After Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in 2017, artist Gabriella Báez’s life changed.
The island that Báez knew no longer existed. Neither does life. In the months after the storm, Baez’s father committed suicide, a death they partly attribute to mishandling of the emergency by the local and federal governments.
Báez turned to his camera to process his double pain: mourning for both his father and his country. Along with that of 19 other Puerto Rican artists, his work will now be part of a new exhibit at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.
It is the first academic exhibition focused solely on Puerto Rican art organized by a major US museum in nearly 50 years, according to the Whitney.
Make art to bear witness
Marcela Guerrero, Jennifer Rubio’s associate curator at the museum, is the mastermind behind the exhibition. Guerrero, who is Puerto Rican, watched the storm unfold from New York, where she had just given birth. Many in the diaspora were glued to the news, she said, trying to do whatever they could to help; She immediately knew that she wanted to use the hurricane as a focal point.
When you talk to people from Puerto Rico, he said, it’s BM and PM: “before María” and “after María.”
Armig Santos, Procession in Vieques III, 2022. Credit: Courtesy Armig Santos
“There are certain facts that mark histories and societies,” said Guerrero. “I think Maria was that moment in the recent history of Puerto Rico, possibly the whole history of her. I didn’t want to ignore that.”
Hence the title of the exhibition.
“That verse brings up the idea of being perpetually caught in the wake of the hurricane,” Guerrero said. “Puerto Ricans do not have the luxury of thinking outside of the hurricane. It’s all a consequence of the disaster.”
Sofía Córdova, still from dawn_chorus ii: niagara by bicycle, 2018. Credit: Courtesy Sofia Cordova
After 2017, the perspective of San Juan-based artist Sofía Gallisá Muriente on her work and her country changed.
He began experimenting with analogue film, working with film moldy from moisture and covering rolls with salt in an attempt to corrode the images. Just as the storm and the environment destroyed parts of the country, she used the environment to destroy her art.
Her short film “Celaje” is featured in the Whitney exhibit and juxtaposes her grandmother’s life story with that of Puerto Rico. In the 1960s, her grandmother moved to Levittown, after one of the largest planned communities in the country. At the time, Gallisá Muriente said, it was a new suburb of middle-class homes, epitomizing the American dream of upward mobility.
A still from Sofía Gallisá Muriente’s film, “Celaje,” 2020. Credit: Courtesy Sofía Gallisá Muriente
But by 2019, when her grandmother died, the neighborhood had changed completely, Gallisá Muriente said, full of schools closed and houses that had been turned into businesses. (Her grandmother’s house, meanwhile, was flooded when Maria struck.) And the disintegration of those slippery dreams of progress is shown literally in “Celage,” via expired and decaying film.
Healing memories in times of change
At his home in New York, Guerrero recalled seeing an image of the archipelago in complete darkness, due to power loss. It seemed almost as if the country had been wiped off the map.
It felt, he said, like a perverse prophecy: Puerto Rico disappearing. And today, many Puerto Ricans are emigrating off the island, Guerrero said.
“The living conditions are so impossible that the island almost feels like it’s being emptied,” he said.
Baez echoed those sentiments. With the rising cost of living, material conditions on the island make it difficult to stay, they said. It is becoming an island for foreigners, not for Puerto Ricans.
Gabriella Torres-Ferrer, Untitled (Value your American lie) (detail), 2018. Credit: Courtesy Gabriela Torres Ferrer
“When talking about Hurricane María, of course, I am talking about a hurricane… but in the specific case of Puerto Rico, when you have such a strong, devastating, catastrophic natural event, but on top of that you add this colonial context, you get a society that is losing its people,” Guerrero said. “It is this constant scene of death, even if it is not literal, of mourning for a Puerto Rico that is no more.”
With this exhibition, the artists reflect on the storm and its impact, Guerrero said, and affirm its existence through their work.
What is exhibited is not only art. is resistance