Review: “A significant exhibition of Puerto Rican art – and the nationalist outlook that mars it”

[Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this review to our attention.] Clare Hurley (World Socialist Web Site, January 10, 2023) reviews “no existe un mundo poshuracán: Puerto Rican Art in the Wake of Hurricane Maria,” the ongoing exhibition at the Whitney Museum, New York City, which runs through April 23, 2023. Hurley concludes that “the unequivocal Puerto Rican nationalism and identity politics that shape the exhibition detract from its impact,” finding issue with the thought that curators Marcela Guerrero, Angelica Arbelaez, and Sofía Silva “have tailored the show to advocate a pro-independence agenda.”

The anniversary of a catastrophic event often serves a dual purpose, as an occasion for remembrance and mourning, but also as a reckoning. Art can play an important role in both regards, as demonstrated by the exhibition at the Whitney Museum in New York (no existe un mundo poshuracán: Puerto Rican Art in the Wake of Hurricane Maria) of “more than fifty artworks made over the last five years by an intergenerational group of more than fifteen artists from Puerto Rico and the diaspora.”

Many of the pieces powerfully convey the intensity of Hurricane Maria, the Category 5 hurricane that struck the island in September 2017. Others take up, at least in part, the questions that still demand answers—the causes of not just a natural disaster, but a social crime of this magnitude. 

[. . .] In terms of communicating the intensity of the storm itself, the most successful piece in the exhibition is a two-channel video by Sofía Córdova, dawn chorus ii: el niágara en bicicleta (2018.) Screened on a large scale at the entrance to the exhibition, the video opens with footage from the filmmaker’s aunt’s cellphone, recorded just as the storm strikes and the lights go out. Through the course of the video, we ride out the storm, peering fearfully through shuttered windows as the winds lash the deserted street. The piece also includes conversations with people in what remains of their homes after the storm has passed, interspersed with sequences of a mysterious masked woman beckoning us to follow her through ruins overgrown with tropical vegetation. Because of its unstructured length of over an hour, however, the video is more evocative than informative. [. . .]

And the utter inadequacy of the power infrastructure is indicated by Gabriella Torres-Ferrer’s Untitled (Valora tu mentira americana), (2018). With the literalism characteristic of conceptual art, an actual storm-ravaged utility pole is suspended overhead in the gallery with dangling severed wires and a tattered pro-statehood poster. The ironic subtitle, which translates to “value your American lie” is one of many indications of support for Puerto Rican independence in the exhibition.

While the needs of the population have been neglected or ignored, several of the pieces call out the exploitation of the territory’s natural beauty by the tourist industry. Sofía Gallisá Muriente’s video B-Roll, spliced together from the out-takes of advertising footage, showcases how the island is marketed as a tropical paradise to the highest bidder. [. . .]

Notwithstanding the sincerity of many of the artists, however, the unequivocal Puerto Rican nationalism and identity politics that shape the exhibition detract from its impact. In ways that are subtle, and some not so subtle, curators Marcela Guerrero, Angelica Arbelaez, and Sofía Silva have tailored the show to advocate a pro-independence agenda. The presentation suggests that such disasters are unique to or uniquely bad in Puerto Rico because of US colonialism, in the words of the wall captions, which oppresses the territory’s native “population of color.” Everything is done to separate the experiences of the Puerto Rican working class from that of the global and North American working class as a whole.

So for instance, it is notable that not a single piece in the exhibition included a blue “tarp” (tarpaulin), which has become a ubiquitous presence, even unofficial symbol, of natural disasters. [. . .]

The omission in particular of the work by Puerto Rican artist Daniel Lind-Ramos, who used the blue tarp to powerful symbolic effect in his sculpture Maria Maria (2019), is all the more noticeable because he had been selected for the Whitney’s own Biennial by the same curator. Perhaps after receiving a $625,000 MacArthur Genius award in 2021, his work simply was not available. But the absence of even a reference to Katrina serves to reinforce the exhibition’s insistence on Puerto Rico’s uniqueness.

[. . .] The explicitly “political” pieces include a wall-sized array of printed posters that had been posted on Instagram by Garvin Sierra Vega (2019–22) and a standing row of black and white metal shields in the shape of the Puerto Rican flag by Miguel Luciano (Shields/Escudos, 2020.) [. . .]

In her catalog essay, curator Marcela Guerrero describes the protests “as much an aesthetic rally as an attempt to rebuild the nation. Groups of mostly feminist, queer, Black, and working-class people were the architects of that blissful summer, which saw people dancing perreo in the Catedral de San Juan Bautista, a cavalcade of horseback riders descending on the capitol, and near the governor’s mansion, a yoga session serenely clamoring for Rosselló’s resignation.”

Far more than just a colorful yoga fest, the involvement of tens of thousands of people of different skin colors, genders and sexual orientations in the months-long popular protests was highly significant. They succeeded in ousting both a hated Wall Street stooge and his replacement in quick succession, a fact anxiously noted in governors’ mansions across the US, as well as in the Trump White House and Democratic Party circles. If it hadn’t been for the petty bourgeois nationalist outlook of the protests’ leaders and the political forces behind them that sought to isolate the protests within Puerto Rico, this rallying cry would have found a broad sympathetic hearing. The working class on the mainland is no less familiar with the rapacious lending of the banks, and the ineptitude and rampant corruption of local politicians.

Nor is the ruling elite’s blatant indifference to the loss of life, particularly of poorer, working class layers of the population in “natural” disasters like floods, blizzards, wildfires and earthquakes exclusive to Puerto Rico, though this was indeed a damning exposure. The death toll from Maria was covered up by Rosselló’s administration for almost a year, as it absurdly maintained that only 65 people had been killed until independent studies forced it to acknowledge that the true death toll was at least 4,645. The government’s failure to secure adequate aid had already had its consequences; the dead were jokingly referred to among Rosselló’s cronies in text messages as “food for crows.” [. . .]

[Shown above: Untitled (Valora tu mentira americana), Gabriella Torres-Ferrer.]

For full review, see https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2023/01/11/iwhm-j11.html

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