Two years on, the impact of Hurricane Maria on Puerto Rico is still difficult to fathom. But a hurricane can’t extinguish the creative impulse, as demonstrated in Nor Wind Nor Water at Da Vinci Art Alliance (DVAA), an exhibition of Puerto Rican artists’ responses to the storm.
The massive storm made landfall on September 20, 2017, with winds of 155 miles an hour. It deluged the US island territory with 2.5 feet of rain, wiping out electricity, communications, shelter, roads, and access to clean water and medical care. Thousands of people died in the storm and its aftermath, and at least $90 billion in property was lost.
This DVAA exhibition is the inspiration of Edna Santiago, an artist and gallery owner who, before the hurricane, divided time between a home in the Philadelphia suburbs and a gallery in Puerto Rico. Serving as Nor Wind Nor Water’s juror, she brings the work of artists featured in her gallery to the mainland. Proceeds from the exhibition and sale will benefit recovery efforts on the island.
Not surprisingly, water is a presence in most of the works. In Transfigurandome en Noah (My Transfiguration into Noah), Andy Irizarry Robles looks out from a canvas drenched in puddles of purple, red, and green, watchful eyes lifted to the sky in supplication.
Large curves in Antonio Cortés Rolón’s abstract, monochromatic works replicate the sweep of windshield wipers on rainy nights. Emigrantes en su Tinta, in fact, hints at a storm-lashed highway. Boundaries merge into inky, indistinguishable forms, including, up ahead, a murky box on a saucer that dominates the horizon. It must be a spaceship.
Unless it’s a snap-brim hat, as in Caribeans Emigrants, where it’s smaller and multiplied. Though the people beneath the hats are merely implied, and the image is diluted, as though pelted by rain, Rolón evokes the sensation of standing among a group waiting to leave.
Tarps instead of walls
Given that political ineptitude and malice exacerbated an unprecedented natural disaster, Alejandra Nanishi Nuñez’s cynicism is not just understandable but justified. Este Sera Nosotros (This Will Be Us) is a detailed pencil sketch of a recently deceased bee, curled in the corner of an otherwise blank page, while Es Solo un Juego (It’s Only a Game) depicts Puerto Rico as a watercolor chessboard, with pieces bobbing helplessly around the island.
Tarpaulins provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency feature in several works. Photographs in Kevin Quiles Bonilla’s Blue Tarp Series show a man reclining on a seawall with the cover billowing over his head (Blue Tarp #1), and walking along a street, wearing it like a shroud (Blue Tarp #2). We never see his face, or even his head, but know he has no shoes, and probably no home; just a big blue tarp.
Javi Cintron’s El Toldo (The Tarp) is a rooftop view rendered in sunrise reds and oranges, but keep looking. Slowly, more and more temporary blue roofs appear. Cintron’s ironically titled Casa Aire y Sereno (House of Serenity and Air) resembles a Gauguin garden, full of flowers and color. Gradually it becomes apparent that the house with the lovely lavender door has only a skeletal roof and no walls to speak of.
Respond, heal, remind
When Maria had passed, Yadira Hernández-Picó travelled the island with her camera to record people in their new normal. She encountered the family of Lisamary Rivera & Kenyel Yahil Martinez in what was, and maybe still is, a bedroom. Rivera holds the small boy in her arms beneath a fluorescent light with conduit still attached. It dangles malevolently over them, a giant electrical spider. The walls are standing, but are stripped to exterior plywood. Dirty mattresses and bedframes are stacked behind them. Rivera gazes defiantly into the lens.
Hernández-Picó’s Glenda Bonilla Santiago has the subject in the remains of her home, standing on her linoleum floor in the open air, surrounded by what was her life. One dressy black pump rests atop a tower of clothing. Bottles of household cleanser lie vanquished on the floor. There are a flowered couch, a purple storage bin, and incredibly, two pristine basketballs looking none the worse for wear. Santiago gazes into the sunset with a bemused expression, as if thinking, “Where do you begin?”
For artists, art is the natural starting point. In organizing a presentation of post-Maria work, Santiago encourages that response and the healing it brings, while reminding the rest of us that despite a devastating hurricane, Puerto Rico is still there, still creative, and still waiting to be treated as fully American.
What, When, Where
Nor Wind Nor Water. Through September 1, 2019, at DaVinci Art Alliance, 704 Catharine Street, Philadelphia, PA 19147. (215) 550-1446 or www.davinciartalliance.org.
Da Vinci Art Alliance is located in a two-story building with steps at the entrance and between floors. For information on accessibility, call the gallery.