JANUARY 23, 2024
JANUARY 23, 2024
INTEGRATIONIST RACISM AND CONTEMPORARY ART IN PUERTO RICO IN THE WAKE OF BLACK LIVES MATTER
Poet and writer Mayra Santos-Febres contextualizes the survival of Afro-Borinquen artmaking within legacies of colonialism in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean, highlighting liberatory methodologies and refusals to be unseen. In 2022 Protodispatch published another exploration of cultural survivance in Puerto Rico titled Relearning the Ancient: Paths to the Indigenous land rights in Boriquén by Jorge González and Angela Brown.
Twenty-six years ago, visual artist and curator Edwin Velázquez initiated a movement that transformed the landscape of visual arts in Puerto Rico, paving the way for decolonial artistic practices that reflect and affirm Afro-descent within the Caribbean and its diasporas. In a now-distant 1996, Velázquez inaugurated Paréntesis: Ocho Artistas negros (Parentheses: Eight Black Artists), an exhibition that showcased the works of Arleen Casanova, Daniel Lind-Ramos, Gadiel Rivera, Jesús Cardona, Luz D. Amable, Awilda Sterling-Duprey, and Ramón Bulerín. All of these artists had been working for decades on visual art from Afro-Diasporic Caribbean traditions. However, traditional art circuits—galleries, museums, artist grants, and critical appraisal—insisted on ignoring their presence and work on the island and in the United States. Racism against Afro-Puerto Ricans and the deep Eurocentrism that has long shaped the established international art world were as embedded as ever, despite decades of decolonial protest. By racializing the descendants of Latin American immigrants born or residing in the United States as “Latinx,” a stubborn and incorrect view of such identity has evolved. This construction creates a "double invisibility" similar to the “double consciousness” described by W.E.B. Du Bois for "Afro-Latinx” artists as they face a “double invisibility" that sharply separates "Latinx" identities from "Afro" identities and insists on an erasure of Blackness in Latin America. In this scenario, the "Afro-Latinx" is neither understood nor recognized in any profound way, an especially egregious circumstance given that this confluence of identities has existed for more than 400 years, is intrinsic to Latin America and its diasporas, and shapes its cultural expressions.
Racism against Afro-Puerto Ricans and the deep Eurocentrism that has long shaped the established international art world were as embedded as ever, despite decades of decolonial protest.
Daniel Lind Ramos, "Con-junto", Ensamblaje, 2021
Awilda Sterling, Still from “Soy la reencarnación de un alma esclavizada…” , 2021
Diogenes Ballester, "Free Registry_Encounter, Mythology, and Reality_Spirit of Slaves", Encaustic Painting on Masonite and Computer Screen, 2008
The reception of Paréntesis: Eight Black Artists sparked a compelling controversy, shedding light on the mechanisms of racism prevalent not only in Puerto Rico but also in numerous other Caribbean and Latin American nations. Shortly after the exhibition's inauguration, droves of letters to the editor and newspaper articles questioning the necessity of grouping artists based on their racial identity surfaced. Among the criticisms directed at Paréntesis was the argument that “art is universal.” Categorizing art based on criteria other than its artistic merit was considered a “divisive” act and labeled as “reverse exclusion.”
We must understand that racism within our Caribbean and Latin American territories functions predominantly through denial. Refusing to acknowledge its existence sustains racism in Latin America and the Caribbean. Consequently, this denial stifles any discourse regarding racial issues, perpetuating what I describe as “enforced integrationist racism.” This form of racism is upheld by official narratives that promote a racial democracy and claim the resolution of all ethnic tensions within the diverse spectrum that constitutes the Latin American identity. It is important to emphasize that this “forced integrationist racism,” is very different in nature to the “forced segregationist racism” that operates in the United States.
Following the murder of George Floyd and the rise of the global Black Lives Matter movement, however, conversations surrounding race and anti-Black discrimination have gained significant traction in Latin America and the Caribbean. Exhibitions of Black-identifying Puerto Rican artists on the island have experienced exponential growth since 2020. It took 26 years for this movement to finally unfold, tentatively paving the way for including Afro-descendant Latinx artists in museum and gallery spaces, and their gaining recognition and access to scholarships and critical responses, not to mention financial support, to enable them to continue their work. Artists who received international awards but remained invisible in the art circuit of Puerto Rico or the United States have begun to be recognized and supported for their work. Pepón Osorio, Daniel Lind-Ramos, Awilda Sterling-Duprey, Gadiel Rivera, and Edwin Velázquez were recognized with both exhibitions and awards from august institutions such as the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the Mellon Foundation, the MacArthur Prize, and other entities mainly from the U.S. Because of such recognition, island-based museums and institutions have had no other choice but to recognize Afro-Boricua artists. The colony had to be good for something! Black Lives Matter has shaken the foundations of art institutions, on both the island and the mainland, and forced them to open their doors to those who had long remained on the art world's periphery.
