Glimpses into Puerto Rican Art in the Midst of the Covid-19 Pandemic
By Antonio Martorell
In these times of pandemic, it’s necessary to reflect, to look at the past, to glimpse the future, that of the outside and the one on the inside too. For the Puerto Rican artist, that is not easy. Like artists from other latitudes, we have spent centuries trying to strike the balance of breaking down borders and strengthening identities. The political, social, geographic, racial, religious and economic barriers, the obstacles presented by gender, language and ideology are both our natural and constructed enemies. Our generation participated in the fall of the Berlin Wall and the building of a wall that aims to divide the United States from its neighbors to the south.
In the archipielago boricua, as we so fondly call the residents of the island, the street is usually our claim to freedom, that which is denied to us as a colony of the United States. The sea, our natural border, has not protected us from invasions and domination. Even less so now that we, along with the rest of the planet, share the the prison-like margins of our own homes. The window, the balcony, the door and the gate provide glimpses of the outside from within, and from within towards the outside. However, technology has opened a new and comforting perspective, a channel of communication that permits us to come and go from our confinement without a visa or a passport, to outwit our curfew, topractive the art of escape while staying in our own homes. We have the border right under our noses, but we don’t even have to sneeze so that our smartphones, our videocameras and our computers allow us to fly back and forth around the world.
Our Puerto Rican artists have known how to take advantage of this virtual liberty and I’d like to share some of these journeys.
We have witnessed adventures, some of them begun before the pandemic,but that anticipated it; others emerged from the curfew and the necessity to touch each other, even if from afar. The writer who draws and paints water colors, the actress who translates poems into images in movement, the cartoonist who predicts the future with crafty humor, the painter who serves us his art on paper trays, the registrar of art collections who takes photographs of tombs waiting for company, the designer of virtual mini-posters who affirms denying and denies affirming, the solitary portrait painter who looks for a model at a distance, the dancer posing quietly in private:to violate confinement without risking health by leaning out of the window, the balcony, the door and the gate.
Ventana I - Lío Villahermosa
The border begins with a name: Lionel is shortened to Lío which in Spanish invokes the idea of
imagebundle as much as that of commotion, problem or mess. Villahermosa, a last name which after all destines it for the villa, the community made beautiful by their creation. Lío dances the bomba and crosses barriers of sexual identity dressed in a skirt and assuming the role of man right along that of the woman. But Lío not only dances; he sings, writes, paints, appropriating different languages of the arts, African and indigenous Taino heritage in the batey, this transitory space between the house and the street, headquarters of meetings more than of separation.
Now, from their pandemic confinement, Lío embraces the apartment, the room, forced intimacy, the body, the very thin line between what it means to be clothed or naked, to meet with the rest of us who are equally confined. He and we violate the curfew and are fascinated by this magic trangressive moment. Teacher and community activist, from the presences that inhabit the space, Lío takes on their spirits to spirit us into exploring new ways of being.
Ventana II – Roberto (Robin) Alicea
Son of a baker, creator of sweet monsters, rosy octupuses and pastry crowns, Robin is a multidisciplinary artist who moves from the oven to the stage, from the easel to the recording studio, from the artist workshop to the tavern during the long stretched of time that mark our Puerto Rican curfews. Musician, poet and painter, he distributes bread at dawn and at night stays awake making little paper tablecloths with decorative openwork paper in which fantastic plasma and colored Corona virus seduce the eye while guarding the dessert that will never stain its angelical tenderness.
In his hands, the vicious cycle of the viral contagion is transformed into a glowing jewel that lights us up from our telephone screens, invites us to look without touching, awakens our appetite in the face of an eternal dream that threatens us in every step of the way guided by its tempting suns.
Balcón I – Rosa Luisa Márquez
Theatrician trangressive of borders in the checkered territory of the arts, Rosa Luisa transforms texts—theatrical and otherwise—to create magic and seductive worlds. Her fusion of music and movement, image and word has delighted us for years in person and in full color.
The pandemic closed in on her creation and obliged her to move her video camera back and forth between the four walls of her home while she read the poem of Polish writer Wislawa Szymborska Impresiones sobre el teatro: an ode to the art of being born, dying and resuscitated on the stage every night. tailoring of the visual beat of the camera to the evocative image of the poem creates a celebratory elegy to the fragility of both life and art. The white, black and gray blurs the forms and evokes the evanescence of memory, its elusive substance.
Balcón II – Pablo Padrón
Registrar of artworks in museums and artist workshops, the photographer Pablo Padrón crosses the invisible border between mere documentation and the artistic photograph to dig as deeply as possible: life through the walls of a cemetery.
The series, begun before the pandemic, was interupted by it just at the moment in which the population of the burial ground was increasing. Visitor without a deceased person to visit, Pablo searched in the tombs and found a mark of time that continues through the last dwelling. The demarcation between life that persists and the death captured by his camera reveals a silent city where a living tree shedding its branches, together with artificial flowers that lose their color and a statue of an imploring Christ who receives alms without ever having asked for them.
