Wchicken Hurricane Maria hit the Caribbean in September 2017, it became one of the worst disasters ever recorded in the region. Puerto Rico was hit particularly hard, losing thousands of lives and bearing the brunt of the $92 billion in damage caused.
In the five years since, the wreckage caused by Maria has exposed long-term challenges that Puerto Rico has fought, including ecological, political, and those associated with mental health. The island’s artists have found their own unique ways of responding to a world opened up by crisis, and now they take center stage in the Whitney Museum’s stunning new show. there is no world afterhurricane (A post-hurricane world does not exist), from November 23 to April 23, 2023.
The show’s curator, Marcela Guerrero, told me that in the years she spent working to discover these artists, visiting their studios, and selecting works for the show, she tried to find “what she thought was missing from the discourse. The news reports talked about the disaster, the bureaucracy, the corruption, all these same issues. She knew that there was another reality behind those images. In fact, there were people living, trying to prosper, even making art. The scene that she knew was happening in Puerto Rico is virtually unheard of here in the United States.”
Total, there is no world afterhurricane brings together the work of 20 Puerto Rican artists, compiled into five main themes that correspond to systemic problems exacerbated by María: long-standing problems surrounding infrastructure on the island, social ills created by tourism in Puerto Rico, personal trauma, and the mental health crises caused by the hurricane. , environmental devastation, and political turmoil that sparked the disaster.
According to Guerrero, art was a crucial way to move beyond the typical disaster pornography of Maria’s news reports, allowing her to develop a much richer understanding of the realities created by the hurricane. “If she didn’t know anything about public relations, she would get a very lopsided view of the island. For me, poetry was the first art that helped me think about things in a more nuanced and textured way. It was a different reflection. There’s this side, what people see and feed on, and then there’s the other side of people trying to create beauty and art.”
For photographer Gabriella Báez, making art after María was about making visible the devastating, and sometimes deadly, mental health toll wrought by the hurricane. Baez and her father suffered from depression after the storm, and this depression ultimately caused her father to commit suicide just two months before Maria’s first anniversary. As Báez pointed out, many of those deaths are largely undercounted in official hurricane-related death counts.
Exploring the trauma that tied together her personal and family histories, Báez pulled from archive footage of herself and her father, embroidering it with red thread to help explain the emotional connections that weren’t captured by the camera lens. “She was looking back at tangible evidence that she could look at and feel,” she said. “In this process I began to intervene these objects with embroidery. The idea was to find the connection points between me and my father and make the very visceral emotions I was feeling tangible. Those threads tell me a story: they tell me that we were once physically connected, that he existed, that I can go out into the world and find those connections with him now.”
Baez shared her belief that the government’s ineffective response to the mental health crisis caused by Maria was a major factor in her father’s suicide. She also argued that the taboo on discussing mental health in Puerto Rican society made it difficult for people like her and her father to get the support they needed after the disaster. “Part of my intention with this project is to push that taboo forward, to talk about my loss, and to make it as physical as possible,” she said.
Part of Guerrero’s enthusiasm for there is no world afterhurricane it’s that she’s working with artists to present their pieces in new and exciting ways. For the show, Báez came to New York to connect all of her photographs with red thread, creating an intricate web of interconnections. “[Báez] The presentation of this work is always changing,” said Guerrero. “He wanted to do something that he has not been able to do in other museums, join the photographs with red thread. Seeing her do this is the most beautiful thing. It’s like this kind of very zen performative construction.”
Showing a different side of the hurricane, artist Sofía Gallisá Muriente uses found footage from promotional videos produced to entice real estate speculators to invest in Puerto Rico, creating her own counter-narratives. In this way, Ella Muriente draws attention to how Puerto Rico’s economy serves foreigners to the detriment of its own citizens, while she tries to bring new ideas and new angles to long-standing debates. “I try to figure out how to open up certain conversations about Puerto Rico, or approach them from an angle that can destabilize already entrenched positions,” she said.
Muriente’s B-Roll video collage takes beautiful images of Puerto Rico’s lush countryside and beaches, as well as recordings of tourists enjoying resplendent meals, juxtaposing them with a tongue-in-cheek soundtrack and quotes that speak to vulture capitalism at stake in the island. For Muriente, these images function as a way to counter the “endless stream of misery pornography that has flooded the media” about Puerto Rico, while also bringing together counter-narratives that tell other stories about the island. She’s excited to see what conversations her films open at the Whitney. “For me, one of the best moments in art is when you start sharing it and discover other layers of meaning through the feedback it opens up.”
Taken together, the work there is no world afterhurricane it reflects the reality that there is no “normal” to return to in Puerto Rico: in the midst of the tragedy and transformation brought about by María, it is the artist’s job to imagine new ways forward. Taking the hurricane itself as a central metaphor for the show, Guerrero envisioned it as all-encompassing, a once terrifying prospect filled with opportunity. “I was thinking of Maria as a symbol of this vortex that you can’t escape from,” he said. You haven’t had the luxury of getting out of this. He evoked this idea of being perpetually caught in a whirlwind that never ends.”