Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Plantains and Cultural Politics

I headed to Puerto Rico last week hoping to learn more about the island's enslaved ancestry and instead learned a great lesson about the complicated nature of representation in the colonial and post colonial context.
First of all for anyone who doesn't know, Puerto Rico is a US territory. Puerto Ricans are US citizens and they (and we American/main-landers) can travel back and forth with as little as a drivers license or other government issued ID. That is because back in the mid to late 1800's America decided that now that it was no longer a British colony it was time to assert it's new found power on the world stage by colonizing someone else. The new government did not have to look very far. American military commanders and pro-slavery robber barons, starting under Lincoln, wanted control of the islands of the Antillies because of their militarily and economically strategic positions. PR was a gateway to the riches of Latin America, an excellent military outpost, and thanks to slave and forced labor- a pretty excellent wealth generator. The Spanish-American war ensued but in the end Haiti wrestled their independence from all of the colonial powers; Cuba and the Dominican Republic were eventually granted their independence from Spain; and Puerto Rico became an American colony.
Even though PR is now considered a part of America, it is not an official state and its representatives can speak but cannot vote in congress. Kind of like Washington, DC. Their historically disempowered voice in their own affairs has had a huge impact on the country. Even though they are no longer a colony it certainly seems like they are. PR is still a very colonial country (American is better - English is better - Whiter/more European is better). Every where I went in San Juan, and in some of the larger cities, I found myself confused about whether I was actually in PR or the US. My cell phone worked, most people spoke english, the mall had everything from Forever 21 to Jc Penney to Church's Chicken (how dare they import such an awful franchise!) The little strip malls along the highways were just as full of American brands. The prices were comparable even though the wages are lower on the island. American businesses crowded out local venders even in some of the mountain villages. Why was there a Pep Boys in every town?

So I eventually found myself intrigued by and exploring the post/current colonial narrative through the lens of public and institutionalized.

Art Commentary:
The banana like fruit called the plantain is informally considered the national fruit. It popped up in every museum and in street art and was used frequently as a representative of Puerto Rican Culture. The two pieces below are both title Our Daily Bread. The first one was created in 1905 and is considered a masterwork by one of PR's earliest native born artists. Below is a modern artist's reinvention of the image. Plantains are meant to represent the island's poor, rural, more primitive elements (native Taino/indian and/or African roots) while also speaking to a sense of local independence and power (production power, landowning independent peasants).
Artist Ramon Frade's Our Daily Bread
Artist Ramon Frade's Our Daily Bread 1905
Victor Vazquez's "Our Daily Bread" 2009. This image was every where in the art museums and book stores I visited
More plantain art
Fine art in the public space. Below are several images I photographed on a long barrier in a San Juan neighborhood. It was curated by two local art teachers and each piece was created by one of their students. Each references Puerto Rican culture or history.

One thing I did not get a chance to photograph due to time constraints, exhaustion and the incredibly short battery life of my phone, was a guerrilla style street art exhibition. While walking to find a grocery store in a slowly gentrifying neighborhood in San Juan, I noted a space where a building had been nocked down. The small lot consisted of three concrete walls belonging to other rundown buildings. Upon entering the ragged weed covered lot I realized that all three walls were decorated with art. Each piece was given a clearly designated space and each one appeared to have been created by a different artist. Some pieces were spray pained on, others involved stenciling and others were hand painted. I was blown away. They had everything but labels and a docent. I tried to go back to the space on my last day in PR to get pictures but we ran out of time searching for it and decided it was best not to miss our flight home.
If you go to PR in the future definitely check out:
1 Museo de Arte de Ponce
2 The Puerto Rican Gallery of art in San Juan
3 Museo de la Masacre de Ponce - all about a massacre of unarmed Puerto Rican citizens on Palm Sunday by an American led police force. Small but fascinating museum.
And for fun you must go to Vieques and sit on a deserted beach.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Ships of Bondage Exhibition

Last year I worked on my first real exhibition for the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice at Brown University. We installed it at the Center for Public Humanities Carriage House Gallery in the spring of 2013. It was a such a success that a curator from the Iziko Slave Lodge in Capetown South Africa invited us to reinstall it in one of their gallery spaces. I was invited to go along and help with the installation. That is a big story unto itself that I still need to write about. There is so much to say about my experiences working on this wonderful exhibition. For now I wanted to share the mini catalog for the South African version of the exhibition.