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Exhibit showcases Puerto Rican artists' reaction to Hurricane Maria and its aftermath


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Amna Nawaz: It is billed as the first major U.S. museum exhibition of Puerto Rican art in nearly 50 years, a response from Puerto Rican artists to Hurricane Maria and its aftermath.

Jeffrey Brown visited New York's Whitney Museum for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Woman (through translator): Maria, for me, was learning experience.

Jeffrey Brown: September 2017, a woman takes cell phone video while driving as Hurricane Maria comes ashore in Puerto Rico.

The island's power grid, long unstable, has already failed. The vast destruction Maria would cause, all it would expose of the vulnerability of the island and its people, that is still to come.

The cell phone footage is part of a video by Puerto Rican artist Sofia Cordova that mixes documentary with poetic and other imagery, the reality and almost surreal strangeness. It's one of among some 50 works by 20 Puerto Rican artists based on the island and elsewhere, all created in the five years after Maria, all exploring aspects of Puerto Rico before and since the hurricane, a damaged environment, crumbling infrastructure and decaying buildings, political corruption and resistance to it.

Whitney Museum curator Marcela Guerrero.

Marcela Guerrero, Assistant Curator, Whitney Museum of American Art: The title is "No Existe Un Mundo Poshuracan," "Puerto Rican Art in the Wake of Hurricane Maria."

Something that's close to a translation would be, a post-hurricane world doesn't exist.

Jeffrey Brown: Meaning you can't get past it, or...

Marcela Guerrero: Correct. The world is perpetually in this wake of the hurricane, as if the hurricane wasn't just the natural event that happened on September 20, 2017, but a metaphor of many more things.

Jeffrey Brown: For the Puerto Rican-born Guerrero, this was an unusually personal curatorial experience.

When Maria hit, she had just given birth to her first child. Her parents had been visiting her in New York, but her father had returned to Puerto Rico. Suddenly, the family's joy turned to worry and fear.

Marcela Guerrero: It's a story, it's -- I say that it's not remarkable in any way, because it's a story of many people, kind of average, in a way.

And we were able to make contact with him a couple of days later. And, luckily, he was fine. And so I thought, what can I do beyond donations and sending food and anything that one could think? And I have this great platform here, the Whitney, and so that's kind the -- the idea was generated.

Jeffrey Brown: Some of the art is extremely personal.

An installation by Gabriella Baez remembers her father, who took his own life in the aftermath of Maria. She's called it a direct consequence of the failed response.

Other works jab at the island paradise image. A video by Sofia Gallisa Muriente titled "B-Roll" cleverly mixes together outtakes from government promotional films intended to attract outside investors and tourists.

A tilted, but very pointed work by Gabriella Torres-Ferrer presents a storm-ravaged lamppost still holding a sign reading, "Value your American citizenship."

Marcela Guerrero: They're making reference to the disproportionate or asymmetrical relationship between Puerto Rico and the U.S. It's not a fair relationship. It's failing.

Jeffrey Brown: Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, neither state nor independent country, its people U.S. citizens, but without representation in Congress or the right to vote for the presidency.

For many, the inadequate response to Maria, including the scene of then-President Trump nearly two weeks after the hurricane throwing paper towels to a crowd, exposed both the corruption and ineffectiveness of Puerto Rico's government and the lack of caring by the U.S. federal government.

Artist Miguel Luciano.

Miguel Luciano, Artist: I think the hurricane brought a lot of crisis issues in Puerto Rico to the awareness of a broader public in the U.S.

And that's kind of part of our bittersweet reality, is that a lot of people in the U.S. didn't know a lot about Puerto Rico's relationship to the U.S., our political status. We're a colony of the United States. We're the oldest colony in the world.

Jeffrey Brown: In the wake of Maria and continued charges of government corruption, Puerto Ricans have regularly taken to the streets to protest. Demonstrations in 2019 led to the resignation of then-Governor Ricardo Rossello.

Miguel Luciano: So, from here, you will see rankly roughly, like, the length of a school bus.

Jeffrey Brown: Miguel Luciano, who now lives and works in New York, created a large installation of protest shields, on one side, the sheet metal from old school buses taken out of commission after the island's debt crisis and austerity measures led to school closures, on the other, a black-and-white version of the Puerto Rican flag, a symbol used by demonstrators.

Miguel Luciano: The material from these buses that were like the armor of the buses, the sheet metal that once protected children on their way to school, now become the armor for these shields to protect the protesters that are out there trying to defended the future of education in Puerto Rico.

We all want to reimagine a future that we can be more in control of. And so, for me, that's the responsibility for artists, is to respond to and to reflect the world that we live in.

Jeffrey Brown: For the museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art, this rare exhibition of Puerto Rican work is an example of expanding the definition of what American art encompasses.

Curator Marcela Guerrero hopes visitors will be moved by the art, but also the message.

Marcela Guerrero: By coming to see the exhibition, I want them to be curious of, oh, what happened after that event? How do Puerto Ricans live in Puerto Rico? Have things changed? Are they better?

It might change how people think about Puerto Rico as not just this tropical paradise where you go drink your pina coladas and go to the beach, but actually a place where people are striving and struggling to survive, even.

Jeffrey Brown: For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown at the Whitney Museum in New York.

Geoff Bennett: It is striking. More than five years after Maria, the anguish, the pain, it's still pretty fresh.

Amna Nawaz: It is, and so powerful in how personal the art is, yes.

Geoff Bennett: Absolutely.

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