Installation view of no existe un mundo poshuracán: Puerto Rican Art in the Wake of Hurricane Maria at the Whitney Museum of American Art. From left to right: works by Miguel Luciano; Garvin Sierra Viega; Danielle De Jesus. Photograph by Marcos Gonsalez.
Exhibition under review
no existe un mundo poshuracán
Whitney Museum of American Art
November 23 2022-April 23 2023
For forty minutes I sat, transfixed. I watched grainy home footage of a Puerto Rican grandmother at her vanity, dolling herself up, then on the beach in a one-piece bikini, soaking in Caribbean sunlight, then watching as her casket descended into the island earth—a truncated portrait of a Boricua life lived. In Celaje (Cloudscape) (2020), Sofía Gallisá Muriente creates a film of “impermanence,” splicing together home videos of her grandmother and contemporary footage of post-Hurricane Maria landscapes. In voiceovers, the artists provides elegiac commentaries in Spanish on mourning, temporality, and the state of Puerto Rico. Some of the footage has deteriorated through the mundane passing of time, and some has been destroyed by the ravage of climate catastrophe, a visual testament to the more than century-long colonial degradation experienced by the Puerto Rican people at the hands of U.S. empire. While watching, I thought of my own Puerto Rican abuela, mi Perfidia linda, her nimble fingers threading pink rollers into her hair before her own vanity, preparing for a morning tending her garden, many miles away from her birthplace of Carolina, Puerto Rico. My Diasporican body felt the heaviness of affiliation on that cold January day.
Borrowing its title from the poetry of Raquel Salas Rivera, no existe un mundo poshuracán: Puerto Rican Art in the Wake of Hurricane Maria, currently on display at the Whitney Museum, assembles a broad array of artworks by Puerto Rican artists responding to Hurricane Maria. The critical purview of the artworks is kaleidoscopic, using Hurricane Maria as a catalyzing nexus to address various interrelated issues including Puerto Rico’s longstanding identity as a U.S. colony, disaster capitalism, corrupt government, collapsing infrastructure, displacement, and the general disinvestment and privatization of the archipelago by neoliberal capitalism. Gabriella Torres-Ferrer’s Untitled (Valora tu mentira Americana) summarily encapsulates the collective issues the exhibition showcases: a lamppost knocked over during Hurricane Maria, disaster detritus, with a sign attached advising Puerto Ricans to value U.S. citizenship. The enduring blackouts across Puerto Rico brought on by a failing electric grid, and the problem of who will supply the electricity and fund its maintenance, find symbolic resonance in the destroyed lamppost-turned-found object artwork. The gritty materiality of the piece makes the infrastructure crisis all the more apparent and tangible, a tangibility sonically echoed in the video installation by Elle Pérez, Blackout (2022), documenting the quotidian nighttime moments of darkness during post-Maria blackouts. Snatches of sound in the darkness serve as reminders you are not alone: a noise in the distance links you to an extended network of shared catastrophe and hope, a makeshift intimacy between humans and nonhumans trying to figure out the post-disaster landscape. Sonic darkness connects an archipelago.
no existe un mundo poshuracán indexes the urgency of the present, but also the unresolved urgencies of the past. In the painting Google the Ponce Massacre (2021), Danielle De Jesus depicts victims from the 1937 Ponce Massacre, superimposed onto the grisly rendering of a protest scene from 2019. The foreground of the painting contains two figures, a masked protestor and a cop, both of whom were present during a 2019 protest attended by the artist in New York City’s Union Square that demanded the resignation of then governor, Ricardo Rosselló. In what would come to be known as the Verano de 19 and to generate the mobilizing hashtag of #RickyRenuncia, protests throughout the Puerto Rican diaspora sought to oust Rosselló when his hateful comments and attempts to sell out the island to foreign investors were leaked. As in other works throughout the exhibition, De Jesus’s painting documents how past events, histories, and traumas accumulate.
“What would it require to imagine a future beyond this current maelstrom?” queries the show’s curator, Marcela Guerrero, in the exhibition catalogue, and many of the artworks take on the challenge. Yiyo Tirado Rivera’s sandcastle sculpture, La Concha (2022), modeled after a beachfront hotel built in 1958, highlights the gradual weathering of luxury facilities and the Puerto Rican economy’s tenuous dependence on tourism. The inevitable crumbling of the sand back into formlessness marks a potential future when Puerto Rico can start over, when such playgrounds for the foreign rich do not determine the viability of Puerto Rican life and culture. Gamaliel Rodríguez’s magenta drawings of airport control towers overtaken by tropical foliage herald a future when tourism and extraction do not dictate Puerto Rico’s autonomy, but also a future when Puerto Ricans are not forced to leave the archipelago due to economic displacement and lack of opportunities. In this tropical magenta future, airplanes will be unnecessary, outdated, a relief to our overwhelmingly overburdened planet. Puerto Rican desires and dreams will be free to fly by other means, free to stay in archipelagic communality.
In another drawing by Rodríguez, Collapsed Soul (2020-21), a cargo ship on the open water, painted a ghostly blue, has been destroyed. A plume of smoke rises into the sky from the ship’s middle. As with the airport control towers, we bear witness to a future without climate-destroying transportation vessels—vessels that signal the ongoing impacts of the Jones Act, imperial blockades, maritime border patrols, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and the colonization of the Caribbean. In Rodríguez’s blue future, there are no such vessels in Puerto Rico. What remains is the sea itself, its ebbs and flows of the freed from the violence and apocalypse of colonial jurisdiction in order to become a site of possibility for the Puerto Rican people.
no existe un mundo poshuracán does not shy away from airing out the grievances of coloniality’s death-drive. After all, Hurricane Maria claimed the lives of 4,645 people. Four thousand, six hundred, and forty-five. As the artworks evince, the weight of the colonial condition is heavy, a mass bearing down upon the collective back of Puerto Rican peoples who have no choice but to play the role of Atlas. But in addition to critique, no existe un mundo poshuracán also personifies the insurgent creativity of Puerto Rican peoples, the radical imaginaries offering up archipelagic tactics of resistance, survival, and jubilation. Through generations, through crises, the Puerto Rican people persist. Our hopeful ingenuity knows no bounds, and no existe un mundo poshuracán is an unwavering reminder.
My abuela’s garden no longer exists. Where her little casita once stood is now nothing more than a plot of land, sold to the highest bidder, bulldozed away in efforts to make good on debts owed. I recall Pedro Pietri’s “Puerto Rican Obituary”:
and they died
They died broke
They died owing
Her garden now dwells in memory, mine alone. There she is at her vanity, preparing for another morning tending to the earth, in a world where Hurricane Maria has not yet happened, a world that does not yet know that feeling of post-postness. A world where the act of dreaming up other horizons connects us across space and time, islands and continents, the living and the dead.