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Language and login selector end What’s going on in…Puerto Rico?

Favián Vergara, You bit me so last night (2006)

By Fernando Galán

A new art fair in the Caribbean? The idea sounded original and was based on two solid motives: the artistic tradition of the region and its recreational offerings, which, as we all know, has proved to be an important factor in the commercial viability of today's fairs, in addition to the confidence inspired by the project's backers. But when I was invited to participate in CIRCA's first edition last year, my art fair agenda was too full and the dates coincided with those of arteBA (Buenos Aires) and KIAF (Korea). Nonetheless, this year, apart from moving the date up to the beginning of April and not coinciding with other fairs (an unusual circumstance in the current art world calendar) I had already planned to visit along with the magazine.

It's the first time I've been in Puerto Rico and I have the same sensation I had when I visited Cuba: it's as though I've never left Spain. María Reina de la Puebla, who as representative of CIRCA met me at the airport, told me a lot of things during my first few minutes on the island, but there's one thing I especially remember: "We've always been a colony, for the last 500 years, so we don't know what it's like to be an independent country. For 400 years we belonged to Spain, and now we belong to the United States." But in contrast with other historical blunders, in this case the U.S. showed itself capable of establishing a unique statute with Puerto Rico, known as a Freely Associated State, with a governor heading the administration who is elected via universal suffrage, which, however, hasn't hindered the islander's feelings of still being a colony. Puerto Rico seems to be destined to be 'special,' because already in 1809 it was liberated from its condition as a colony and was proclaimed an overseas Spanish province (similar to the Canary Islands, for instance); when Napoleon occupied Spain and installed his brother Joseph Bonaparte on the throne, all the American colonies took advantage of the situation to proclaim their independence, except Puerto Rico, which maintained its loyalty to King Carlos IV, for which it was awarded with this provincial status.

Looked at with the presumed objectivity of an outside perspective, I think that Puerto Rico has preserved its marks of identity, based on a secular hybridization, quite independent and without particular contamination by supposed colonialism; many Puerto Ricans don't speak English and its artistic production (within today's world of general globalization) doesn't seem especially effected by the dominant trends of the continental territory. On the contrary, the interests and idioms of its artists seem to me closer to those found in the culture of other Latin American countries such as Brazil and Cuba. The Caribbean character seems to be indomitable and gifted with its own strong personality. That's true to such a degree that of the four and a half million Puerto Ricans or descendents of Puerto Ricans that live in the U.S. a million live in New York and its surroundings, which has given rise to a term that specifically designates them within the immense Tower of Babel which is the Big Apple: "nuyoricans" (newyoricans), synonymous also with signs and customs characteristic of what anthropologists would call an urban subculture, and which were already reflected long ago in the film Rebel Without a Cause (Nicholas Ray, 1955). New York's Nuyorican Movement features innovative tendencies in numerous artistic fields (poetry, music, visual art, hip hop, film, theater…) and since 1975 has had its general headquarters in the legendary Nuyorican Poets Café (

The country (we refer to is as such for purely practical reasons, instead of the awkward Freely Associated State) has a population of four million, which means that the diaspora of Puerto Ricans in 'exile' is one of the highest in the world in terms of percentage. It's somewhat reminiscent of the Jews, who have also adamantly conserved aspects of their own identity. Taking this into account, along with the fact that the island has an area of just 9,000 km2, one of the first reflections I had to the discovery in situ of its artistic fabric was that it possesses one of the highest densities of collectors that I know of in the art world. In just two editions, Roberto Nieves, director and 'owner' of CIRCA, has managed to articulate a close and enthusiastic collaborative relationship with these collectors, which means that guests could have breakfast and dinner in the homes of five of them, whose collections we could enjoy with relaxed pleasure. They were: Diana and Moisés Berezdivin; Alberto de la Cruz (son of the well-known Miami collectors Rosa and Carlos de la Cruz); Chilo Andreu; Pedrín Muñoz Marín; and Mari Olga and Ramón Lugo. Generally speaking, Puerto Rico's collections are very international in character (the last couple cited, for example, specialize in German painting), which is evidence of a very open temperament that avoids falling into impoverishing localisms.

