A Review: Whitney Museum Exhibition on Puerto Rican Art in the Wake of Hurricane Maria …..”no existe un mundo poshuracán”
This exhibition by Puerto Rican artists and curators at the Whitney Museum is a first step in helping to understand the complexity of Puerto Rico/US colonial status disguised as a commonwealth. The exhibition merges the long-term damage of US policies on the island’s sovereignty and its economy with the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria followed by more disastrous policies and the recent earthquakes hence the phrase “no existe un mundo poshuracán.
The Whitney Museum in NYC
One thing I most love about this museum is its location in the Chelsea neighborhood, once known as the Meatpacking District. I love to walk the High-line rail park starting at 31st street where the Hudson Yard’s Vessel stands, about a 2 mile stretch to the very end where this recently built modern day museum is changing the landscape. Once you step down from the High Line, there are plenty of retail and restaurant options to make it an entire day trip. Three of us made it to the Dos Caminos restaurant on Hudson and 14th Street for a hearty lunch of fish tacos and margaritas before entering the museum.
The Whitney is best known for collecting and showcasing American artists of both modern and contemporary art. One of its specialties is celebrating artists that are still alive focusing on both established and emerging talent. Every two years, it conducts its biennial which is reflective of what is happening in American Art across the entire US. Most times, it does not disappoint in offering a representation of art that crosses all cultures, race, generations, and gender identity.
What I Love and did not Know About this Exhibition
First, the exhibition is being shown on the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Maria which devastated the island and where 4,546 persons lost their lives during and after the storm. The exhibition comprises of over 50 pieces by 15 Puerto Rican artists both from the island and the US (Kudos to Whitney for finally getting around to representing artists from Puerto Rico, hopefully other museums will follow). For those that plan to be in the city soon the exhibition will be there until April 2023.
Now what I liked…. somehow I assumed that the show would be a photographic storytelling journey of this disaster, which it was not. Instead, what you see and hear is a combination of art pieces and installations of all mediums and videos depicting the artists’ documentation of the aftermath of what became a perfect storm. “No existe un mundo poshuracán”- (“a post-hurricane world doesn’t exist,”) a verse from Puerto Rican poet Raquel Salas Rivera’s poetry, also part of this exhibit.
By a perfect storm, I mean the coming together of a wide range of historical and current events that all surfaced when Maria made her landing later followed by a series of earthquakes and let’s not forget the pandemic. The exhibition engages its audience in telling the island’s history and lingering crises with no apologies (which is what artists are extremely good at). These artists, through very different mediums seek to reveal the truth about the island by also showing the resiliency of its people but also the grief that surrounds the aftermath of a catastrophe.
As I looked around at what was a packed room of mostly non-Latinx, it gave me satisfaction to see how the process of educating can happen through the lens of an artist. Most Americans do not understand the relationship between Maria and US “colonialism” policies — a modern capitalist dream of stripping a country of its natural resources while suppressing its people. It is what has caused so much underdevelopment in the Caribbean and til this day in Africa. I loved that the exhibition was provocative in not holding back the corruption that is aligned with US policies and corporate greed supported by the island’s political leadership, as well as the people’s resistance fighting back these same political leaders demanding change.
I was intrigued by how many of the artists made the connection between the island’s fragile ecology, and the impact that both Maria and capitalism are having on the island’s natural resources available for sale. Don’t think for one minute that as a Puerto Rican, a sense of being powerlessness does not overcome you… it does. All the more reason museums, colleges, nonprofit institutions and the media need to continue to open their doors to expose the truth so that change may eventually happen.
I loved that this exhibition covers all the ills that are killing this island. Starting with the political corruption on the island, its weak electrical infrastructure, the US’s failure to provide its citizens immediate federal help, the devastation on its ecology and the abandonment of neighborhoods caused by the migration of Puerto Ricans to the US (and much more). It speaks to the complexities of how this island and its six million Puerto Ricans survive and thrive across both sides of the ocean. I welcome and appreciate the exhibition’s challenge to not remain powerless.
One other interesting feature of this exhibition is the island’s use of posters for protesting and galvanizing residents. The exhibition provides a wall of posters that in its simple messaging conveys the resistance and intolerance of a community no longer trusting its political leadership and demanding change.
What I did not Like
For the most part, I enjoyed the exhibition although to fully understand its impact, you have to take the time to read and listen to the videos. Two of the videos were a bit slow or not as effective in their delivery. Two thumbs up for the video that makes the connection between the island’s naturally beautiful landscape and the governor’s marketing ads promoting corporations and crypto investors to invest in the island post-Maria. By offering both tax incentives and fewer government restrictions, this will only exacerbate Puerto Rico’s growing gentrification among communities near the coast. The video on what it’s like to live without electricity for weeks and months lost me a bit as I believe this could have been more powerful in its delivery. Clearly, the intent of this entire exhibition was to educate and inform, and less about its visual effects.
My photos are of some of the exhibits although there are a number of installations, audio and videos that are not noted. Remember to click the center of the photo to see a full view.
If you are Puerto Rican, Latinx or not, I encourage you to visit the exhibition to fully understand how this island, even under the forces of US colonialism, continues to fight and resist— Adelante.
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Our feature photos taken by Grizel Ubarry are available for sale as notecards with inspirational quotes. Ideal for scribbling messages of thanks, greetings from your travels or just to stay in touch. These five note cards are beautifully printed on high quality paper packaged in a silk drawstring pouch also perfect as a gift. Click Here
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