evidence of Things Not Seen: Pablo Delano’s The Museum of the Old Colony.” With more than a nod to James Baldwin’s 1985 The Evidence of Things Not Seen, the essay begins with an epigraph by Puerto Rican abolitionist and pro-independence exponent Román Baldorioty de Castro (1882-1889), “I detest the colonial system because that system embodies the death of the spirit, it is the degradation of man by man” (3).

In a few pages, Berger’s essay provides the personal, social, and historical underpinnings of this marvelous, ever-mutable, itinerant exhibition/installation. He quotes the artist, who explains his motivation as well as the historic events that inspired him to collect, interpret, and rework iconic cultural elements, “My entire output as an artist has been shaped by my upbringing and my love for Puerto Rico, but in the last years I’ve felt an urgency to address the plight of the island more directly in my work, to address it head-on. [. . .] Puerto Rico has always existed in a sort of limbo, but I wanted to focus on the years of U.S. domination, since the 1898 military invasion, on the consequences of U.S. rule over that period” (4). The critic also places the installation in the context of current traumatic events suffered on the island: economic crises, exploitation, devastation by natural phenomena, etc.

Berger’s placement of Delano’s work within a tradition of social activism and institutional critique is particularly important.  He underlines the deliberate, contestatory drive of Delano’s work in a continuum, along with artists Fred Wilson, Mark Dion, and Pepón Osorio, who “create lavish, site-specific installations that simultaneously comment on broad social realities—from political oppression to repressive technologies—and on the institutions in which they temporarily reside” (7).

“In the end,” Berger underlines, [Pablo Delano’s] “cogent work, liberated the story of a people from the stereotypes and blind spots of history, the museum, and popular culture” (7). Regardless of whether you have seen iterations of this installation in Argentina, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Trinidad, or the United States (in New York, New York; Amherst, Massachusetts; or Baltimore, Maryland) you should read Berger’s illuminating essay.

[Photos above (provided by the artist): left, Pablo Delano (found object) Puerto Rico Bobblehead Souvenir Figure, mid-twentieth century, painted porcelain; right, An Outing (detail) 2019, pigment print on Hahnemühle rag paper: page from Annual Report of the War Department for the Fiscal Year Ending June 30, 1899 [. . .]. Original photo caption: “The above shows the American enjoying himself in the tropics. After walking two or three miles in the hot sun, nothing can quite refresh one as to drink the water from one or two cocoanuts. The native lad has just been up the tree and cut down as many as the ‘Americanos’ wanted. The cocoanuts are also sold on the streets of the Capital every morning and are a pleasant and healthy drink.]

Here is a link to the full catalog: https://cadvc.umbc.edu/files/2020/02/Museum-of-The-Old-Colony-2.pdf

See https://repeatingislands.com/2019/12/18/the-museum-of-the-old-colony-an-art-installation-by-pablo-delano-umbc/ and our interview with the artist Pablo Delano: A Brief Interview with Repeating Islands.

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