Producers of Afro-visual art distinctly counter many classical tendencies that typically appear in museums and galleries, confronting the patriarchal and exclusive Eurocentric model along with its established circulation networks. In many of these works, the protagonism of the Black body imposes itself as the living memory and presence of the horrors of slavery and racism. Afro-Boricua art re-positions these bodies and recontextualizes them in their own systems of references. They are bodies inserted into and interacting with their territorialities, communities, and ancestralities that re-read history, ethics, and aesthetics in Puerto Rico from the perspective of the experience and memory of racism and racialization within the context of Puerto Rican culture.
Brenda Cruz, "Limpieza", Digital Photography on Canvas, 2020
Jose Arturo Ballester Panelli, "Flaming June Caribe", Digital Photography on Canvas, 2012
Gadiel Rivera, "Guinea de mangle (Mangrove Guinea)", 2023
In Awilda Sterling-Duprey's performance I am the reincarnation of an enslaved soul (2021-22), Maestra Sterling re-envisions Goyita (1953), a portrait by the great painter Rafael Tufiño of his mother, Gregoria Figueroa. Sterling-Duprey inserts the portrait into the contemporary conditions of Puerto Rico, where the model of progress imposed by U.S. colonization has failed. In this performance, the narrative that contextualizes contemporary Afro-Boricua art takes shape. The racism of forced Afro-Latinx/Boricua integration and the logic of colonization of the people of Puerto Rico and their diaspora frames the thesis: that slavery never ended. These thematics are similarly taken up in the performances of Brenda Torres-Figueroa, Brenda Cruz, Deyaneira Lucero Maldondo, and Las Nietas de Nonó (Mulowayi and Mapenzi). The inscription of the ancestral/community vision is foregrounded, proposing the figure of the Mayores and Mayoras—grandmothers, aunts, comadres, godmothers, parents, and godfathers—in a re-corporealized form, re/embodied in the personal/familial history and/or in the very body of the artists. In this way, they propose a familial/communal interweaving as the origin of the definition of the subject that rescues the Afro-Caribbean identity erased by official history and Eurocentric discourses. The proposals of self embedded in the storytelling of Sterling-Duprey, Cruz, Torres-Figueroa, Mulowayi, and Mapenzi is re-embedded in the body, the experience, and the historical, political, and racial memory, an identity that has not been "transcended," according to modern definitions of time and history, but that is still alive in and from the body. It is a relationship to the individual that is interconnected, fractal, multiple, and creative, and it proposes the existence of an embodied memory that is activated by voice, movement, and the very act of visualizing, creating, and enacting a work of art. The works, then, operate as portals to experience. The poetics of these activations of the living self invites a deep connection to history and the self as multiple—ephemeral and yet profoundly meaningful. This construction shatters traditional conceptions of art as an object of the market and of validation by museums and galleries and redefines Afro-visual art as a process both communal and ancestral, in connection with the experiences of others, as well as with land as a zone of redefinition of existence and identity.
This set of concerns is central to diverse artworks and installations by Pepón Osorio, Diógenes Ballester, Imna Arroyo, Celso González, José Arturo Ballester Panelli, as well as to paintings and murals by Nuyorican graffiti artist Juan Sánchez, the masks of Juan Pablo Vizcaíno, and the assemblages of Daniel Lind-Ramos. Their common thread is occupying space (whether public, alternative, or in museums) with their artistic proposals. They present visual art in Puerto Rico as an avenue for reconnecting with the environment, nature, and memory, all elements that have undergone racialization. These practices resist the two-dimensionalities of the picture, or the photographed or painted artwork. In their use of found, ephemeral, or natural materials, they insist on an interaction of art with life and community. Their use of these materials allows these artists to see the island-archipelago, its neighborhoods and barrios, and, from there, recompose an Afro-Boricua aesthetic that focuses on creating new ancestral objects. These works build alternate meanings in their storytelling, redefining what is beautiful through the very materials employed. The materials speak: the barber's chair, leaves, pigments, natural fibers employed not only as medicinal aids but also to nurture/heal racialization and social marginalization. Further use of family photographs, letters, videos, and items symbolizing “my people from the neighborhood” and the artists’ origins and belongings ground the work in this alternate space. Rather than adopting an anthropological or sociological perspective, the viewpoint emerges from within, disrupting the paradigm of spectacles that depict the primitive. This perspective eschews the romanticized notion of nature as a mere landscape and aligns with a sacred perception of the intertwining of all living entities. It seeks to redefine humanity not solely as a producer of progress but also as a natural force in harmony with all existence.
It is worth highlighting that current Afro-Boricua aesthetics weave together three key elements: the body and its re-existence, the languages of Afro spirituality and nature, and the spaces and languages created by the migration of Afro-Boricuas to the northern U.S. These elements, alongside their clashes with contemporary society, produce meanings of potential healing. It is an unstoppable movement, an alternative register of artistic production that, in spite of the racialized constraints of the traditional art circuit on the island and abroad, enables ways to see our world anew. The colonizers can no longer cover the sky with their hands. Another reality is imposing itself and will impose itself, expanding the visual world of the world to include yet other worlds.