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.

The voice and the images weave a moving portrait of mourning and desperation.

The exhibition’s title, “a post-hurricane world doesn’t exist,” is taken from a text by poet Raquel Salas Rivera (included in the exhibition as a work of art), and its force and clarity frame the entire exhibition. The exhibition takes up the entire sixth floor of the museum, where fifty works by twenty artists are elegantly and thoughtfully installed against pale gray walls. Videos, sculptural installations, paintings, and graphics are the various mediums of expression within the five thematic areas of the show: Fractured Infrastructures; Critiques of Tourism; Processing, Grieving, and Reflecting; Ecology and Landscape; and Resistance and Protest. These provide a lucid framework for understanding the disasters wrought by colonialism in the twenty-first century. But even the best ideas are not works of art in and of themselves. The power of this exhibition resides in the aesthetic quality of the art, which is (with one exception, explained below) of the highest order in its formal beauty and conceptual rigor.

Visitors enter the exhibition through the tour de force video installation by Sofía Córdova, dawn_chorus ii: el niágara en bicicleta. Here the artist’s aunt offers a stream-of-consciousness narration of the disasters that have befallen her community; the voice and the images weave a moving portrait of mourning and desperation. Edra Soto’s Graft uses a massive version of the structures that often serve as walls or fences in Puerto Rican houses to meditate on issues of private vs. public space and interior vs. exterior life. The subtle, quasi-baroque pattern of the red structure on display here is disrupted through the insertion of tiny viewfinders, drawing the viewer in with images of hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico.

Painting is alive and well throughout the exhibition, especially in the works of Candida Alvarez, Rogelio Báez Vega, Gamaliel Rodríguez, and Armig Santos. Alvarez, a veteran Nuyorican painter, contributed three large mixed-media paintings on PVC mesh in aluminum and wood frames (the pieces are designed to be viewed from both sides). Her charged gestural abstractions evoke air and rain as both blessing and curse. Báez Vega’s monumental oil paintings at first glance recall the late Myrna Báez’s (no relation to the painter) pastoral landscapes, but upon closer inspection we see that these are landscapes of ruined, abandoned places—evidence of the hurricane and metaphors of neocolonialism.

There are other standouts, too. Gamaliel Rodríguez’s virtuosic technique may appear too slick, less art than illustration, yet beneath the surface there is considerable depth. Armig Santos’s Yellow Flowers and Procession in Vieques III take specific historical events as their sources and display an exquisitely distilled craftsmanship that borders on the minimal. The cross, figures, and a barren landscape come together to create a contemporary history painting with spiritual overtones.

Gamaliel Rodríguez, Collapsed Soul, 2020–21 (Courtesy of the artist and Nathalie Karg Gallery NYC)

Forms of graphic art are also well represented. Lulu Varona’s delicate Mapa and Ir y venir (cotton thread embroidered on cotton cloth) propose fragmentary and open-ended narratives—like life itself. The twelve works by Javier Orfón (inkjet prints, acrylic and photo transfer on canvas) depict cupey tree leaves upon which he has drawn and inscribed phrases by forest rangers. They simultaneously acknowledge the importance of natural science collections and the inevitable devastation of climate change. Garvin Sierra Vega’s thirty-nine digital posters, posted on Instagram between 2019 and 2021, acknowledge the rich tradition of Puerto Rican graphics, which dates back to the 1950s with Lorenzo Homar’s revival of serigraphy. They fill an entire wall with an impassioned discourse on the hurricane and its aftermath.

The exhibition consistently invites visitors to experience not only the horrors of natural disasters and human incompetence, but also the power of resilience, through works of art imbued with the eloquence of authenticity. One exception in an otherwise excellent show are the Shields/Escudos by Miguel Luciano. These build upon the shields of Willie Cole as well as the black-and-white Puerto Rican flags made decades ago by Juan Sánchez. But here, Luciano’s work lazily repeats the tired one-liners he is already known for.

If there is a single work that stands out to me, it is the sculptural installation by Gabriella Torres-Ferrer. Untitled [Value Your American Lie] consists of a broken lamppost with torn wires and a corrugated sign. The post is placed at an angle of approximately forty-five degrees, conjuring a falling cross. The sign reads in Spanish: “Value Your American Citizenship. Guarantee It. Vote for Statehood. June 11.” An everyday object altered by disaster, and then transformed by the artist. During that plebiscite, 97 percent of voters chose statehood, but only 23 percent of the island’s population actually turned out.

That poignant mixture of beauty and grief is what makes no existe un mundo poshuracán such a special and important show. Its dynamism and profundity is rare, and that’s not by accident. Whitney director Adam D. Weinberg has worked hard to realize his vision of American art, ensuring that the museum’s holdings and exhibitions reflect a greater diversity and incorporate important hemispheric connections. The same is true of the Whitney’s recent education programs and public art commissions. The present exhibition, gracefully organized by curator Marcela Guerrero, proves that the Whitney is on to something. Other curators and art institutions should take note.

Alejandro Anreus is emeritus professor of art history and Latin American/Latinx Studies at William Paterson University. This fall he will be the Leonard A. Lauder Visiting Senior Fellow at the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at the National Gallery in Washington D.C.

Also by this author

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Published in the March 2023 issue: View Contents
© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.