Six months before Hurricane Maria wreaked havoc in the Caribbean, a group of Puerto Rican artists were invited to participate in a residency program in Miami by local art organizations. The artists were offered abandoned storefronts-turned-studios at a historic downtown mall, where they’d exhibit their work during Miami Art Week in December to engage an art world that often overlooks the island territory. When Maria struck and knocked the entire island offline, Puerto Rico was suddenly on everyone’s radar. And the residency, Focus on Puerto Rico, became more vital and more timely than ever.
Half the artists in residence were stranded on the island without power or even a plane ticket as the program was set to begin. Those already on the mainland were glued to the news. All of them were thrust into a role they hadn’t anticipated—to be a voice for Puerto Rico in the wake of a disaster that may have left more than 1,000 people dead and half the island offline for nearly ten weeks.
But from isolation to governmental incompetence, the hurricane only heightened the daily struggles faced by many Puerto Ricans, particularly the poor. According to many of the artists, in response to the government’s fumbling recovery efforts, exhibiting in Miami felt like a political act.
Here they tell us how Hurricane Maria changed their lives and affected the work they exhibited at Miami’s 777 International Mall during their Focus on Puerto Rico residency.
When the residency began, it was full of contradictions. On one hand, the MANA Convention Center in Wynwood had been converted into a disaster relief zone, processing hundreds, if not thousands of packages to ship to Puerto Rico. On the other hand, the majority of my fellow artists in residence were stranded on the island.
During the first weeks of the residency, those of us who arrived impressed upon staff the need for tools, additional supplies specific to each artist, and ground transportation in Miami. As we pushed against "the budget" to advocate for our needs, I couldn't help notice the parallel with Trump's comment that Puerto Rico had thrown the US budget “out of whack." Unlike the president however, the program directors answered all of our requests with a "yes." To commemorate their generosity, I fabricated a giant blank check made out to Focus on Puerto Rico in the form of a limited edition beach towel.
Rafael Vargas Bernard
Hurricane Maria made things clear. There’s rampant corruption in the Puerto Rican government, abandonment of infrastructure in the service of private interests, and the poor conditions of being a colony of the United States. It forced Puerto Rican citizens to work together to overcome the aftermath of the hurricane, and to realize that the federal and local government had no intention, or were incapable of resolving the immediate emergency.
The sculpture titled Tenemos sed, ¿Where did our presupuesto nacional go? alludes to seeping water, a common experience in homes after Maria. The water flows down the wall, into a sink, and is cycled back up the wall through tubing. There is a constant loss of water resulting in a watermark around the sink that represents how public funds disappear, seep through government agencies, and are misappropriated in the maintenance of public infrastructure, resulting in a lack of running and drinking water.
Maria showed how difficult it is to live in Puerto Rico. Our struggle wasn’t just because of Maria—it existed before. Maria accelerated things and really showed how people are living on the island.
It wasn’t easy to leave Puerto Rico, to leave my family, to come here and do art. But for me that is a very political act—to do art in a moment like this. It was a moment that I couldn’t be silent. It was a moment to tell people what’s happening in Puerto Rico. The residency gave me the opportunity to show others and talk to them about our living conditions, how we are struggling to survive, and how brave we are.
I did a performance in the poor neighborhoods behind Wynwood. I painted the cracks in the sidewalk and sprayed them with graffiti. The cracks showed me where to paint. Everybody who lives there walks that sidewalk every day, and I went there to walk it, too. Sometimes just to wake up and walk is a political act.
Our proposal satirized the sociopolitical and economic crisis of a fictional future wasteland on the dystopian tropical island of Puerto Rico. It’s an alternate reality where everything is artificial, and the only thing that prevails is plastic. The only other real thing we have left is our culture and traditions.
All of the sudden, after Maria, what we had conceptualized as a work of fiction became almost a reality. We found ourselves in a sort of dystopia. The total collapse on the systematic infrastructure of our country was something that anyone could see coming from miles away, but we never expected it to happen this soon.
We brought the dystopia with us. We created our own little dystopian world inside the abandoned mall full of rubble in Downtown Miami.
I have been working for two years with Caribbean landscapes and how governments sell it as a tax haven. After the hurricane, I continued working with that landscape, but now I talk about the landscape that the hurricane left as a “replacement landscape." I named the work Caribbean Blues.
It consists of an installation in several visual languages that range from art object to sculpture to intervention. It takes into account the historical, socioeconomic, and political status of Puerto Rico after the storm, such as our dependence on fossil fuels and the impossibility of economic development for an island whose political system is at a precipice due to corruption.
My experience with Hurricane Maria came only through news reports, images, and videos of the aftermath and response that were circulating online. I had family that had to leave the island, but thankfully no one was seriously injured.
The work was a continuation of my project Rec-elections, which considers and critiques the weaponization of nostalgia and the American myth deployed within presidential campaign advertising.
I appropriate historical presidential campaign posters and slogans and re-insert them back into the current political landscape. A few of the works from the project touch on the political relationship between the United States federal government and the unincorporated territory of Puerto Rico.
I’ve been based in Mexico City for almost three years, so I wasn’t present on the island during Maria’s passing. But I have been followed by natural disasters for the last couple of months. I was able to avoid Hurricane Irma passing Miami while I was there for an exhibition, just to return to Mexico City for the first strong earthquake. That was followed a few weeks later by the devastating September 19 earthquake. The next day Maria passed through Puerto Rico.
So basically both of my hometowns were hit by disasters at the same time. After these continuous natural disasters, which appeared to be drawn to me, the residency seemed like a good opportunity to concentrate on my work. These events haven’t really affected my work on a direct level, but it has made it more evident to myself and others, especially those who are in Puerto Rico, of some grave flaws in our government structure and its shameful colonial status.
Poncili Creación (Efraín and Pablo Del Hierro)
We were in France and couldn’t go back to Puerto Rico before the hurricane. Then, the week after the hurricane, we were told the building where we had our workshop was sold, and we needed to take all our stuff out in ten days. We lost almost everything, all the materials we’d collected for two years.
Our work flirts with and embraces late stage capitalism in an ironic way. One of our works is called Telefonitos or Little Phones. It’s an approach to smartphones and a meditation on how we’ve been using phones to become cyborgs and enhance our abilities, and how people have become obsessed with their phones.
We’ve created various models of phone covers with different perspectives, but they all point to the obsession we have with our phones but also their necessity. The phone was the tool during and after the hurricane that allowed people to communicate. Even without light, people could contact the exterior world. The cellphone obsession is something that needs to be taken with care, but it’s still a tool that helps in a particular situation, like this natural disaster.