There are ruptures so great that they function as markers of time. “We would say: ‘the year of the great earthquake,’ or: ‘the year of the hurricane that flattened M. Celeste’s house,’ or: ‘the year of the fire on Main Street,’” the Martinican poet and philosopher Édouard Glissant once wrote of history’s junctures.
In Puerto Rico, Hurricane Maria was one of those ruptures. This biblical storm, with its biblical name, made landfall at Yabucoa, on the island’s east coast, at dawn on September 20, 2017, then traveled northwest, bulldozing its way along the Cordillera Central, the mountain range that serves as Puerto Rico’s spine. Maria was a Category 4 storm two miles per hour short of being classified as Category 5. Its force was such that rivers spilled out of their beds, forests were smashed into splinters, houses were pulverized, and roofs were torn from buildings. Aerial images taken afterward revealed roads that look as if they’d been carpet-bombed. Death tolls fluctuated wildly, but an estimate published by the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University concluded that nearly three thousand lives were lost during the storm and in the six months that followed. As the journalist and commentator Ed Morales wrote in his astute Fantasy Island: Colonialism, Exploitation, and the Betrayal of Puerto Rico (2019), the island after Maria “was not so much a disaster area as it was a disaster nation.”
The damage wrought by the hurricane, which the writer and geographer Joshua Jelly-Schapiro chronicled in these pages in 2017, wasn’t the only disaster.* Puerto Rico had already had its capacity for resilience stretched by centuries of colonial rule—first by Spain, then the United States, which, since seizing control in 1898, has used the territory as sugar plantation, military base, medical lab, and tax haven (often aided and abetted by the island’s fair-skinned elite). When the hurricane hit, Puerto Rico was mired in a stew of toxic policies that, in the words of Morales, had turned it into “a hollowed-out shell of itself.” There was high unemployment, increasing emigration, a faltering economy, and a government drowning in so much debt (enthusiastically supplied by Wall Street banks) that it was teetering on the brink of default. What the hurricane made evident was the level of decay: the storm damaged 80 percent of Puerto Rico’s already flickering electrical grid. It also made evident the responsibility the US bore for the rot. It is Congress, after all, that has final say over Puerto Rican policy, and an unelected financial oversight board—also based in the US—that administers its economy.
Maria wasn’t one rupture, but many. The storm simply gave the unraveling a moniker and a marker in time. As Astrid Cruz-Negrón, an organizer based in Utuado, told the journalist Alana Casanova-Burgess last year, “It is as if Hurricane Maria never finished leaving us.”
This rupture served as a starting point for “no existe un mundo poshuracán: Puerto Rican Art in the Wake of Hurricane Maria,” a group show at the Whitney Museum of American Art that concluded in April. The exhibition was the first large survey of Puerto Rican art at a major New York City museum in half a century. (The New York Times critic Holland Cotter estimated that the last such show was “The Art Heritage of Puerto Rico: Pre-Columbian to Present,” jointly organized by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the nascent Museo del Barrio in 1973.) In the region to which most Puerto Ricans in the US have historically migrated, over a period in which Puerto Ricans on the mainland have come to outnumber those on the island, art institutions in New York (with the notable exception of El Museo) have neglected the Puerto Rican story.
But using Hurricane Maria as the basis for the exhibition carries a risk, since it means foregrounding ruin over possibility. Indeed, some involved with the show approach it with ambivalence. “Many of my Puerto Rican artist friends, in the archipelago and in diaspora, worry over the way disaster capitalism has conditioned our sudden visibility in cultural institutions, including the Whitney,” writes the essayist Carina del Valle Schorske in the catalog. “How the disaster—whatever it took from us—also made us a little famous, spared us a little change.” The show’s title appears to acknowledge this unease. Drawn from a poem by the Puerto Rican writer Raquel Salas Rivera, “No existe un mundo poshuracán” could be translated as “A post-hurricane world doesn’t exist” or “There isn’t a world after the hurricane.” Whether that was a rejection of how Maria has come to define Puerto Rico’s story or a suggestion of a world unable to move beyond perpetual rupture was left up to the viewer to decide.
