Three floors of the Whitney Museum in Lower Manhattan are now covered with the works of 63 artists celebrating the 68th Whitney Biennial— the longest-running survey of American art— in a variety of forms including painting, installation, video-game design and activism.
One might not think of activism as art. Yet, Whitney Biennial co-curators Christopher Y. Lew and Mia Lock included the works of 10 Puerto Rican artists that target the island’s economic crisis in “Debtfair”, a wall-sized installation by Occupy Museum, an organization that targets injustice in art institutions.
This is the first time a large group of Puerto Ricans is featured in the Whitney Biennial. But, the achievement brings mixed feelings for the collective, whose true aim is to educate about Puerto Rico’s economic crisis.
“Artists reflect the reality they are living in,” said Sofía Maldonado, 33, a Puerto Rican muralist showing in “Debtfair”. “It’s not a surprise that artists are manifesting this in their work.”
This reality became clear on March 13 when the Puerto Rico Oversight Board, appointed last June by President Barack Obama, approved unanimously the island’s new fiscal plan, which cuts over $300 million to the public university’s budget and 10 percent of public workers’ pensions.
The situation forced 89,000 Puerto Ricans to move to the mainland in 2015, according to the Puerto Rico Statistics Institute, leaving empty buildings and closed businesses. Artist Sofía Maldonado saw this phenomenon as an opportunity to reclaim abandoned spaces.
“Kalaña”, which is now showing in the Whitney Biennial, is a project she started in 2015, when she returned to the island after completing an M.A at Pratt Institute in New York City. Her plan was to transform the interior of a deserted building by painting its walls in bright hues of green, pink, yellow and blue. The project aimed to revitalize spaces ephemerally by creating alliances with real estate developers and landlords who would let Maldonado occupy the space.
(Provided by Sofía Maldonado)
“If everyone is leaving that doesn’t mean we can’t form community,” said Maldonado. “It’s our way of responding to the exodus.”
Other works in “Debtfair” are not as positive, though. Gabriela Torres-Ferrer’s “Advertisement for PROMESA Act or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Enjoy Debt” portrays the distress caused by the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act, or PROMESA, which in Spanish means “promise”. The appointment of the Puerto Rico Oversight Board last August signified the ultimate example of colonialism for many Puerto Ricans, said Torres-Ferrer, as they did not get to vote for the bill or choose the board members.
When asked what she thinks of PROMESA, Torres-Ferrer said: “Check out my work.” Her piece “Advertisement for PROMESA” displays a jar of a product similar to Vaseline with a tag that reads: “PROMESA: 100% for the people, real colonial rule.”
Yet, not all Puerto Rican artists reject PROMESA. Celestino Ortiz, 52, a San Juan-based artist, has a positive outlook on the appointment of the Oversight Board, which was assigned to manage Puerto Rico’s finances and restructure its $72 billion debt. “The PROMESA came to regulate and keep politicians to use the federal money in a good way,” he said in a statement.
Ortiz’s view aligns with the majority of Puerto Ricans, according to a survey conducted by local newspaper El Nuevo Día, which found that 60% of Puerto Ricans are in favor of the Oversight Board, while 55% of all surveyed admitted knowing little about it.
Since the approval of PROMESA, other artists have taken to New York City to educate about the crisis in Puerto Rico. Last November, Natalia Viera, 26, curated “118 Years of Colonialism: A Series of Events”, an exhibition that highlighted United States colonialism in Puerto Rico with works such as Chris Gregory’s “Carpetas”, which featured images of dossiers kept on Puerto Rican nationalists by the FBI during the 1950s.
Last month, Defend PR, an activist group based in New York City, hosted “CitiCien”, an exhibition curated by Adrián “Viajero Román” featuring works of over 100 Puerto Rican artists in black and white targetting the Jones Act, which gave Puerto Ricans American citizenship in 1917.
Román, 39, is also one of the artists featured in “Debtfair”. His piece “Niños Santos” (Saint Children) shows a “jíbaro”— used to describe someone close to his or her roots— holding a rooster. He said it was inspired by a dream he had a few years ago, that led him to research the meaning of the rooster in different cultures. In the Caribbean, he found, the rooster means a path to a new self.
“Debtfair” provides an opportunity for outsiders to learn about the situation in Puerto Rico, according to Román. But, he said the work doesn’t stop there.
“Hopefully, we start to unite a little better and work together across the diaspora and on the island to get our voices heard,” he said. “We might be mad, but we have to move forward.”
For a full explanation of the Puerto Rico debt crisis, click here.