When Americans from the mainland visit the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, they see a tropical land drenched in sun and surrounded by water. They see trees, forests, mountains and unbelievably lush gardens. And they see many things that might be deeply troubling if they lived there, like crumbling roads and infrastructure, dilapidated schools and hospitals, and shocking poverty. But best not to worry too much. “You are on your holiday; you are a tourist.”
Things are getting increasingly desperate in Puerto Rico. The island’s economy has been in recession since 2006, the poverty rate of 43 percent is more than double that of the next poorest U.S. state, the population is aging and declining, faith in government is in tatters, and income inequality is so off the charts it compares with the most unequal countries in the world.
An exhibition at the Whitney Museum subtitled “Puerto Rican Art in the Wake of Hurricane Maria” surveys the trauma the island and its people have experienced, especially since the devastation of two hurricanes, Irma and Maria, in September 2017. It erupts with information, history, politics and tales of personal tragedy. It seeks what politicians, activists, authors, lawyers, scholars and ordinary people have failed to accomplish since the island became an American possession in 1898: register this place and its people on the map of dignity and belonging.
The exhibition’s full title includes the Spanish phrase “no existe un mundo poshuracan,” which translates as “there isn’t a world post hurricane.” The line is from a poem by Raquel Salas Rivera, and in English it is rich with ambiguity. It could mean: The world you know doesn’t exist after a hurricane; or, the world never recovers from a hurricane; or, more radically, the world itself is never “post” hurricane, but always caught up in the storm.
The last of these seems most apt to describe the art on view. Hurricane Maria caused some $90 billion of damage, destroyed the entire electrical grid and knocked out almost all of its cellphone coverage. But that destruction, which happened a century after Puerto Ricans became U.S. citizens, was contiguous with decades of failed and deeply unfair policy decisions, which extracted wealth from the territory, undermined its ability to develop a self-sufficient economy and piled mountains of debt.
Gabriella Torres-Ferrer connects the misery caused by the hurricane to the larger question of Puerto Rico’s ambiguous status as a U.S. territory with an effective symbol: a broken lamppost hanging at an angle, with a political sign encouraging Puerto Ricans to “value [their] American citizenship” still attached to its base. The sign is left over from a nonbinding referendum a few months before the hurricane in which 97 percent of voters chose statehood over territorial status or independence. More telling in that referendum was voter turnout, a mere 23 percent of the population. Voters were exhausted and uninterested in yet another election that would change nothing.
Among the most striking works in the exhibition is a realist painting of a sinking ship by Gamaliel Rodríguez, titled “Collapsed Soul.” The image is inspired by the 2015 sinking of the El Faro, a container ship lost during Hurricane Joaquin. Puerto Rico is highly dependent on shipping for basic necessities, and it was the sinking of another ship, the USS Maine in 1898, that sparked the war with Spain that delivered the island into colonial dependence on the United States. In 1920, a law called the Jones Act required all deliveries from U.S. ports to be made by U.S.-owned and operated vessels.
These two works set up a fundamental tension at the heart of the exhibition, and the frustration felt by so many Puerto Ricans. What is the value of U.S. citizenship? Does it bring dependency and limit the island’s potential? Or connection and protection? When Donald Trump visited San Juan after the hurricane and threw rolls of paper towels to a crowd far from the worst areas of Maria’s destruction, there was yet one more perfectly distilled image of this tension: an American president celebrating his woefully inadequate response to a natural disaster by tossing cheap consumer products at people desperately in need of more substantial assistance.
Ineffective patronage has defined the relationship for decades. Using tax breaks and other incentives, the United States has attempted to build up first light industry, then a petrochemical economy, and later pharmaceuticals and electronics. But while these initiatives have created employment opportunities, the real beneficiaries have been corporations based elsewhere, and local elites. As economic historians point out, Puerto Rico is a classic case of a country that “produces what it does not consume and consumes what it does not produce.”
Rogelio Báez Vega captures the failed promise of these initiatives in paintings of abandoned and decaying modernist architecture, including a derelict school and gas station. In the mainland, where prosperity has been more evenly spread, these two structures might suggest a postwar suburban idyll, neighborhoods of tract homes building wealth for baby boomers shuttling their kids in cars from schools and soccer games and other activities. In Puerto Rico, schools, like all the rest of the social infrastructure, have been hit hard by austerity measures including those enacted after the debt crisis in 2016.
The Puerto Rican artists in this exhibition resist the narrative of victimization. The suffering on the island isn’t simply a matter of colonial dependence. Capitalism is also the problem, especially the form that prevails in Puerto Rico, where the benefits of the economy flow to a small percentage of the population while the risks and side effects, including environmental destruction, are felt much more broadly. Independence from the United States would probably exacerbate these structural issues, which only adds to the deeper sense of futility and powerlessness.
So, the dominant artistic mode is phantasmagoria, in which the world seems surreal and disjointed, like the old joke about history: It’s just one thing after another. Sofía Córdova’s video, “dawn_chorus ii: el niagara en bicicleta,” weaves together images captured on a cellphone in the hours after the hurricane with dancers, including one moving in the confined space of a porch or balcony hemmed in by white concrete walls. Natural beauty and natural peril are connected to the human body, both as an expression of personal autonomy and communal connection.
There’s a fine balance to be maintained when discussing a small place full of beauty and crisis. Puerto Rico isn’t a problem to be solved, but it is an island with a lot of problems, most of them caused by its ambiguous status as a territory of a large and prosperous neighbor. The success of this exhibition, curated by Marcela Guerrero, Angelica Arbelaez and Sofía Silva, is how effectively it jolts the visitor out of the tourist cocoon anatomized by Kincaid in relation to another island, the tendency to see only what the visitor wants to see.
Museums, like tropical islands, all too often cater to the tourist sensibility. Visitors pass through with just enough concern to be human but not so much as to spoil their supper. The hurricanes that regularly hit Puerto Rico are a bit like the ink applied to a printing plate: They bring out an image, which is indelible, capturing truths not just about one island, but the world itself, which has always been and will always be full of devastating storms.
no existe un mundo poshuracan: Puerto Rican Art in the Wake of Hurricane Maria. Through April 23 at the Whitney Museum, New York. whitney.org