Ixone Sádaba, Phlegmone I (2004)

Sales at the fair were high and satisfactory for the majority of participating galleries, something which not a lot of the world's art fairs can claim, given their current proliferation and the fact that the pie to be divided (collectors) is limited. Participants came from Latin America, the U.S. and five European countries (above all Spain). They exhibited and sold mostly paintings (of course!) but drawing and photography were also well-represented, though a less abundant presence of sculpture and video was evident. Anita Beckers, the German gallery from Frankfurt, known for its high level of dedication to video, and the Spanish gallery Altamira (Gijón, Asturias), which showed a great work by Mariana Vassileva, helped temper this shortage of a medium that's on the crest of the wave of the most advanced collectors, a shortage also evident in Puerto Rico's private collections. This year CIRCA included a program of seven "Project Rooms" featuring a like number of artists; Antuan (Miami, USA) and Braulio Espinosa Castillo (Puerto Rico) were among those whose presentations stood out. In future editions it would be advisable that the choice of local galleries be more rigorous, inviting only those featuring authentically contemporary styles to participate.

The capital, San Juan de Puerto Rico, possesses a gem that is little known outside the country, Viejo San Juan (Old San Juan), a relic from (truly) colonial times that's almost an island within an island. Its cobblestoned streets feature well-preserved architecture from the Spanish period, a neighborhood founded by pirates, La Perla (The Pearl), and the oldest church in the whole of the Caribbean, San José. But the galleries and contemporary art museums are scattered throughout the extensive modern city, which has a more international ambience and aesthetic. There are five museums in the city: the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico, Museo de Arte Contemporáneo, Museo de la Universidad de Puerto Rico, the Galería Nacional and the 1414.

The first, opened in 2000, was created through private initiative, is controlled by an independent board and financed partly through government funds. As its name suggests, it was conceived with the aim of exhibiting Puerto Rican art, though this role seems to have been taken over by the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo, since it shows more contemporary and international artists while the latter has opted for the local and historic. The Contemporaneo originally opened at the Sacred Heart University and was promoted by an eclectic group of individuals, curators, galleries and collectors, and continues to be governed by private hands, though through a pact with the government receives the same amount in public funds which it manages to raise privately. Both museums are currently located very nearby each other in the neighborhood of Santurce. The Museum of the University of Puerto Rico is actually called the Museum of Anthropology, Archeology and Art, and its art department contains the largest collections of the country's principle historic masters, Campeche and Francisco Oller, and also presents temporary shows of contemporary art. The National Gallery was inaugurated this past February, with the aim of housing the collection of the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture. Only the first section was opened, which features art from Campeche up until the decade of the 60s, with the section dedicated to art from that date until the present still pending. The 1414 (the number of the street where it's located), is a center opened two years ago by the Berezdivin's to house their collection, which is one of the most up-to-date and cutting-edge. It's opening marked a milestone in the history of private collecting, not only within the country but on an international level as well, and is a clear sign of the artistic effervescence that Puerto Rico is undergoing.

Outside San Juan there are two other important centers: the Museo de Caguas and the Ponce, located in towns with those names. The Museo de Ponce was founded in 1959 by Luis A. Ferré, governor of Puerto Rico, a member of the anexionista party (which is in favor of complete integration with the U.S.) and owner of an extensive and excellent art collection which includes art from the Renaissance to the Pre-Raphaelites, the latter of which is comparable to collections in the U.K. The museum is currently overtaking important projects dedicated to contemporary art.

As far as that other determining factor in the mediation of collective enthusiasm for art, that of non-profit institutions and independent artists collectives, during the last two years four initiatives have been launched on the island: one in Cagua, Área, and three in San Juan, "=Desto," Tag.rom and Blackbox. The latter, a collective made up of very young artists, occupying a space in an historic building in Viejo San Juan, organized an exhibition which formed part of the activities parallel to CIRCA. Among the participants, we should keep a close eye on the future work of Karla Cott, lo Carrión, Joshua Santos, María G. Resende, Bernat Tort and Héctor Madera.

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