Occupying an entire floor of the Whitney, the exhibition—like Salas Rivera’s poem—brought expressions of grief, rage, and resistance to the very island (Manhattan) where Puerto Rico’s ruinous debt was created. Greeting visitors was a broken wooden lamppost harvested from the debris of Maria by the artist Gabriella Torres-Ferrer. The pole still bore a placard for one of the semiregular referendums on the island’s political status, theaters of democracy that are in no way binding. It read, “Valora tu Ciudadanía Americana” (Value Your US Citizenship), making a case for US statehood over independence or remaining a territory. The year of the hurricane, ironically, also marked the centenary of the Jones–Shafroth Act, which granted US citizenship to Puerto Ricans—though not the right to vote in federal elections. In English, Torres-Ferrer’s piece is subtitled “Value Your American Lie.”
The exhibition featured more than fifty works by twenty artists from the island and the diaspora, and was loosely organized into the themes of infrastructure, ecology, tourism, mourning, and resistance. Though presented as a survey, it felt more like a series of targeted responses to recent events. Absent, for example, were the dancer and choreographer nibia pastrana santiago, who has created poignant site-specific performances in public places like swimming pools and airport hangars, and the painter Juan Sánchez, who for decades has explored Puerto Rico’s colonial condition in canvases that evoke religious iconography.
The most conspicuous absence, however, was that of the prominent Puerto Rican assemblagist Daniel Lind-Ramos—currently the subject of a solo show at MoMA PS1, on view through September 4—whose totemic sculptures weave the detritus of consumerism and ecological disaster into powerful pieces that evoke Afro-Boricua cultural traditions. (A whole separate show could be mounted on how the recent ruptures—to which you can add the pandemic and the uprisings that occurred around the world after George Floyd’s murder in 2020—have pulled at the threads that bind Puerto Rico’s national identity, which has historically marginalized Black people.)
There were, however, astonishingly potent moments—especially in the section devoted to grief and mourning. A beautifully constructed installation by Gabriella N. Báez, Ojalá nos encontremos en el mar (Hopefully, We’ll Meet at Sea; 2018), paid tribute to the artist’s father, who died by suicide shortly after Maria’s first anniversary. (Suicide rates rose precipitously after the hurricane.) Báez’s installation featured framed photographs of father and daughter on a broad plinth, along with a handful of keepsakes. The photos were connected by dozens of tendrils of red thread that traveled from one image to another. Like blood ties, the threads articulated a vascular system shared by two bodies, one that was vulnerably, distressingly exposed.
Just beyond this display was Sofía Gallisá Muriente’s absorbing 2020 video piece Celaje (Cloudscape). Prominently projected onto a large screen, the forty-minute video served as a lament for her family (she lost both her grandmother and her father before completing the film) and also the entire Puerto Rican colonial project. Celaje intercut shots of the island—lush foliage, decaying factories, neighborhoods wracked by flood and exodus—with footage of a more personal nature: scenes with her grandmother, a family funeral, snippets of old home movies. Some of the film was damaged by the hurricane, and she presented this too. Bands of scratched and moldy celluloid appeared like earthy abstractions on the screen, the memories they once contained erased by disaster. Serving as soundtrack were fragments of found audio and a moody score by the musician José Iván Lebrón Moreira. At certain moments Gallisá Muriente’s voice surfaces above the din, delivering brief, poetic observations. “Aprendimos a leer los tiempos de la naturaleza cuando se suspendió el tiempo humano,” she says. “We learned how to read nature’s time when human time was suspended”—the trauma of history’s unofficial markers captured, quite literally, on film.
