In 2015, Alejandro García Padilla, then governor of Puerto Rico, announced that after years of borrowing to offset American capital flight and limited federal spending, the island’s public debt and pension obligations of over $120 billion had become “unpayable.” A year later, Congress responded by passing the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA). This federal law created an unelected oversight board with broad powers over the local government, which quickly imposed austerity and severe budget cuts affecting education, health care, and pensions.
The Gallery at the Center’s exhibit, Puerto Rico Under Water: Five Artists Perspectives on Debt, offers an entry point to the rich art produced in the debt crisis era. It features the work of Puerto Rican artists of different generations living in -- and across -- Puerto Rico and the United States: ADÁL (b. 1948), Huáscar Robles (1975), Omar Robles (1980), Sarabel Santos (1984), and Victor Vázquez (b. 1950). The show’s title, inspired on a series of ADÁL’s photographs on the current moment, refers to the artists’ common interest in the debt’s consequences, including mass migration the island’s enduring colonial subjection to the United States since 1898, and the devastating physical and political impact of Hurricane Maria. The show demonstrates a significant diversity of genres and aesthetics, ranging from photojournalism and conceptual art, to visual poetry and Caribbean surrealism.
In bringing together this range of aesthetics and perspectives, Puerto Rico Under Water proposes a space to consider a politics of community, memory, humor, hope and complexity, as Puerto Ricans rebuild not only homes but also a collective future. In this way, the show thinks la crisis by refusing the rhetoric of simple solutions. Rather, it digs, marvels, reassembles, listens, and screams entirely different worlds into existence.
FRANCES NEGRON-MUNTANER, CHIEF CURATOR. GALLERY AT THE CENTER, COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY, NYC