Columbus arrived on the island of Boriquén on November 19, 1493. At the time, it boasted a population of some 30,000 Taínos, the last of several native peoples that had been living there since around the first century AD. Spain legalized African slavery in 1511, and by 1521 Spanish colonialism was in full force; the smallest of the Greater Antilles was renamed Puerto Rico.
Although by the eighteenth century the island had developed a strong agricultural economy grounded in slavery, Spain refused to see it as anything but a military outpost. On September 23, 1868, rebels took over the town of Lares and declared the Republic of Puerto Rico independent of Spain. Although they were defeated in a matter of days, the Grito de Lares became the foundation for the island’s long struggle for independence—first against Spain, then the United States, which has been ruling the nation since December 10, 1898.
The tensions between independence, statehood, and its neocolonial commonwealth status is at the heart of everything Puerto Rican: art, literature, and music—the spiritual essence of a nation. Despite its status as a U.S. territory, Puerto Rico is undoubtedly a Latin American nation, with a long and distinguished trajectory of visual art: the mestizo colonial portraitist José Campeche and the nineteenth century realist Francisco Oller (a former student of Gustave Courbet); the 1950s renaissance in graphic arts under the tutelage of Lorenzo Homar and Rafael Tufiño; the original version of abstract expressionism in the paintings of Olga Albizu; the powerful figurations of Myrna Báez and Francisco Rodón, to name just a handful. Nuyorican art emerged simultaneously with its literary equivalent in the late 1960s and early 1970s in the New York City neighborhoods of Loisaida (Lower East Side), East Harlem, Williamsburg, and the South Bronx, producing diverse visual languages charged with the energy of hybridity. The last major survey exclusively dedicated to Puerto Rican art in the United States was held in 1974; it was a respectable yet conventional exhibition shared between the Metropolitan Museum and El Museo del Barrio. Campeche and Oller were present, together with magnificent examples of pre-Columbian and colonial art, and the prints of Tufiño and Homar. Contemporary art was minimally represented.
The Whitney Museum’s no existe un mundo poshuracán: Puerto Rican Art in the Wake of Hurricane María, which opened November 23 and runs through April 23, 2023, is without a doubt one of the most significant exhibitions of the moment, both for its host institution and the New York art world (though that can mean multiple things these days). The exhibition’s premise is the fifth anniversary of Hurricane María, the overwhelming category-four storm that hit Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017, the immediate devastation it caused, and the sociopolitical events that preceded and followed it—from the death toll of almost 5,000 people and the patronizing visit of President Trump to the ousting of the corrupt and incompetent Gov. Ricardo Rosselló in the summer of 2019.