The show at the Whitney was one of three exhibitions this spring that explored Caribbean themes, highlighting the precarious states induced by colonialism and global warming, as well as the vitality of a region shaped by constant movement and exchange. In San Juan, “Tropical Is Political: Caribbean Art Under the Visitor Economy Regime” is on display at the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Puerto Rico (MAC) through July 30, featuring work by nineteen Caribbean and diasporic artists and collectives who question the tourism industry’s marketing of the region as one big postcard paradise. On the mainland, “Forecast Form: Art in the Caribbean Diaspora, 1990s–Today” recently concluded its run at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (MCA) and will open in October at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. An ambitious show in scale and content, it features work by thirty-seven artists covering the Americas, Europe, and Asia.
All three shows, in one way or another, grapple with tourism’s visions of swaying palm trees and empty beaches, which imply land for the taking. At the Whitney, the most effective piece in this vein was La Concha (2022), a sculpture by the Puerto Rico–based artist Yiyo Tirado Rivera that presented San Juan’s famed La Concha hotel—a 1950s modernist structure with a flamboyant shell-shaped restaurant—as a sandcastle. The sculpture slowly disintegrated over the course of the show, embodying both political and ecological phenomena: the way valuable land is turned over to foreign developers (the beachfront hotel is owned by Marriott) and the way rising seas threaten lives and livelihoods, as well as corporate balance sheets. But the sculpture also reflects a disillusionment with modernism, which promised us progress but ultimately put a streamlined façade on exploitation.
Work by Tirado—a neon wall sculpture that turns the logo of the Caribe Hilton (another of San Juan’s well-known modernist structures) into the phrase “Caribe Hostil” (Hostile Caribbean)—also appears in “Tropical Is Political,” which, before landing at the MAC, was presented at the Americas Society in New York City. The show was organized by the MAC curator Marina Reyes Franco, who also contributed an essay on the economy and tourism in Puerto Rico to the Whitney’s catalog—the industry, as she notes, now permeates the island, turning it into a place that “serve[s] the experience and gaze of the visitor.”
In “Tropical Is Political,” she explores this idea in depth across the Caribbean, examining the links between the region’s old plantation economies and the new ones based on tourism. The similarities between them, she writes in the MAC’s exhibition catalog, are extensive,
whether measured by the economic impact of the industries; the resignification of spaces from one era to the next; the priority that is given to certain histories, sites, and architectural heritage; or the importance each has played in the creation of stereotypes for the region.
A 2022 video by Gallisá Muriente zeroed in on these ideas. The Envoy (Even If It’s Not More Than a Truce), as it is titled in English, shows the artist and her friends inhabiting the country home that once belonged to Rexford G. Tugwell, who in the 1940s served as one of the last US-appointed governors of Puerto Rico. They have dinner and stage an informal reading of Tugwell’s writings about imperialism and colonization, as if to conjure his spirit. Tucked into a scenic patch of El Yunque rainforest, on the east side of the island, Casa Tugwell was designed by the German-born modernist Henry Klumb. It is now available as an idyllic vacation rental.
Many of the pieces in “Tropical Is Political” address tourism in direct, even didactic, ways. But there are ravishing moments, too, including a number of talismanic works that attempt to take Caribbean landscapes back from tourism’s gaze. A trio of monochromatic paintings rendered in red ink by the Martinican artist Gwladys Gambie feature the silhouette of a fantastical flying bird-woman hovering protectively over a palm tree–studded landscape battered by storm.
Also enthralling is Las playas son nuestras (The Beaches Are Ours; 1989), a video by the Puerto Rican movement artist Viveca Vázquez showing a group of dancers who slip into the ocean and join their bodies together to form a large “warrior fish,” rhythmically slicing the air with their hands as if to warn off what is presumably a battleship in the distance. The video documents a performance Vázquez staged on the island of Vieques in 1989; at the time the US Navy was still staging exercises in the area, but one could imagine a similar performance today involving a cruise ship. It is a hypnotic artwork: the dancers enter the water as if summoned, come together, then are broken apart by the tide, their bodies swept back to shore—a cycle that begins anew every four minutes, since the video is played on a loop.
