Postcards from “The Island of Enchantment”: Where Art is Woven into Everything We Do

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Puerto Rico is fittingly referred to as “The Island of Enchantment.” It is the smallest of The Greater Antilles, a grouping of the larger islands in the Caribbean Sea that also includes Cuba, Hispaniola, and Jamaica. It was a Spanish colony for 400 years and now resides as a U.S. territory—neither a state nor an independent, sovereign country. It is the place of origin of countless internationally-renowned artists and athletes, including Lin Manuel Miranda, Bad Bunny, Jasmine Camacho-Quinn, Luis Gúzman, and many more. It’s also my home country.

Since I moved to Baltimore a few years ago, people often ask me how often I return. I always say I go during Christmas and the summer. The former is because spending Christmas anywhere other than Puerto Rico feels borderline sacrilegious, and the latter because nothing compares to the blazing heat of the Caribbean sun in July. 


This summer was no different. I found myself doing my biannual pilgrimage back to my parent’s house, full of excitement to see my family and eat the food I had missed so dearly. After driving all around the island for days, crossing things off of my to-do list, I found myself with a couple of free days with nothing planned. I decided to do an excursion of museums in San Juan, the island’s capital, and visited the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico and the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Puerto Rico

The Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico is nestled between an array of local restaurants, historic buildings, and tourist shops. Large murals and intricate graffiti decorate the walls of the neighboring buildings, creating an accurate presentation of how art is intricately woven into everyday surroundings in the island. The museum is a large and commanding building, complete with columns and a front courtyard. In a country in which the culture has been protected and preserved despite centuries of colonization, this museum serves as an appropriately monumental home for the institution of Puerto Rican art. 


Jorge Zeno, “The Last Mountain, El Yunque,” acrylic on canvas.

Upon entry, the lobby diverges into two hallways that lead into themed galleries curated by genre and time period. After walking around the museum and experiencing all it has to offer, I can say the galleries I enjoyed the most are The Reach of the Gaze, Identity Values, and Reaffirmation and Changes. The first is dedicated to landscapes paintings, the second to physical manifestations of Puerto Rican customs and traditions, and the last is a comprehensive exposition on 90’s and 21st century multimedia art. These three gallery spaces encompass different aspects of the island, the natural environment we live in, our culture, and a perspective of the current social climate through the art we create. I cannot recommend these three exhibitions enough as they provide such a well rounded experience.

This museum is home to a wide variety of exquisite artwork made by Puerto Rican artists of all mediums and genres. While it has a plethora of art for visitors to see, I’ve decided to spotlight work that explores multiple facets of our culture for those who might not be familiar with it.

The landscape exhibition’s most notable work is a large acrylic on canvas, “The Last Mountain, El Yunque” by Jorge Zeno. The painting depicts the titular tropical rainforest, El Yunque, located in the northeastern coast of Puerto Rico and home to the island’s tallest waterfall. As one of the island’s top tourist destinations, I also have many memories of hikes and excursions taken through the forest, which always culminate by reaching the waterfall and taking a well deserved dip in its ice cold waters.

The vegigante masks displayed in Identity Values are a must-see. Vegigantes are a central figure in Puerto Rican culture with two distincts styles and backgrounds. In the northern city of Loíza, the masks are made of hollowed coconuts and are featured in the Catholic festival de Santiago Apóstol. In Ponce, a southern city, the masks are made out of papier-mâché and worn during the celebration of Carnival. In both festivities, vegigantes are mischievous characters that interact with the crowds and maintain the fun atmosphere of the activities. The display in the museum includes a great variety of masks made by artists from both Loiza and Ponce who have different aesthetics and styles. 

The upper floor of the museum hosts Puerto Rico Plural, an exhibition that, as stated in the exhibition text, “combines work of artists from different generations, historical periods, and different media, with the aim of showing the plurality of Puerto Rican art from the eighteenth century to the present.” The exhibition displays emblematic artists including José Campeche and Francisco Oller as well as contemporary artists such as Jaime Suárez. Plural heralds the cultural, historical, and demographic differences of the island in order to share a true image of Puerto Rico’s diversity.


