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).