In the MCA Chicago’s “Forecast Form,” artists likewise took the clichés of Caribbean tourism and tore them apart. In an early gallery, an assemblage by the Puerto Rico–born conceptual artist Rafael Ferrer, Ciclón en el Mar de la China (1977), featured a twisted piece of wire penetrated by pieces of paint-splattered palm tree, one of tourism’s romantic symbols trapped in globalization’s debris. In another room, the Cuban American artist Teresita Fernández presented a wood and copper sculpture of a palm suspended from the ceiling by a piece of rope. Rising (Lynched Land), from 2020, speaks to the degradations of tourism (see illustration on page 10). But if you grew up in Florida or Southern California, a palm on a rope is a familiar sight, since this is how adult palms are planted alongside hotels, fast-food drive-throughs, suburban subdivisions, or anywhere a developer wants to channel a tropical vibe. Palms, in fact, aren’t so much a symbol of paradise as they are of migration and colonization. The coconut palm—that great marker of Caribbean paradise—is not endemic to the Americas.
“Forecast Form,” however, is less about specific problems facing the Caribbean than it is about states of Caribbean-ness. Every exhibition about the Caribbean must first grapple with the region’s range of geographies, ecologies, colonial histories, languages, migrations, and geopolitical boundaries, all of which for hundreds of years have been shaped by outsiders. The Caribbean was the site of one of the earliest independence struggles in the Americas—the slave revolt that led to Haiti’s independence in 1804—yet many of its islands (including Puerto Rico, Martinique, and the British Virgin Islands) remain colonial territories. (Is it any wonder that some of the most notable postcolonial thinkers of the twentieth century—Glissant, Frantz Fanon, Aimé Césaire—emerged from the Caribbean?)
The Trinidadian artist Christopher Cozier described the region to me in 2018:
These are places that weren’t supposed to be places. You have a location where competing European kingdoms created external labor camps to enrich themselves…. It was where transplanted units of labor and raw materials came together.
Among Cozier’s contributions to the MCA’s show was a biting video titled Gas Men (2014) that showed two men in business suits spinning gas pump hoses as if they were lassos—the mythical silhouette of the cowboy transformed into a symbol of fossil fuel extraction.
The Chicago show moved beyond regional definitions of what is Caribbean to include Caribbean diasporas around the globe. The aim was to present the region as “a capacious and mutable space, a diaspora open to multiple geographies, temporalities, and histories at once.” This vision included double diaspora—for example, the indentured Indian workers who labored on plantations throughout the Caribbean for several generations, then relocated to the US and Europe in the twentieth century. A sumptuous wall sculpture by Suchitra Mattai, an artist born in Guyana and now living in Colorado, created a large, roiling seascape out of strips of vintage saris and ghungroos, the ankle bells worn in classical Indian dance. Bands of braided cloth connect one colorful abstracted mass with another, suggesting the paths taken over generations.
“Forecast Form”—whose weather-inspired title implied constantly shifting conditions—generally avoided putting artists into categories of geography or identity, opting for a series of loose themes such as landscape, exchange, and the traces left by people in a state of perpetual movement. Stringing the show together were a number of images from Ana Mendieta’s 1970s Silueta Series, photographic records of performances in which the artist carved the outline of her body into the earth and filled the negative space with pigment or flowers. These serve as spiritual antecedents to the transitory states the show explores. Also connecting the dots is the thoughtful catalog, which features an instructive discussion between the MCA curator Carla Acevedo-Yates and several of the show’s artists, as well as an essay by the Puerto Rican author Mayra Santos-Febres that delves into Glissant’s ideas about rupture and how history is wielded as a tool of supremacy. “If there must be a history—the transcendental, the rational,” she writes, “then there also must be the dark, the barbaric, the natural, the beastly, all things that cannot be articulated from modernity’s organized, structured discourse.”
