On ViewWhitney Museum Of American Art
November 23, 2022–April 23, 2023
No existe un mundo poshuracán: Puerto Rican Art in the Wake of Hurricane Maria at the Whitney Museum of American Art is an unapologetically political show. Coinciding with the fifth anniversary of 2017’s Hurricane Maria, the exhibition marshals roughly thirty-six works of art in support of its thesis—that Puerto Rico’s colonial relationship to the United States is to blame for the devastating effects of that event. Curator Marcela Guerrero does not shy away from details; extended labels discuss dates, figures, specific acts of legislation, and other necessary context that too few U.S. residents have at their disposal. The exhibition is also the first major show of Puerto Rican art planned by a U.S. museum in around 50 years.
The artists in no existe are overwhelmingly young: only six of the twenty were born before 1980; four were born in or after 1990. The poet Raquel Salas Rivera, from whose work the exhibition draws its name—and whose book is itself displayed as work of art—is only 38. The title, though difficult to translate into English, equates more or less to “A Post-Hurricane World Does Not Exist.” The exhibition checklist, organized thematically, includes a wide range of media, with time-based works among the most memorable. Sofía Córdova’s dawn_chorus ii: el niágara en bicicleta (dawn_chorus ii: crossing the Niagara on a bicycle) (2018), projected on a monumental screen near the exhibition entrance, acts as a centerpiece. Córdova’s piece blends her aunt Maggie’s real-time cellphone footage from the beginning of the hurricane with sweeping views of the island and ritualistic performances by costumed figures. A standout of the show is Elle Pérez’s Wednesday, Friday (2022), filmed during the artist’s trip to the island in December of 2017, around two months after the storm. Pérez has gained notoriety in recent years for their intensely intimate photographic portraits. The black-and-white video juxtaposes nearly abstract nighttime shots darkened by then-ongoing power outages with frenzied footage of the Festival de las Máscaras de Hatillo. Pulsing reggaeton beats and enthusiastic paradegoers who strike poses before the camera turn this part of the work into a kind of noir music video. These video works are among several pieces in the exhibition anchored in the personal experience of the artists, a mode of diaristic self-portraiture and a point of entry to the island’s political reality. Particularly poignant in this regard is Gabriella N. Báez’s Ojalá nos encontremos en el mar (Hopefully, We’ll Meet at Sea) (2018–ongoing), an installation of objects and photographs that includes items belonging to the artist’s father, who died by suicide around one year after the storm. The piece reads as an altar-cum-ethnographic display, the objects both attesting to and incapable of explaining generational trauma.
The works in the exhibition do not all deal explicitly with Hurricane Maria. The event is treated, rather, as a marker of a new period, a turning point in Puerto Ricans’ political consciousness. Ecological critiques are recurrent, as in Javier Ortón’s Bientevéo (Iseeyouwell) (2018–22), featuring photographs of leaves with images and messages such as “No reconozco plantas muertas” (I don’t recognize dead plants) carved into them. Miguel Luciano’s Shields/Escudos (2020), a group of panels made from the scrap metal of decommissioned school buses, criticizes the austerity measures that have recently led to the closure of many of the island’s public schools. The extended label notes that the black-and-white version of the Puerto Rican flag that appears on the shields is an anticolonial symbol, specifying that Secretary of Education Julia Keleher is “U.S.-born.” The frequent condemnation of the United States in the exhibition, while not unwarranted, does run the risk of obscuring Puerto Ricans’ real attitudes toward U.S. citizenship. Full statehood, by recent accounts, is in fact the most popular answer among Puerto Ricans to the question of what form self-determination should take. This reality is dismissed in the same breath as it is raised by the presentation of Gabriella Torres-Ferrer’s Untitled (Valora tu mentira americana) (Untitled [Value Your American Lie])(2018). Torres-Ferrer’s piece, a lamppost suspended diagonally in the air, bears a pro-statehood campaign sign for the 2017 referendum asking Puerto Ricans about their preferences for the political future of the island. Interpretive text suggests that the ninety-seven percent of respondents voting for statehood should be discounted because they represented only twenty-three percent of eligible voters. It should be noted that a 2020 plebiscite in which over half of registered voters participated confirmed that a majority supported statehood. The House of Representatives has recently voted to allow Puerto Rico to hold a binding referendum.
Such political nuances should not detract from the triumph of this historic exhibition, which is beautifully and sensitively installed. No existe appears at the beginning of what will surely be a much-needed wave of shows featuring Latinx art supported by efforts such as the recently announced Advancing Latinx Art in Museums (ALAM) initiative. We are at the precipice of an opportunity to truly represent the Latinx community in all its social, racial, and ideological diversity.