Puerta I – Mariela Pabón (Madame Mela)
The economic recession, the Fiscal Control Board, hurricanes, earthquakes and pandemics paint a precarious future and revive an interest in the art of the horoscope. Madame Mela, a creation of the graphic artist, writer and performer Mariela Pabón, glimpses futures in her crystal ball and translates then into a language as Puerto Rican as it is risqué, without mincing words, singing truths and chasing off lies with a trenchant humor, as her more than half million followers on Instagram will attest. With caricature-style drawings and texts of unavoidable communicability, the lethal scorpion prepares a Puerto Rican glossary to enlarge, rather than censor, our colloquial language.
The sharp ingenuity of Madame Mela defies the passage of time through the 12 signs of the almanac, makes us laugh about our bad luck and take seriously ways of overcoming it. This artist achieves something enviable in the world of the visual arts: mass communication without censorship and intermediaries. There is no customs house to confiscate her contagious and subversive humor, her crystal ball will explode in the hands of anyone who tries to examine it.
Puerta II – Xavier Valcárcel
Xavier Valcárcel is a total poet, a narrator who whispers into one’s ear and, in these days, from confinement; he is a draftsman and a painter of watercolors that sneak into the eye through an electronic lock. His growing body of work has much of the movement of the rolling waves, of coming and going, of missing and anticipating loss, without ever giving oneself up for lost.
The embracing lines of his drawings,the colorful phrasing of his watercolors defy physical distancing and cross the night to a meeting of a shoulder-to-man friend, the voice in a darkened chest. The verse then transforms into a multitudinous kiss and, based on love, brushes the fragile filter of the antiviral mask.
In these despondent times, ancestral fury is sweetened with the longing for lost paradises and renewed creative energies. The border, once again, is abolished. The diaspora returns and is reborn.
Portón I – Garvin Sierra
Garvin Sierra takes advantage of the codiviano confinement caused by the coronavirus to enrich his communications stream through social networks. He jumps from museum halls, galleries and street murals to inhabit electronic time and space, the intermittent blinking of the screen, the luminous window that can be turned on or off at will. His trenchant protesting vision leaves no puppet with a head nor saint with a pedestal. He converts the sign into a signal, he makes us laugh and cry in the face of the human comedy and today’s Puerto Rican experience.
He creates electronic posters with an economy means and an axtravagance of imagination in a combination of text and image. He translates in a moment the daily passage of the pandemic, the deadly game of the politicians in power, the bitter smile in the face of collective misfortune, the colorful condemnation of those who sentence us to death. Sierra has moved his complex installations—those we have visited in person—into a virtual space that is no less powerful. Tapping on a computer keyboard to gain access to cyberspace is equivalent to launching a brilliant grenade againt the seat of power.
Portón II – Antonio Martorell
I’ve thought a lot about whether I should include myself in this recounting because I don’t want to be left talking at the window. But this essay is all about windows, balconies, doors and gates, so I’ll take a look out.
I paint portraits of family and friends—absent by force, but present in desire—on carpets that pretend to be flying carpets, cloth that seeks to cloak loneliness. They send me selfies,and photos that are not selfies; I see them on the telephone, more than hear them. Each model gives me the gift of the pose, the accessories, the clothing, scene and format. Then I begin my evocation of a
vocation, a conversational vocation between the texture and the color of a surface that I caress, the presence that I miss and the colors and forms that emerge from the calligraphic canvas with the contact of the brush in its relentless movement.
To remember and anticipate a meeting is another form of travel. Indeed, it is to my benefit that people I don’t even know confide in me and that, with remarkable ingenuity, bet on the immortality of the image while fenced within this mortal confinement.
The cat flap is a mini-door that opens by itself, near the floor, at the bottom part of a door. It is in this liberating gap that cats go in and out at will, and I take advantage of this little door to offer some final thin words.
Surrounded as we are by the threat of the virus and repression of very justified protest in the face of injustices committed against people of color and poor people, art continues to be a weapon with a soul, defense against offense, freedom against submission. In these brief pages we have tried to take a brief look at the craft experimented with by our artists to communicate their concerns, identify problems, to strengthen the fight against injustices and to heal wounds.
There are many more creators whose quantity, quality and variety do not fit into this narrow balcony of only 2,000 words. We are a nation in a perpetual state of emergency who have spent hundreds of years trying to be a country. The coronavirus has come to crown the absent sovereignity of our people, to think deeply about its inequities and to demand justice. From the window, from the balcony, from the door and the gate, and also from that little liberating cat flap, we
haveput forth our images and words.
Antonio Martorell is a Puerto Rican from Santurce—a barrio of San Juan—by birth and a Puerto Rican by vocation, He gets pleasure from drawing, painting,engraving, writing, doing theatre, radio, television, film, dance, environmental installations and unclassifiable structures. He is Artist-in-Residence at the University of Puerto Rico and maintains his studio at La Playa de Ponce. In 2007, Martorell was the Wilbur Marvin Visiting Fellow at the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies at Harvard University during the spring semester 2008.