Sneaking Oscar López Rivera into the Whitney Biennial

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“De-debt/ Decolonize”, 2017, Yasmin Hernandez Art, Mixed media on canvas, 18″ x 14″

On January 6th, Three Kings Day here in Puerto Rico, I received a gift via email.  It was an invitation from Occupy Museums to participate in their Debt Fair Project, a collective installation as part of the 2017 Whitney Biennial.  10 of us were invited specifically to represent the case of the debt crisis in Puerto Rico.  As a colony of the US, Puerto Rico has minimal political presence internationally. Though Puerto Rican athletes have won Olympic gold medals as part of US teams, in 2016 tennis player Monica Puig made history winning Puerto Rico’s first Olympic Gold medal. It was the first time that our flag was raised and our anthem played on the global stage. This may not seem so important to some, but for a nationality that carries no passport, (other than the Adál Maldonado/ Pedro Pietri conceptual art collaboration baptizing Puerto Ricans as citizens of “El Spirit Republic de Puerto Rico”) having your national identity eclipsed by colonialism is the equivalent of being rendered internationally invisible.

January 6, in addition to being Three Kings Day, is the birthday of Oscar López Rivera.  López Rivera, a political prisoner of the US since 1981, had transcended the US/ Puerto Rico colonial bubble, making news internationally with support for his release coming from such notable figures as Pope Francis and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Turning 74, he had spent virtually half of his life in prison.  In tribute, I decided to include his image in my Debt Fair artwork.   My work explores nebulae as metaphors for the nebulous political state of Puerto Rico and the long battle against invisibility. The added image of Oscar López held for 36 years under the charge of seditious conspiracy, further illustrates the tie of Puerto Rico’s debt to its colonial relationship with the US.  I titled the piece “De-debt/ Decolonize.”

The week after I completed the work, the White House announced that Obama had commuted López Rivera’s sentence.  Knowing this was an historic time for Puerto Rico, I sought to document this history, even before the announcement.  I was grateful for having gotten a piece on exhibit at the Whitney and especially proud that the work addressed the condition of my people and an historic moment in our struggle for self-determination.  This was of course possible because of Occupy Museum’s necessary work examining debt and the hypocrisies of debt. Artists are among the sectors of society most crippled by debt and are mostly unfairly compensated for our work, if compensated at all.  Perhaps being a Puerto Rican and an artist makes one twice colonized.  Oscar López Rivera happens to be a Puerto Rican, an artist and a former political prisoner, a colonial trifecta: freedom fighter by default.

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Installation view of Debt Fair at the 2017 Whitney Biennial

Debt Fair exhibitions feature the works of artists in debt, organized into collective installations forming “bundles.”  The term, borrowed from the investment world, is a reference to a common experience in the collective artists’ debt history, or a common collector to which the artists owe money.  In the case of the Puerto Rico bundle, on view at the Whitney Biennial (through June 11th, 2017), we are artists affected by and whose work examines the colonial crisis in Puerto Rico.  This bundle hangs alongside two other artists bundles (10 artists to each bundle, totaling 30 Debt Fair artists), one representing Navient and the other JP Morgan/ Chase.  The signage on the wall points to Black Rock CEO Larry Fink, on the board of MOMA and a member of the Trump Strategic and Policy Forum.

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Artwork by Sofia Maldonado (left) and Adrian “Viajero” Roman (right)

Debt Fair installations traditionally are not artworks hung on a gallery wall.  Rather, they literally carve out a piece of the dry wall, exposing the studs and installing the work within the wall itself. The “occupy” component, beyond granting access to more artists, disrupts the white walls of the museum, directly implanting dialogues not normally had in these exclusive spaces.  Having risen out of the Occupy Wall Street movement, Occupy Museums zooms in on the communities most impacted, taking a close look at Puerto Rico and at the crippling state of student debt in the US today.  The Friday after May Day, they held an anti-commencement ceremony at the Whitney, in front of the Debt Fair installation. Complete with a cap and gown procession, the program also included the reading of a statement on behalf of the striking students of the University of Puerto Rico system.  The public university system has been severely threatened by harsh austerity measures of the US Congress-imposed fiscal control board.  Referred to locally as la junta colonial, they hold supreme power over Puerto Rico’s budget. In her light box image “Advertisement for PROMESA Act or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Enjoy Debt” artist D Gabriela Torres includes the words “Debt and Neglect” and “100% for the people, Real Colonial Rule,” detailing the irony and hypocrisy behind the PROMESA act.