Rafael Tufiño, "La Plena," 1952-1954, oil on Masonite

Puerto Rico Plural has two standout works, both equally grand in scale and content. Rafael Tufiño’s “La Plena” is a monumental mural-sized oil painting comprising twelve panels, with narratives interacting from frame-to-frame. Plena is a folkloric style of music and dance native to Puerto Rico with origins that date back to the early 1900s, a byproduct of the transfer from Spanish to American rule in 1898. Also known as “the sung newspaper”, plena contains stories about the history and everyday life of working class people and has influences from African, native Taíno, and Spanish musical traditions.

Tufiño’s “La Plena” depicts imagery of 12 iconic and well-known plena songs, bringing to life the vibrant imagery of their lyrics. From local gossips detailing a woman’s fall from grace, to the announcement of an oncoming storm, to people’s inherent fear of the devil, plena songs are varied and rich in history. So is this mural, which was painted over the course of two years for the Fine Arts Center in Santurce, where it lived for decades before being acquired and shipped to this museum for posterity. 


Anaida Hernández, "Hasta que la muerte nos separe (Till death do us part)", multimedia installation, 1994.

“Hasta que la muerte nos separe (Till death do us part),” a multimedia installation by Anaida Hernández, is a commentary on the island’s social climate during the early nineties. In 1989, the local government passed the Domestic Abuse Prevention and Intervention Act, most commonly known as “Ley 54.” Despite the act’s approval, 100 women were victims of femicide from 1990 to 1993.

Created in 1994, “Hasta que la muerte nos separe (Till death do us part)” commemorates the loss of these women by creating an altar with their written names, date of birth, and death anniversary. Similar to a tombstone, flowers are placed next to the women’s names, while the installation’s wall is lined with painted cubby holes depicting images representative of gender-based violence.

The Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico experience concludes with a stroll around its outdoor garden, decorated with local flora, brass sculptures, and a large koi pond that flows organically around the property. After concluding my visit, I moved on to the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo, where I was able to see Liberar La Luz: nuevas adquisiciones de video (Liberating Light: New Video Acquisitions). This exhibition, on view through September 17th, features three recently acquired video installations, “Talegas de la memoria” by Daniel Lind-Ramos, “Por el viento y la corriente” by La Vaughn Belle, and “Una historia aleatoria del palo” by Michael D. Linares. 


Daniel Lind-Ramos, "Talegas de la Memoria," multi-channel video installation.

I was enthralled by Lind-Ramos’ “Talegas de la Memoria.” The multi-channel film depicts musical dramatization of major historical events that have happened in Puerto Rico portrayed by popular characters of the “Festival de Santiago Apóstol,” the same festival that features vegigantes. I thoroughly enjoyed how immersive the installation is. Visitors are guided through a serpent corridor closed off by iridescent curtains that shimmer under ultraviolet light. Floor cushions are placed in front of the projector screens, all of which play the same video, albeit at a different time stamp. “Talegas de la memorias” portrayed iconic Puerto Rican imagery in a comfortable environment that fomented in-depth discussions among visitors who were both familiar and unfamiliar with the events depicted in the video. 

Visiting these museums enriched my travels this year immensely. From our customs to our traditions to our architecture, there is always a rich artistic meaning embossed into everything Puerto Ricans create. The past, present, and future of Puerto Rican art decorate the halls and galleries of these cultural institutions, which share their knowledge and resources readily in order to continue to uplift artists’ voices and stories.

Supporting Puerto Rican art is a necessary form of survival in a socio political landscape that aims to silence our voice as a nation. Being able to reconnect with my homeland after months away has brought me a sense of belonging and peace, as well as helped me remember who I am. I invite you not only to look into Puerto Rico and its rich history, but reconnect with your own roots as well.


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