Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 3, 2018
Puerto Rico: Defying Darkness
516 Arts, Albuquerque, NM, August 11–October 20, 2018.
Installation view, Puerto Rico: Defying Darkness, 516 Arts, Albuquerque, NM, August 11–October 20, 2018 (photograph © 2018; provided by 516 Arts)

At the independent museum 516 Arts in downtown Albuquerque, an exhibition looks at Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria through themes of climate change, global weather patterns, colonial essentialism, Caribbean commodification, nationalism, Afro-Caribbean identity, bankruptcy, and local resiliency on the unincorporated US territory. Puerto Rico: Defying Darkness collects paintings, installations, videos, photographs, and multimedia works by sixteen Puerto Rican artists from the island and locations across the US mainland, including Albuquerque. Curator Josie Lopez uses Naomi Klein’s book The Battle for Paradise: Puerto Rico Takes on the Disaster Capitalists as a frame for the exhibition, illustrating the tension between outside corporate investment and local sustainability initiatives. However, the museum itself, located at 516 Central Avenue SW, also unintentionally frames the exhibition in a colonial perspective through its storefront windows.

The windows bracketing the entrance to 516 Arts each contain a sign that reads: “No Loitering, Police Enforced.” The command appears in a bold, uppercase font with red letters and a red border on what appears to be white office paper. The signs, taped to the inside of the windows, are clearly meant for Albuquerque’s homeless population and the threat of police enforcement echoes progressive calls for an expanded police force in response to downtown crime. In the language of Jacques Rancière, the signs represent both a “sensible” (as in practical) and “sensible” (as in visible or registered by the senses) response to social disorder wherein “the police” referred to in the signs represent the right to define what counts as sensible in either case (Dissensus, New York, Continuum, 2010). In other words, the police are both the agents of an oppressive authority and the symbolic construction of sociality determined by the senses. Posted at the entrance to Defying Darkness—which occupies the entirety of 516 Arts—the signs suggest ideological constraints for an exhibition that represents conditions of possibility for a US commonwealth that emerged out of a plantation colony. In The Right to Look: A Counter-History of Visuality, Nicholas Mirzoeff explains that the plantation is the first site of colonial visuality and the police extend the panoptic discipline of the plantation overseer (Durham, Duke University Press, 2011). Thus, “No Loitering, Police Enforced” emphasizes the ways in which the show and some of its themes, rather than defying the shadow of colonialism, already risk reinforcing the narrative of potential for disaster capital.

Lopez explains in a stand-alone exhibition essay, “El Arte De Bregar,” that the artists in Defying Darkness celebrate the resilience and resourcefulness of local people in the face of economic and natural disaster. Natural disaster appears in representations of hurricanes and their aftermaths, such as Frances Gallardo’s embroidery of unnamed hurricanes that have hit Puerto Rico, The Unnamed (Puerto Rico) (2018) and her cut-paper work, Carmen (2011), which relies on meteorological data to represent the 1974 hurricane of the same name. Economic disasters appear as the commodified Puerto Rican foods and bodies in Hector Arce-Espasas’s Dancers (2016), a collection of porcelain waists stuffed with fake fruit. Resilience appears in pieces made out of recycled materials and multimedia work that reference local efforts to rebuild, such as Elsa María Meléndez’s Retoñar (2018), a series of fabric tapestries that include phrases like “cuantos están agonizando” (how many are dying) or Chemi Rosado-Seijo’s video installation La Perla Bowl (2006–present), in which skateboarders use rubble and fresh concrete to build a skate park that doubles as a swimming pool.

Despite Lopez’s rhetoric about “the history and dignity [that] permeates Puerto Rican identity,” the scenes of disaster that permeate the gallery suggest poverty, destruction, and exploitation. Jo Cosme’s collection of four untitled photographs (2017) and Myritza Castillo’s Territorial Landscapes, Monuments Series (2017), enforce the visuality of disaster capitalism through “disaster porn.” If landscape representation already acts as the ideology of colonialism, then disaster porn, like Detroit ruin porn, treats disturbed land as a site for development and economic gain (Matthew Irwin, “‘Your Wilderness’: The White Possession of Detroit in Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive,” Capitalism Nature Socialism, December 2017). This problem is not solved by benign representations of hurricanes, weather patterns, or symbols of the aftermath. Nor is it resolved by artworks that naturalize resilience as a Puerto Rican state of existence. In One Place after Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity, Miwon Kwon warns that though artists tend to cast “victimized yet resilient other[s]” against socialpolitical conditions, resiliency narratives are ambiguous and flexible, open to activism that “defends actions, even violations against underprivileged and disenfranchised minority groups” (Cambridge, MA, MIT Press, 2002). She suggests artists respond more strategically to the particulars of each community, but in Defying Darkness, landscapes of disaster invite, say, disaster capital in the form of cryptocurrency developers, while resilience narratives repeat the perspective of a US president who says that everyone can be proud of the response to Hurricane Maria. They repeat a news cycle that focuses on the president’s buffoonery, all but ignoring that on the same day he denied the number of deaths resulting from Hurricane Maria (Hayley Miller, Huffington Post, September 13, 2018), Puerto Rico passed a debt restructuring bill that will likely only benefit large lien holders (Luis Valentin Ortiz, Reuters, September 13, 2018). In the “No Loitering” signs, the museum’s misrecognition of the situation outside its doors underscores this inability to recognize the operations of US imperialism that inform everyday life in Puerto Rico. While certainly material, social, and political, these are also aesthetic situations. The police are an oppressive state apparatus that emerged out of plantations and a process which, Rancière explains, “says that here, on this street, there’s nothing to see and so nothing to do but move along.” It says what can be seen and who can see it. “No Loitering” suggests move along. “Police Enforced” suggests there’s nothing to see, no disturbing the status quo. Overall, then, the exhibition fails to critique colonial conditions in a meaningful way because it attempts to do so through the visuality of colonialism.

