Islands in the stream – Arts ecosystems in The Bahamas and Puerto Rico

[Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.] “In Nassau and San Juan, a host of new spaces are showcasing a revitalized arts scene,” says Marina Reyes Franco (curator at the MAC—Museo de Arte Contemporaneo de Puerto Rico). Read full article at Art Basel.

In 2020, as monuments to problematic figures were toppled around the globe, many in the Caribbean wondered when statues would fall in their country. It happened first in Martinique in July 2020, when activists tore down a statue of Napoleon’s wife Joséphine. Then, in October 2021, a man took a sledgehammer to the Christopher Columbus monument in Nassau in The Bahamas. In January this year, the statue of Ponce de León in San Juan’s San José Plaza was torn down just hours before the Spanish king was due to arrive in Puerto Rico. For many, these colonial symbols represent a history that should not be erased, and they see the toppling of these statues as a disturbance to visitors to the islands.

[. . .] In a recent exhibition at the relatively new TERN gallery in Nassau, London-based Bahamian artist Blue Curry presented a video of the man attacking the Columbus statue accompanied by the sound of a guitar. 1492–2022 (2022) is sonically subtle and visually forceful in its critique of tourism in relation to colonialism. ‘Growing up on an island affects you: to be able to circumnavigate and actually see the place as an object,’ says Curry. Fresh from the exhibition ‘Life Between Islands: Caribbean-British Art 1950s – Now’ at Tate Britain, he dares to directly criticize the tourism industry.

Run by Founding Directors Lauren Perez and Amanda Coulson, and Gallery Manager Jodi MinnisTERN is aware of the necessity of cultivating a local audience while maintaining an international presence. The gallerists are determined to represent the region without ‘getting pigeonholed into one view of the Caribbean, market-wise or art-wise. The Caribbean is not only one thing,’ says Coulson.

Establishing The Bahamas as a center where visitors experience Bahamian art, culture, and heritage beyond the typical sun, sand, and sea has long been a goal of Doongalik Studios, a gallery that is also is home to the nonprofit groups Creative Nassau, which advocates for creative tourism, and Transforming Spaces, an annual art tour of galleries in Nassau. The shift toward rebranding The Bahamas as a cultural destination is mostly driven by institutions – national, grassroots, and private – although many also wonder how committed the government is to supporting more cultural projects around the archipelago.

Established venues include The National Art Gallery of The Bahamas (NAGB); the private collection at the D’Aguilar Art FoundationContemporary Art Bahamas; and Project ICE, an incubator and art studio founded by artist Antonius Roberts. The country’s splashiest space is The Current at Baha Mar, a 2,000-room luxury resort and casino, which opened to the public in 2017. Its art initiatives include commissions, a gallery, and curatorial services run by artist and curator John Cox, who was a curator at NAGB before leaving to join Baha Mar and is currently navigating collaborations between both venues. ‘Whether or not you work in hospitality, if you do anything in The Bahamas, you work in hospitality,’ he explains. While some artists have actively avoided being pegged to the Caribbean and its tourism industry, they have also realized that they want to be Bahamian, in all their complexity. It’s all about ‘turning the sweater inside out and putting it back on,’ says Cox.

‘When I returned to work in The Bahamas, there were maybe four decent jobs in the arts, now there are about forty,’ says Coulson. To paraphrase hera conversation with curator Natalie Willis during a 2017 visit, the aim now is to dismantle hierarchies and histories crafted by people who looked at Bahamians through racist, colonial, patriarchal lenses and ‘make ourselves present in three-dimensional vibrancy, too.’

In Puerto Rico, years of economic crises, austerity measures, mass emigration, the impact of hurricanes and earthquakes, and now the pandemic, should be reasons for the arts scene not to thrive. However, they seem to have simply punctuated a collaborative art scene that has seen a lot of growth in the past 25 years. One of the island’s most important art-builders was M&M Proyectos, a San Juan project space established by curator Michy Marxuach that was open from 1999 until 2004 and mounted biennials in 2000, 2002 and 2004. Raimundas MalašauskasPablo León de la BarraAntonio ZayaAllora & CalzadillaPedro ReyesCarolina CaycedoJulieta GonzálezBeatriz SantiagoFederico HerreroJesús ‘Bubu’ Negrón, and Pablo Helguera are just a few of the artists and curators that passed through, opening a dialogue on contemporary art’s possibilities. Many introductions resulted in collaborations with lasting impact. In 2009, MarxuachTony Cruz Pabón, and Beatriz Santiago Muñoz established Beta-Local, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting discourse and practice through programs including a residency and an experimental school. It has proven to be instrumental in developing artistic projects through its fellowship and regranting programs, and its networking power.Over the years, an unofficial arts district has emerged around Santurce, a San Juan neighborhood where modern and historic buildings create a kaleidoscope of both urban decay and beautification.

The Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico (MAPR) and the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Puerto Rico (MAC), along with the newer Museo de Arte y Diseño de Miramar (MADMi) provide the institutional backdrop, while several artist studios and project spaces have grown into professional galleries. Initially a studio and exhibition space, El Kilómetro’s program includes collaborations with Latin American artists, exhibtions and film screenings. The gallery has expanded to a second venue and recently opened ‘Across The Horizon,’ a show of female abstract artists featuring works by Awilda Sterling DupreyOlga AlbizuFrances Gallardo, and Livia Ortiz. Another space is Pública, cofounded in 2018 by Naíma Rodríguez and curator Natalia Viera Salgado, it is a hip cultural center that presents established and emerging artists. [. . .]

Artist and curator José López Serra, who runs Hidrante gallery, sees a small but vibrant art scene, but cites lack of funding as its major hindrance; ‘you can do well if you’re good at improvising and maintain a constant DIY spirit,’ he says. In recognition of this, the Mellon Foundation has provided multiyear financial and administrative support to artists and cultural workers who run art spaces and community projects through Maniobra, a partnership with Puerto Rico’s Center for Creative Economy. The three-year, eight-million-dollar initiative launched in May 2022 and employs 37 artists at 25 organizations across the Puerto Rican archipelago. Mellon, the Ford Foundation, and Flamboyan Arts Fund have all become major players in providing institutional support to local museums as well. The Puerto Rican Arts Initiative, another Mellon-funded project developed by Ramón Rivera ServeraArnaldo Rodríguez Bagué, and José ‘Pepe’ Álvarez, has been a catalyst for performance and curatorial projects. [. . .]

[Photos above by Christopher Gregory-Rivera for Art Basel: The Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Puerto Rico and El Kilómetro, in San Juan, Puerto Rico.]

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