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“Advertising for Promesa act” by D Gabriela Torres

US colonialism in Puerto Rico has been characterized by a military government following the 1898 invasion; 50 years of no elections/ US-appointed American governors (with the exception of one Puerto Rican appointed); the imposition of US citizenship (strategically the same year the US entered WWI); the drafting of Puerto Ricans in US wars starting with WWI, but citizens in Puerto Rico cannot vote in US presidential elections for the military commander in chief; US president has veto power over any law passed by the Puerto Rican government; no voting representation in Washington; no trade rights with other countries; all goods coming into Puerto Rico must leave from US ports on US ships; the destruction of Puerto Rico’s agricultural economy and the imposition of a mono-crop of sugar, exploited then abandoned by outside corporations; Puerto Rico imports 85% of its food as a result; political repression resulting in the arrests of thousands of independence supporters over the last century, many charged not with violent crimes but with seditious conspiracy; the appropriation and use of the 2nd and 3rd largest islands of the Puerto Rican archipelago, Vieques and Culebra for military training, weapons testing and target practice resulting in damage to the environment and deteriorating health conditions of the surrounding communities; the corporate exploitation of offering tax breaks to foreign business and incentives to the wealthy to set up homes and businesses in Puerto Rico while denying such incentives to Puerto Ricans themselves; highest concentration per mile of Walgreens of all US states and territories; the highest concentration per mile of Walmarts in the world; the imposition of a US fiscal control board whose power trumps the authority of the Puerto Rico government. Many in the states overlook the debt crisis in Puerto Rico, blaming it on local government corruption and mismanagement. In reviewing this list of just a few points out of many, anyone could have predicted a debt crisis.

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with some of the artists of the Puerto Rico bundle at the opening of the Whitney Biennial

It is brilliant and timely for Occupy Museums to bring this issue into the examination of global debt and its impact on the arts and on artists. It is also necessary to mention the work of Occupy Museums seeking to overturn the limited access and exclusivity of the museum. Their call received around 500 responses.  From these, 30 artists were selected to contribute works to the three bundles featured.  All 500 artists who responded are included in the installation via a slide show featuring samples of their art and excerpts from their questionnaire responses on the impact that debt has had on their lives and work.  This all raises some burning questions regarding the dynamics of a biennial, especially such a prestigious biennial as the Whitney’s.  What does it mean for the prestige of a biennial if 30 or 500 artists were invited by Occupy Museums to crash the party?   Occupy by the way were not the only ones to have invited other artists to join in on their invitation.  Can these artists claim the same prestige considering that they were not directly invited by the Biennial curators? In this case, curators Christopher Y. Lew and Mia Locks invited the Occupy Museums collective to exhibit an installment of Debt Fair, fully aware of the nature of the project.  In essence the curators were open and accommodating to this “occupation” which says much about a shift in curatorial practices.  Additionally, two artists from Puerto Rico, Chemi Rosado Seijo and Beatriz Santiago Muñoz are featured biennial artists invited directly by the curators.  The curators also hired a Puerto Rico-based firm, Tiguere Corp to design the show catalog and invitations.

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Puerto Rico bundle wall label.  Debt Fair, 2017 Whitney Biennial

Much of the biennial press was dominated by the charged controversy that rose out of Schutz’ portrayal of Emmett Till and necessary questions surrounding the representation of black trauma by someone who is not black and therefore cannot claim that trauma as inherently and directly their own. One has to consider why the US loves the appropriation of other’s stories, even when they serve to point out still-archaic perceptions of race.  Would an Emmett Till portrait painted by a black artist receive the same amount of press coverage?  Would Lin Manuel Miranda have won so many awards for a musical portraying the life and times of Puerto Rican physician/ revolutionary/ abolitionist Ramon Emeterio Betances versus Hamilton?  Do 10 Puerto Ricans addressing the debt crisis in Puerto Rico fall on deaf ears or blind eyes?   Would 10 white North Americans from Kansas exhibiting art on the Puerto Rico debt be cutting edge?

It is interesting to consider the framework used by the US mainstream to control the dialogues and responses of communities of color and what they deem to be topics worthy of their time and attention. For several years the New York Puerto Rican Day Parade Board had agreed (like many, including Puerto Rico’s pro-statehood governor Ricky Rossello) to support the release of political prisoner Oscar Lopez Rivera.   This year they decided to include the recently released independence supporter in a long list of parade honorees.  Somehow corporations got wind of it and started withdrawing their support and sponsorship of the parade.  Interestingly enough, in support of a pro-statehood plebiscite to be held in Puerto Rico on the same day of the parade Rossello reneged on his support of Lopez Rivera, suggesting that the corporate sponsors demand his removal from the list of honorees or withdraw their support.  Recent press is focusing on how ultimately New York City Mayor de Blasio’s office got involved to ensure that Oscar would be removed from the list.  For the purpose of this dialogue, whether Oscar Lopez Rivera himself solely decided to remove himself from the list or whether it was suggested to him or he was persuaded is besides the point.  Since this controversy, media outlets have gone on to state that the parade can now go back to focusing on the real priorities of Puerto Rico. The point then is who gets to determine what should be addressed, what is a priority and/ or who should be honored other than the people themselves? How is it that when a people exercise their natural right to self-determination in making such decisions, they are met with institutional backlash and pressure until the machine gets what it wants? Prior to the corporate boycott of the parade, Oscar’s release, the goings-on of Puerto Rico and our parade were barely deemed newsworthy in the states.