At times, Defying Darkness also provides a counter-visuality of the present, wherein resilience shifts to resistance and the desire for resurgence or positive outcomes succumbs to the reality of colonial dispossession and violence. This counter-narrative begins with Rafael Trelles’s diptych Maria Según Santa Clara, homenaje a Carlos Raquel Rivera (2017), which visually reassembles the disaster landscape to reflect the failures of local government and of the Trump administration. Using photomontage, Trelles recreates Carlos Raquel Rivera’s woodcut, Santa Clara (1957)—a response to the damage done by Hurricane Santa Clara—to include references to both Governor Ricardo Rosselló, who favors US statehood for Puerto Rico, and FEMA, who barely showed up in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria and recently lost $10 million in funds to ICE, thanks to President Trump (Isaac Stanley-Becker, The Washington Post, September 12, 2018). Unlike other scenes of destruction, then, Trelles’s diptych disrupts the disaster capital narrative by demonstrating that while hurricanes have long cycled through the region, socialpolitical conditions determine who suffers and who benefits. Frances Gallardo’s Flying Dust Carpet Resting on Mountains (2018) goes further, denaturalizing Puerto Rico’s socialpolitical conditions by making them materially visible. The cut-paper, thread, and graphite installation maintains the almost imperceptible nature of power, while the dust that has traveled from the African continent to the San Juan Mountains places Puerto Rico in the long durée of colonialism.

On the ground, Rosado-Seijo’s El Cerro (2002–present) demonstrates that Puerto Ricans are less interested in appearing resilient than in rebuilding the archipelago as they envision it. Documented in photographs and video, El Cerro is a community-building project through which residents of the working-class town El Cerro have been painting their homes different shades of green, both to represent their desire to build harmoniously with the landscape and to represent the color of the Independence Party. Meeting Kwon’s criteria for strategic responses to community problems, the project expresses a desire to rebuild a Puerto Rico free of US control while creating a political body to do so. However, colonialism is both adaptable and susceptible; it appropriates the urgency and spirit of insurgent movements without altering its core tenants or structures. In response, Patrick McGrath Muñiz’s works portray the historicity and durability of colonialism in the present by appropriating a visual language familiar to the beneficiaries of colonialism. Muñiz’s aesthetic echoes artists like Kehinde Wiley and Kent Monkman who appropriate Renaissance-era paintings to rewrite colonial art history for the present; that is, they insert colonized people into the continuum of human history and experience by refusing the visuality of colonial heroism. Where Monkman shows Lakota/Dakota people and their allies fighting back in Victory for the Water Protectors (2018), for instance, Muñiz finds divinity in the small act of saving a dog in Alba’s Dream (2017). In Diasporamus (2018), a boat carrying refugees reads, “Trans Aquas Turbulentas Diasporamus” (Through Turbulent Waters We Disperse). It suggests, rather than hardiness or resilience, the sense of loss that accompanies diasporic people, even as their faith carries them across a landscape marked not only by references to disaster capitalism, but also the disaster that is capitalism: Starbucks, Shell Oil, Bitcoin, Wall Street, and a paper-towel roll to remember Trump’s disastrous visit after Hurricane Maria. In this way, Muñiz hints toward what Mirzoeff calls “the right to look”: a counter-visual field that claims the right to depict reality (i.e., what counts as sensible, in both meanings) through acts of solidarity or love with others in one’s community. Muñiz responds to the police, as the authority and social order governing the exhibition, by inviting viewers to participate, to linger, and, perhaps, even to loiter.

Matthew Irwin
PhD candidate, American Studies, University of New Mexico

Please send comments about this review to