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 following the storm, Báez’s father committed suicide – a death they attribute in part to the local and federal government’s mishandling of the emergency.
Báez turned to their camera to process their double grief: mourning both their father and their country. Along with 19 other Puerto Rican artists, their work will now be part of a new exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.
It is the first scholarly exhibition focused solely on Puerto Rican art held by a major US museum in nearly 50 years, according to the Whitney.
Make art to witness
Marcela Guerrero, the museum’s associate curator Jennifer Rubio, is the mastermind behind the exhibit. Guerrero, who is Puerto Rican, watched the storm unfold from New York, where she had just given birth. Many members of the diaspora were glued to the news, she said, trying to do all they could to help; she immediately knew she wanted to use the hurricane as a focal point.
When you talk to people in Puerto Rico, she says, it’s BM and PM: “before Maria” and “after Maria”.
Armig Santos, Procession in Vieques III, 2022. Credit: Courtesy of Armig Santos
“There are certain events that mark histories and societies,” Guerrero said. “I think Maria was that moment in Puerto Rico’s recent history, arguably its entire history. I didn’t want to ignore that.”
Hence the title of the exhibition.
“This verse kind of evokes the idea of being perpetually caught in the wake of the hurricane,” Guerrero said. “Puerto Ricans don’t have the luxury of thinking outside of the hurricane. Everything is a consequence of the disaster.”
Sofía Córdova, still from dawn_chorus ii: el niagara en bicicleta, 2018. Credit: Courtesy of Sofía Córdova
After 2017, San Juan-based artist Sofía Gallisá Muriente’s perspective on her work and her country changed.
She began experimenting with analog film, working with moisture-moulded films and coating rollers 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 Whitney’s exhibit and juxtaposes the story of her grandmother’s life with that of Puerto Rico. In the 1960s, her grandmother moved to Levittown, then one of the largest planned communities in the country. At the time, said Gallisá Muriente, it was a whole new suburb of middle-class homes, embodying the American dream of upward mobility.
A still from the film by Sofía Gallisá Muriente, “Celaje”, 2020. Credit: Courtesy of Sofía Gallisá Muriente
But by 2019, when her grandmother died, the neighborhood had changed completely, Gallisá Muriente said — full of closed schools and homes 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 literally shown in “Celaje,” through stale, decaying film.
Organizing Memories in a Time of Change
At his home in New York, Guerrero recalled seeing a picture of the archipelago completely dark, due to a power outage. It was almost as if the country had been wiped off the map.
It sounded like, she said, a perverse prophecy – the demise of Puerto Rico. And today, many Puerto Ricans are migrating away from the island, Guerrero said.
“The living conditions are so impossible that the island almost feels empty,” she said.
Báez echoed those sentiments. With the cost of living rising, material conditions on the island make it difficult to stay, they said. It’s becoming an island for foreigners, not for Puerto Ricans.
Gabriella Torres-Ferrer, Untitled (Valora tu mentira americana) (detail), 2018. Credit: Courtesy of Gabriella Torres Ferrer
“Speaking of Hurricane Maria, of course I’m 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 context colonial, you get a society that loses its people,” Guerrero said. “It’s this constant scene of death, even if it’s not literal, of mourning a Puerto Rico that’s not here anymore.”
With this exhibition, the artists reflect on the storm and its impact, Guerrero said, and affirm their existence through their work.
The exhibition is not just art. It is resistance.