Within the museum space, within the art world, hell within the Puerto Rican community, I am not sure that there has been much examination of the Puerto Rico bundle of Debt Fair.  Thankfully we will have another opportunity to expand on the dialogue with El Museo del Barrio agreeing to take the installation to their galleries later this summer.  However we must consider, why are such dialogues mostly regulated to sanctioned spaces? Why must a museum founded by the Puerto Rican  community in New York be the space where such a dialogue can take place?  I am grateful to Occupy Museums for considering the issue of the crisis in Puerto Rico for their Debt Fair installation. I am grateful to El Museo del Barrio for wanting to expand on the dialogue and I am grateful to the folks at the Allied Media Conference for inviting myself and featured Biennial artist Chemi Rosado Seijo and others as part of a Puerto Rico delegation to build intersectional solidarity work with Detroit artists and activists surviving and recovering from a debt crisis. The dialogue will be a complicated one considering the role colonialism plays in Puerto Rico’s debt which unfortunately dwarfs that seen in Detroit.  Puerto Rico, ironically “rich port,” is also known as being poorer than the poorest state of the US.  It is apparent that a colonial tie to the US has not worked in our favor. As the saying here goes, “when the US catches a cold, Puerto Rico catches pneumonia.”

Shortly after Oscar’s Three Kings Day birthday, on January 17th, news of his sentence having been commuted hit the airwaves. The Whitney Biennial opened to the public on March 17th. On May 17th Oscar stepped out, no longer a political prisoner of the US, onto the streets of Puerto Rico. He chose to hold his press conference by the sea, ensuring that its turquoise would be the backdrop. In my painting Oscar is against the green backdrop of his island home. Playing with a green image of the California nebula, when rotated horizontally, I found that its nebulous formations become the peaks of la cordillera central, the mountain range that runs across the middle of the island of Borikén, stretching from its east coast, to the west.  Peering from this nebulous island glowing green is the image of Oscar Lopez Rivera, still being held in captivity almost 36 years at the time I created it.  Included is a quote from the song Verde Luz, (Green Light) by Antonio Cabán Vale, “El Topo”, son of Moca, the municipality that has been my adopted home since I left my native New York City in 2014 and moved here, birthplace of my parents.  The words read: libre tu suelo, sola tu estrella.  (your land, free/ your star, alone) .

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Detail, “De-debt/ Decolonize” as part of Debt Fair.

In a poetic twist the last day of the Whitney Biennial is June 11th, the same day the controversial Puerto Rican Day Parade will march up 5th Avenue. It is unknown whether or not its corporate sponsors will be back. But Oscar Lopez Rivera has vowed to walk with his people, “not as an honoree but as a humble Puerto Rican and grandfather.”  Here in Puerto Rico on that same day, the pro-statehood governor will be leading a too expensive plebiscite pushing his statehood agenda.  Much funds have been invested in pushing the statehood platform. Virtually none have gone into explaining the possibilities of the other platforms. In essence, it is not a real democratic plebiscite and the US has never honored these plebiscites anyway just as the corporations did not honor the will of the people for this parade.  Many have called for a boycott of the plebiscite.  There will also be a pro-independence march that day.  Puerto Rico’s crisis goes unresolved.  My garbage after three weeks, has gone uncollected.  Various municipalities went without light and water last week, no real explanation.  Such is another day, in the life of a colony. People carry colonialism in their daily actions and interactions.  My daily mission is working to be as free as the land has always been.  Till then, I am an artist at her service.

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With my momma in front of my painting!

Puerto Rican Artists at the Whitney Biennial 2017:
Chemi Rosado-Seijo; Bea Santiago Muñoz; Gamaliel Rodriguez; Melquiades Rosario-sastre; Nibia Pastrana Santiago; Sofia Maldonado; Celestino Junior Ortiz; Jose Soto; Gabriella Torres-Ferrer; Adrián Viajero Román; Yasmin Hernandez; Norma Vila

This Friday, June 9th is the last “Pay as you Wish” evening to see the 2017 Whitney Biennial.  The exhibit is at the Whitney’s new building in the Meatpacking district, next to the High Line:
Whitney Museum of American Art, 99 Gansevoort Street, New York, NY 10014

Listen to the Whitney Biennial Audio Guide, featuring various artists in the show.  Scroll down to Occupy Museums #504 to hear the explanation behind the collective and the Debt Fair project.

http://whitney.org/WatchAndListen/AudioGuides/40?stop=9

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