Artist Lisa C Soto goes to the country of her ancestors, the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico, to explore and witness the country’s blooming contemporary art scene for Contemporary And (C&) América Latina.
Jorge González' studio window, Santurce, San Juan de Puerto Rico. Photo: Lisa C Soto.
Amara Abdal Figueroa's studies on Puerto Rican earth materials. Photo: Lisa C Soto.
Artist Alice Cheveres' studio in San Juan de Puerto Rico, were she works with traditional methods of ceramics. Photo: Lisa C Soto.
Brigada PDT center, Puerta de Tierra, San Juan de Puerto Rico. Photo: Lisa C Soto.
La Sangre Pesa Mas Que el Agua (Blood Weights More than Water), intervention, 2016. Photo: Ricardo Alcaraz. Courtesy of Revista Terremoto and Las Nietas de Nonó.
Off the island, anywhere in the world, if someone says they are Puerto Rican to a Puerto Rican, the reaction is “Tú eres Boricua?” – code for “I am indigenous from an island in the Caribbean, known as Borinquen before the Spanish Conquistadores took it.” Previous to September 16th, 2017, when Hurricane Maria descended on the island, most people didn’t even know where Puerto was. Ironically, the storm that nearly eradicated the island put it on the map.
There are two dates which represent neither independence nor liberation, but the hostile takeover of the island by foreigners. Beginning with the famous date 1492, when Christopher Columbus’ faulty calculations (interpreting Al-Farghani’s 7091 foot Arabic mile to be a 4856 foot Roman mile) led his ships off course into the Caribbean. From this fateful visit the Spaniards laid claim on the island, killing and enslaving the Taíno indigenous people. Over the next 500 years, Iberian, African, and Asian populations arrived on the island. The second date is 1898: after the Spanish-American war, the Spanish ceded ownership of Puerto Rico (as well as Guam and the Philippine islands) to the United States under the Treaty of Paris.
Puerto Rico became a commonwealth. But with no right to vote for the president of the United States, nor representation in Congress, it was in reality a colony. An indigenous-afro latinx culture exists in this particularly invisible place in the Greater Antilles. Puerto Rico is American but only technically, Caribbean but branded by the U.S. While seen as a multimillion-dollar tourist destination, this Caribbean archipelago is home to 3.4 million Puerto Ricans, with its own culture, distinctive Spanish language, music, food, and artisanal skills dating back to the Taínos.
Due to my Afro-Latina, Nuyorican, Caribbean roots, and as an extension of a series of talks I produced in my studio and the California African American Museum in Los Angeles, titled “Conversations By Artists For Artists,” a new project emanated. I decided to interview artists from the Caribbean islands where my grandparents were born (Jamaica and Puerto Rico), and where my mother resides.
Five months after Hurricane Maria I was on the island, embraced by the myriad of lush greens that had grown back defiantly. Yet 40 percent of the island still lacked electricity or running water, and became even more reliant on food imports. Before the hurricane, already 80 percent was imported through the port of the capital, San Juan. Hurricane Maria blew away the commonwealth veil, revealing its colonial status. After the economically crippling effect of dependence, cases of pharmaceutical experimentation on Puerto Rican bodies, decades of military testing strategies, and a looming bankruptcy before the storm, the value of being connected to the United States is becoming less evident.
Artists such as Chemi Rosado-Seijo, Beatriz Santiago Muñoz or Jorge González have pierced through the Caribbean membrane, yet generally there is an absence of recognition of Puerto Rican artists. The best known artists from Puerto Rico are not Puerto Rican: Allora & Calzadilla, who represented the United States at the Venice Biennial in 2015… However, in the midst of the bubbling political limbo, a network of contemporary, socially active, and experimental artists thrives on the island. Some of them are blurring the boundaries between artistic practice and environmental/community activism (not to be confused with social aesthetics, artists like Búbu Negrón declare). Through a myriad of styles, themes and philosophies, these artists are engaged on local and global platforms. Spending a week zigzagging through the island on highways with few working traffic lights, going to the mountains where trucks were giving away cases of bottled water, I began to explore the layered art scene dotted across the multifarious landscape.
I was introduced by Mónica Rodríguez, a Puerto Rican Los Angeles-based artist, to Marina Reyes Franco, a Puerto Rican curator based in San Juan who connected me to a number of artists: from artists/collectives working with traditional artisans to contemporary art, from sculpture to theatre performance like Taller Libertá, from personal architecture to foraging in the woods and creating tonics and communal meals such as La Recoleta (Natalia Muñoz Paraliticci and Karla Claudio Betancourt).
Brigada PDT, for example, is made up of independent artists (Búbu Negrón and Luis Agosto-Leduc) who joined forces with neighborhood watch officer Jose Vélez Camacho to save the neighborhood Puerta de Tierra – next to Old San Juan, the most touristic part of the island – through art. The inhabitants, who have lived there for generations, are being pushed out through an aggressive system of extracting services. The city of San Juan, while courting real estate developers, has removed banks, traffic lights, stop signs and even bus stop benches. Brigada PDT reacted by acquiring a roofless corner property. As response to a benchless bus stop, the artists constructed an inviting book-lined wood bench. This property will be the base from which to continue to implement activities such as murals of the map of Puerta de Tierra, stencils of the words “Aquí vive gente (“People Live Here”), and large scale drawings of musicians and writers from the area, all working as reminders of the cultural wealth that neighborhoods like this bring the community at large.
In Santurce, another part of the capital, Jorge González is sharing a second floor studio with Chemi Rosado, housing a skateboard ramp that Chemi uses to influence his paintings. Jorge’s practice connects modern architecture to traditional artisanal work by master weavers and ceramists. Working with people such as Alice Cheveres, a direct descendent of the Tainos. Alice teaches the traditional methods of ceramics, using the indigenous symbols passed down through generations and the open air firing method. Jorge will be showing at the Whitney Museum, opening July 13th with Alice heading workshops on August 3rd and 4th.
Artist Amara Abdal Figueroa, who grew up both in Kuwait and Puerto Rico, returned to the island in December 2017 because of the storm. A graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, Amara’s father is an architect from Kuwait and her Puerto Rican mother an environmental architect. She is reinventing what it means to be an artist as she traverses the fine line of art and environmental activism through the research of different clay bodies.
The human body is of concern to artists such as Las Nietas de Nonó, the sisters Lydela and Michelle Nonó who, living on their grandfather’s property, put on their own performances as well as offering the space to other performers. The marginalization of Afro-Latinx people and the experimentation of medicine and surgeries on the female, black body, are some of the themes they are bringing to light.
The residency Beta Local is run by artists Sofia Gallisá Muriente, Michael Linares and Pablo Guardiola in Old San Juan, with a unique three-part program comprising La Práctica, a 9-month residency for local artists, The Harbor, a monthly residency for international artists, and La Iván Illich program, where classes are set up to change the paradigm of hierarchies and produce a more communal environment. The El Serrucho grant was set up post Hurricane Maria in order to support artists, projects and spaces throughout the island.
Approaching the next hurricane season this summer, I will relocate my studio from Los Angeles to Puerto Rico, and continue to interview artists examining their environment, landscape, political climate, social political movements, family history, and ancestral connections on the island.
Lisa C Soto was born in Los Angeles, CA, and grew up in New York City and in a small traditional village in the South of Spain, across the waters from Morocco. Her Caribbean heritage and continuous movements between continents and islands have informed her artistic themes.