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Puerto Rico & The United States: Historical Perspectives Through Conceptual Art


This month in New York City, two exhibits of conceptual art explore themes related to the current and historical relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico. Pablo Delano’s The Museum of the Old Colony is currently on display at the King Juan Carlos I of Spain Center at NYU. Ride or Die: An Exhibition of Newly Commissioned Work by Miguel Luciano is being hosted by the BRIC House Gallery in Brooklyn. The following is a preview of both exhibits.

Ride or Die is an exhibition of mostly new work from Brooklyn-based artist Miguel Luciano. The exhibit is meant to “commemorate the traditions of Puerto Rican bike clubs in New York”. The main attraction is a set of five vintage Schwinn bicycles that the artist has repurposed to address the current economic and political crisis on the island. Four of the five bicycles, for example, are directly associated with a political party on the island and their relationship to the history of the ongoing debate regarding the island’s political status. To add another layer, the colors (including variants of the Puerto Rican flag), model year, model name, and signature features of each bicycle also correspond to their subject matter. "Double-Phantom / Entro P.R." is a bicycle with two frames facing in opposite directions. One side is adorned with the US flag, while the other side has Puerto Rican flags. The bicycle model is from 1952, the year that Puerto Rico adopted its constitution and became an estado libre asociado (ELA). The color red is also used to represent the Partido Popular Democrático (PPD), which implemented the ELA, along with the silhouette of a jíbaro, national symbol of the party. The other bicycles follow a similar formula and make reference to the political platform of the pro-statehood and current ruling party, the Partido Nuevo Progresista (PNP), the pro-independence party (PIP), and the Nationalist Party. The fifth bicycle pays homage to Civil Rights pioneer Felicita Méndez and appears to be the first of the set to be completed by Luciano. Unlike the implicit, wholesale critique found in Delano’s The Museum of the Old Colony, Luciano imbues each of his pieces with an overt political stance, especially in regard to the two main political parties on the island. "Double-Phantom / Entro P.R." is again the best example. Luciano portrays the relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico as somehow congruous (the same bicycle frame on each of the opposing sides), yet counterintuitive in common sense terms (inability to travel in more than one direction). Both exhibits rely on historical premise of US hegemony in Puerto Rico. Luciano, for example, also references the 100th anniversary Jones Act of 1917, which conferred US citizenship on Puerto Ricans. “New Era P.R. G” honors the members of the Porto Rican Volunteer Infantry, who joined the US military even before being granted citizenship. Rounding out the exhibit are several Puerto Rican pop culture references, including two works alluding to the Young Lords, a revolutionary militant activist organization active in El Barrio during the late 60s, early 70s. Overall, Ride or Die goes back and forth between adulation and condemnation, the latter of course taking precedent. Yet in this regard, the Schwinn sculptures offer sufficient context to understand not only the US-Puerto Rico dynamic, but also the evolution of the local political machine on the island.

Ride or Die will be on display until March 5th, 2017. More information is available here.

Delano, son of famed American photographer Jack Delano, first exhibited The Museum of the Old Colony in February of last year, when it was hosted at Alice Yard, an experimental art lab located in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago. The current exhibit, though a work in progress, consists of 47 mostly black and white still photographs and moving images that span 75 years, beginning in 1898 when Spain ceded Puerto Rico to the United States. The images are culled from a variety of sources, including mainstream magazines, AP newswires, unidentified photographers, and cultural institutions both on the island and the mainland. The earliest photographs show the presence of US soldiers on the island as well as unflattering depictions of Puerto Ricans as poor, ignorant savages. Rural peasants, for example, are referred to on a scale from “Spanish white trash” to “full-blooded Ethiopians.” In addition, there are several images and captions which include racially charged depictions that refer to black Puerto Ricans as “half-breeds” and “pickaninnies.” Original photo captions also convey the importance of Puerto Rico as a naval base that allowed the United States to protect the Mona Passage, a shipping route that connected the Atlantic Ocean to the Panama Canal. The next phase splits into two narratives. On the one hand, there is the awkward process of Americanization that begins the first half of the twentieth century. For example, there is an image of a group of Puerto Ricans staring at a portrait of Abraham Lincoln, most likely unfamiliar with such a ubiquitous figure of American history. There are also images of Independence Day celebrations taking place on the island, including a man posing with a bicycle decorated in American flags. Another image and caption reference Operation Bootstrap, which industrialized the island’s economy and forced thousands of unskilled workers to leave the island in search of work. The diaspora, which began in earnest during the Great Migration of the 1940s and 50s, is represented by an image of the mayor of San Juan in New York City, and the image of a folk band standing in front of the US Capitol Building. However, on the other hand, there is the story of resistance embedded into several other images included in the exhibit. Two such examples show men and women of the Nationalist Party being rounded up by law enforcement after an uprising on the island. The third phase within the collection of images seems to hint at the fate of Puerto Rico. An image of a shanty town in the foreground is contrasted by the luxury hotels in the background. Real estate advertisements eschew abject poverty in favor of condominiums and beachfront property. While offering a historical perspective—through the objective lens of archival materials, no less—Delano’s exhibit is also very much a measured response to the ongoing economic crisis on the island.

The Museum of the Old Colony will be on display until March 16th, 2017. A roundtable discussion is scheduled for February 16th. For information, click here.