The loose themes made for a show that could veer from far-reaching to unmoored, and felt at times like a trot through the globalized art world. The inclusion of work by Filipino and Brazilian artists seemed to point to shared histories of colonialism but muddled the premise, and no reasons for their inclusion were given in the wall text or the catalog. Moreover, for a show that focused on diaspora, Chicago—home to important populations of Jamaicans and Puerto Ricans—was overlooked. (This is the city, after all, where the Young Lords, the militant Puerto Rican activist group, first emerged in the late 1960s.) The Jamaica-born Ebony G. Patterson, who also maintains a studio in Kingston, was the only Chicago-based artist in the exhibition, contributing a larger-than-life collage, showing bodies entangled in a lush garden, made out of wallpaper, Jacquard tapestries, and sparkling beads.
Yet within “Forecast Form” there were many moments of great power and some crackling juxtapositions. Particularly memorable was Kwa Bawon (2004), a multimedia sculpture by the Haitian artist Maksaens Denis that featured seven televisions configured into the shape of a cross on a stacked platform, an arrangement evoking a symbol for Baron Samedi, a Vodou spirit who serves as guardian of cemeteries. The televisions flashed images of landscapes, dancing women, street protests, and satellite views of Hurricane Jeanne, which battered Haiti in 2004, alongside the names of journalists and civil rights activists killed during the final tumultuous regime of Jean-Bertrand Aristide (2001–2004). It was a mordant rumination on a place contending with overlapping ruptures, environmental and political.
Particularly absorbing was a gallery devoted to landscape, which featured Patterson’s wall-sized installation and Mattai’s oceanic sari assemblage alongside one of Lind-Ramos’s otherworldly totems, fabricated out of fragments of palm, a drum, and a coconut grater. Nearby hung Cursed Grounds: Cursed Borders (2021), an arresting canvas by the Haiti-born, Philadelphia-based painter Didier William. It showed a cross section of a forest in which the trees sprouted jumbles of human appendages in lieu of roots. Covering the roiling mass of arm and leg roots were hundreds of tiny eyes—the gaze of the viewer returned by the gaze of bodies embedded in a land that is very much alive.
At the opposite end of the space was a magnificent wall-sized installation by Firelei Báez, who was born in the Dominican Republic, that featured eighty-one small paintings that used reproductions of historic documents as their canvases. Colonial maps, scientific drawings, and insurance plans were overpainted with delicate images of explosive flames, fantastical flora, and playful interpretations of the mythical ciguapa, a female figure from Dominican folklore who, like a siren, can lure and entrap. The ciguapa can be a grotesque figure with blue skin and feet pointing backward, or she can embody female power. In Báez’s hands she is the latter, materializing on the canvas as a flamboyant sprite who rejects the colonial mythologies of the past.
The exhibitions in New York, San Juan, and Chicago showed artists intent on rewriting history—or, more accurately, “nonhistory,” as Glissant called the erasure of cultural memory by slavery, colonialism, and now hurricanes. In the catalog for “no existe un mundo poshuracán,” the curator Marcela Guerrero writes about how the Puerto Rican artists in the show “leave behind visual testimony of a nation that has survived its disappearance.” They do more than that.
Ruptures destroy, but they also mark new beginnings (just as hurricanes carry to new places seeds that take root and grow). In the Whitney’s show, an installation by Miguel Luciano featured ten standing sculptures made from fragments of an old school bus. The piece was installed so that as you approached it, the bright yellow paint and the logo of the bus company—“Transporte Escolares Pacheco”—came into view, an apt metaphor for Puerto Rico’s school system, which is falling apart. If you circumnavigated the piece, however, on the rear of each fragment you encountered a Puerto Rican flag in black and white, a symbol of protest that emerged in 2016 in response to predatory US economic policies. Luciano’s school bus pieces aren’t simply scraps, they are shields—objects of resistance in an ongoing struggle.