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Underdog Island: A Glimpse into Puerto Rican Contemporary Art at MECA

Underdog Island: A Glimpse into Puerto Rican Contemporary Art at MECA

MECA (Mercado Caribeño or Caribbean Market)

Earlier this month I was invited to attend the inaugural edition of the MECA (Mercado Caribeño or Caribbean Market) art fair in the capital of Puerto Rico, San Juan, which also happens to be my birthplace. The fair  brought together Caribbean artists, as well as American and International artists in an effort to bridge the gap in the contemporary art market between Caribbean artists and the rest of the world through the stimulation of art collecting. With over thirty exhibitors, it was a groundbreaking effort by founders and directors Danny Baez and Tony Rodriguez and their collaborators, to bring visibility to this underrepresented section of the art world.

Eleven years ago, I left Puerto Rico as a teenager, long before I had developed interests in or even knew about art history, art criticism, curating, or the art market. Although I visit the island often, words that come to mind concerning these trips include “vacation” and “family”, not “art”, or for that matter, “work.” But last year, while browsing Phaidon’s Art Cities of the Future: 21st-Century Avant-Gardes, I discovered San Juan listed among the cities. It made me conscious of my own ignorance of the contemporary art scene in my original home, and underscored the limited visibility of Puerto Rican artists in my current home of New York City. Despite the large demographic of Puerto Ricans in New York, the work of such artists is usually constrained to a very small number of cultural institutions, in particular El Museo del Barrio. In this article, I will take the opportunity to focus on Puerto Rican artists and expand on some of the ways Puerto Rican identity was conveyed through the art exhibited at local galleries and within the fair.

Gavin Cerra MECA (Mercado Caribeño or Caribbean Market)Previous: Entrance to MECA. Photo Courtesy of MECA.
Above: Gavin Sierra, “Bear Trap,” 2017. Photo courtesy of author.

A few blocks away from MECA’s main location (the town’s music conservatory), gallery Espacio Minerva presented the work of Gavin Sierra. Sierra’s work  tackles the island’s complicated relationship with the United States through the iconographic language of Puerto Rican flags and American dollars. By manipulating the easily recognizable iconography, Sierra contextualizes the island’s current political and economic status as the consequence of US colonialism. Referencing the controversial battle for statehood in the island, he places a Puerto Rican flag on the wall that has had its star removed and now balances precariously on a bear trap. One more star to be captured by the US, held in a moment of tension over the trap which threatens to snap shut.

MECA (Mercado Caribeño or Caribbean Market) Melvin MartinezMelvin Martinez installation. Photo courtesy of MECA

At MECA, as part of a special project by the local artist collective, National, a wall was covered with work by Melvin Martinez. The installation does not immediately reveal from where Martinez hails but, upon closer inspection anyone who knows Spanish or is native to Puerto Rico is overwhelmed by his use of local linguistic cultural references. With an unrestrained use of paint, bold graphic style and humble materials such as yarn and glitter, Martinez creates installations that are abstract and yet very much about the Puerto Rican experience. His work calls out stereotypes associated with the island while also humorously depicting idioms. One of his pieces reads A Fuego,” a phrase used to describe something that is awesome but is also literally translated as “on fire,” depicted through an image of a couple whose heads have caught fire. Some of Martinez’s messages could be lost in translation, yet his self-imposed language barrier serves to further simulate the experience of misunderstanding Puerto Rico as a cultural and physical environment or put simply, how difficult it is to understand a culture that is not your own.

MECA (Mercado Caribeño or Caribbean Market) Bubu NegronJesus “Bubu” Negron, “Colillones.” Photo Courtesy of MECA.

At local gallery Embajada’s booth, the work of Jesus ‘Bubu” Negron also dealt with language barriers, which he presented through digital drawings he used to communicate while in a residency in China. A doodle of a palm tree, waves, the sun, a Puerto Rican flag, and an arrow to the island’s location on globe, readily answers the question, “Where are you from?”. Next to the digital paintings are sculptures of cigarette butts from his ongoing series “Colillon. The sculptures are made using found, site specific, handpicked cigarette butts, as a commentary about waste. The project began when he started collecting cigarette butts in between the bricks of the streets in Old San Juan and then carefully and intentionally replaced them in the cracks to make them a conscious element of the vernacular architecture of the city.

MECA (Mercado Caribeño or Caribbean Market) Rafael MatteiRafael Miranda Mattei, “Nos Comieron los Dulces.” Photo courtesy of author.

At another local gallery, Zawhara Alejandro in San Juan, artist Rafael Miranda Mattei presented an installation that appropriates the work of contemporary art world favorite Felix Gonzalez Torres, who although born in Cuba, was raised in Puerto Rico. Gonzalez’s iconic candy carpet installations are directly referenced in Miranda’s installation entitled “Nos Comieron los Dulces,” a popular idiom in Puerto Rico which loosely means “we have been fooled.” The installation represents the weight of the island’s infamous $123 billion debt. Unlike Gonzalez’s pieces, the wrapped candies are branded with the brokerage firms responsible for weakening the island’s credit. The piece is activated through public interaction by highlighting tensions between pleasure (enjoyment of the candy) and responsibility (the sociopolitical meaning of supporting the firms branded on the candies). Through the familiarity of his installation, Miranda creates a path for a deeply Puerto Rican issue to be accessed by the broader contemporary art world.

David Antonio CruzLisa Strum touching an audience member during the performance of David Antonio Cruz, “Green: how I want you green,” MECA, 2017. Photo courtesy of the artist. Film still by Felix Baez.

Following the rising trend of performance art, MECA included a series of performance projects throughout the weekend. Among these performances was “Green, how I want you Green” by multidisciplinary artist David Antonio Cruz.  The highly theatrical and interactive performance is based on eleven of Garcia Lorca’s poems and excerpts from Lillian Hellman’s “The Children Hours” and Leslie and Sewell Stokes’s “Oscar Wilde”. Alaina Simone Inc., a New York based art consultancy, presented Cruz’s performance as well as paintings that, like his performance work, investigate Caribbean and Latinx culture and queer identity. Through his work, Cruz, who is Puerto Rican but, born in Philadelphia and based in New York, gives a voice to identities that have been hidden or forgotten, especially those of queer people of color in the Caribbean and around the world.

While at MECA, I witnessed work that directly addressed Puerto Rican identity with threads to connect it to the broader world of contemporary art, materially and thematically. Yet, I think that I had an advantage in understanding them because I too am Puerto Rican. MECA gave a platform to Caribbean artists through sheer volume (35% of artists represented were from the Caribbean). However, to establish, not only encourage, broader collecting of Caribbean art it is not enough to show work at a fair. In order to truly bring attention to this art, it must be presented by curators and cultural institutions. The wall text, catalogues, and programming of an exhibition can convey a depth of narrative that art fairs do not. It seems unlikely that without critical appreciation any artist could be very successful in the market. Hopefully, the efforts of MECA serve as step towards the inclusion of more work by Caribbean artists especially, Puerto Rican artists, in exhibitions overseas to further support their place in the larger contemporary art community.

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