‘There were people trying to thrive’: how Puerto Rican artists dealt with Hurricane Maria

In a new exhibition, artists process difficult feelings of grief and trauma after the devastation of the 2017 storm

When Hurricane Maria hit the Caribbean in September 2017, it became one of the worst disasters ever recorded to befall the region. Puerto Rico was hit particularly hard, losing thousands of lives and sustaining the bulk of the $92bn in damages caused.

In the five years since then, the wreckage wreaked by Maria has exposed long-term challenges that Puerto Rico has struggled with, including ecological, political and those associated with mental health. Artists on the island have found their own unique ways to respond to a world opened up by the crisis, and they now take center stage at the Whitney Museum’s impressive new show no existe un mundo poshuracán (A Post-Hurricane World Doesn’t Exist), running from 23 November to 23 April 2023.

Show curator Marcela Guerrero told me that, in the years she spent working to discover these artists, visit their studios and select work for the show, she attempted to find “what I thought was missing from the discourse. News reports talked about the disaster, the bureaucracy, the corruption, all these same themes – I knew there was another reality behind those images. There were actually people living, trying to thrive, even making art. The scene that I knew was happening in Puerto Rico is virtually unknown here in the US.”

Altogether, no existe un mundo poshuracán brings together work from 20 Puerto Rican artists, collected into five main themes corresponding to systemic issues exacerbated by Maria: longstanding problems around infrastructure on the island, social ills created by tourism to Puerto Rico, the personal trauma and mental health crises occasioned by the hurricane, environmental devastation and the political upheaval that the disaster opened up.

Armig Santos, Yellow Flowers, 2022
Armig Santos, Yellow Flowers, 2022. Photograph: Collection of the artist; courtesy the artist

According to Guerrero, art was a crucial way of getting past the disaster porn typical of news reports from Maria, letting her develop a much richer understanding of the realities created by the hurricane. “If I didn’t know anything about PR, I would get a very lopsided view of the island. For me, poetry was the first art that helped me think about things in a more nuanced, textured way. It was a different reflection. There’s this side, what people see and are fed, and then there’s this other side of people trying to make beauty and art.”

For photographer Gabriella Báez, making art after Maria was about making visible the devastating – and sometimes deadly – mental health toll brought about by the hurricane. Báez and her father both experienced depression following the storm, and this depression eventually caused her father to kill himself just two months before Maria’s first anniversary. As Báez noted, many such deaths are largely not counted in the official tallies of hurricane-related fatalities.

Exploring the trauma that laced her personal and familial histories, Báez pulled out archival images of herself and her father, embroidering them with red thread to help account for the emotional connections not captured by the camera’s lens. “I was looking back at tangible evidence that I could look at and feel,” she said. “In that process, I began to intervene on these objects with embroidery. The idea was to look for the points of connection between me and my father and make tangible the very visceral emotions that I was feeling. Those threads tell me a story – they tell me that we were once connected physically, that he existed, that I can go around the world and find those connections with him now.”

Báez shared her belief that the governmental’s ineffectual response to the mental health crisis caused by Maria was an important factor in her father’s suicide. She also argued that the taboo around discussing mental health in Puerto Rican society made it harder for individuals like herself and her father to get the support they needed following the disaster. “Part of my intention with this project is to bring that taboo forward, to talk about my loss and make that as physical as possible,” she said.

Part of Guerrero’s excitement around no existe un mundo poshuracán is that she is working with the artists to present their pieces in new and exciting ways. For the show, Báez came to New York in order to connect all of her photographs together with red thread, creating an intricate lattice of interconnections. “[Báez] is always changing the presentation of this work,” Guererro said. “She wanted to do something that she hasn’t been able to do in other museums, to connect the photographs together with red thread. Seeing her do this is the most beautiful thing. It’s like this very zen kind of performative construction.”

Showing a different side of the hurricane, artist Sofía Gallisá Muriente uses found footage of promotional videos produced to entice real estate speculators to invest in Puerto Rico, creating her own counter-narratives. In this way, Muriente draws attention to how Puerto Rico’s economy serves foreigners to the detriment of its own citizens, while also attempting to bring new ideas and new angles to longstanding debates. “I try to figure out how to open up certain conversations about Puerto Rico, or approach them from an angle that might destabilize the already entrenched positions,” she said.

Sofía Gallisá Muriente, still from Celaje, 2020
Sofía Gallisá Muriente, still from Celaje, 2020. Photograph: Courtesy the artist

Muriente’s video collage B-Roll takes gorgeous footage of the lush Puerto Rican countryside and beaches, as well as recordings of tourists enjoying resplendent meals, juxtaposing these with an ironic soundtrack and quotations speaking to the vulture capitalism at play on the island. For Muriente, these images both work as a way to counteract the “endless stream of misery porn that has flooded the media” about Puerto Rico while also gathering counter-narratives that tell other stories about the island. She’s excited to see what conversations her films open up at the Whitney. “For me, one of the best moments about art is when you start sharing it and uncovering other layers of meaning through the feedback that it opens up.”

Altogether, the work in no existe un mundo poshuracán reflects the reality that there is no “normal” for Puerto Rico to return to – amid the tragedy and transformation brought about by Maria, it’s the artist’s job to imagine new ways forward. Taking the hurricane itself as a central metaphor for the show, Guerrero imagined it as all-encompassing – a prospect once frightening and full of opportunity. “I was thinking of Maria as a symbol of this vortex that you can’t escape,” she said. “You haven’t been afforded the luxury to step out of this. It evoked this idea of being perpetually caught in a whirlpool that never ends.”

  • no existe un mundo post huracán is showing at the Whitney in New York from 23 November to 23 April


Veronica Esposito

The GuardianTramp

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