“If Maria is a teacher, this emerging movement argues, the storm’s overarching lesson is that now is not the moment for reconstruction of what was, but rather for transformation into what could be.” — Naomi Klein, The Battle for Paradise: Puerto Rico Takes On Disaster Capitalists, 2018
When a storm system forms, it begins with heat intensifying under the ocean’s surface and the rise of humid air gaining momentum through the spin of clouds caught in its pressure system. So, too, had disasters been brewing in Puerto Rico long before the monumental bands of Hurricane Maria charted a fatal trajectory to the island’s shores.
no existe un mundo poshuracán: Puerto Rican Art in the Wake of Hurricane Maria opened at the Whitney months after the 5th anniversary of the storm’s landfall. Its selection of 50 artworks — spanning video, painting, sculpture, and textiles — were made by artists living in Puerto Rico and across the diaspora between 2017 and 2022. Although the show originates at Hurricane Maria’s immediate aftermath, the narratives of devastation depicted in these works go back decades, if not centuries, situating Puerto Rico’s present strife within a larger colonial history of political oppression and socioeconomic precarity enabled by its status as an unincorporated territory. In no existe un mundo poshuracán, the storm is not just a literal disaster but a symbolic one.
The exhibition is presented in 5 sections: “Fractured Infrastructures,” “Critiques of Tourism,” “Processing, Grieving, and Reflecting,” “Ecology and Landscape,” and “Resistance and Protest.” However the open floor plan facilitates a fluid overlap of these themes, revealing slippages and interconnections between pre-Maria crises and new ones. Artworks like Sofía Córdova’s video dawn_chorus ii: el niagara en bicicleta, which features footage from her family in the days after the storm, and Gabriella’s Untitled (Valora tu mentira americana), a damaged electricity pole with a battered propaganda sign from a pre-Maria referendum dramatically suspended in mid-air, meditate on the island’s grid failures and infrastructural collapse. Sofía Gallisá Muriente’s B-Roll, made with clips from tourism advertisements funded by the government, reflects on how Puerto Rico has been marketed as a ‘fantasy island’ for the ultra-wealthy, leading to neocolonial privatization.
Ecological grief emanates from no existe, a deep mourning “felt in relation to experienced or anticipated ecological losses.” Javier Orfon’s installation Bienteveo features leaves carved with phrases taken from interviews with park rangers and environmentalists about how pollutive industries have scarred local biodiversity. Sofia Gallisa Muriente’s Celaje materializes the island’s environmental destruction with expired, salt-corroded film moldy from tropical humidity. Frances Gallardo’s Aerosoles show how climate change has increased Saharan dust storms and worsened air pollution, making visible the invisible specter of environmental racism.
Another gallery showcases the island’s more recent upheaval during the COVID-19 pandemic and its debt crisis, placing 5 years of compounded crises and political action into tight dialogues with each other. Danielle De Jesus’s painting Google the Ponce Massacre compares the 1937 attack with the Verano del 19 protests that ousted then-Governor Ricardo Rosselló. Posters by graphic designer Garvin Sierra Vega show how activism went beyond the storm to address LGBTQ rights and gender-based violence. Elle Perez’s film Wednesday, Friday documents a street fiesta where, despite blackouts and brownouts, residents dance under car headlights in joyous protest. Miguel Luciano’s Shields / Escudos are constructed from decommissioned school buses due to school closures and mass migrations off the island, decorated black and white flags symbolic of anti-colonial resistance.
no existe was curated by Marcela Guerrero, who recently became the museum’s first Latina senior curator and is herself Puerto Rican. Guerrero began laying the groundwork for the survey as early as late 2017, compelled to use her platform at one of the nation’s preeminent American art museums. Guerrero approached this project as a “curatorial activist,” a term used by Maura Reilly to describe those “who have dedicated their curatorial endeavors almost exclusively to visual culture in, of, and from the margins.” The exhibition’s prominent location in one of the museum’s main galleries sought to integrate this show into the museum’s institutional canon, while also focusing on the island’s geo-specific colonial history that has simultaneously kept it separate from the United States and also tightly under the mainland’s control.
Beyond what’s on the walls, the exhibition’s programming accounted for the Whitney’s location in New York, the mainland’s largest diasporic community, while also offering opportunities to visitors with varying degrees of familiarity to learn and take action. All of its wall text and events, like curator Q&As, tours, and panel discussions, were offered bilingually — an exhibition design choice that has a great impact on accessibility, yet is still under-utilized in many American institutions (despite Spanish being the nation’s second most common language). The exhibition’s webpage links to disaster resources, while teacher tours, art workshops for teens, and drop-in discussions sought to bring discussions about the show’s representations of grief and trauma out of the galleries and into classrooms. This overall teach-in style appears to have taken some lessons from Decolonize This Place’s focus on Puerto Rico during their Nine Weeks of Art and Action ahead of the 2019 Whitney Biennial.
In their introduction to Museum Activism, Robert Janes and Richard Sandell write that “museums…have the opportunity and the obligation to question the way in which society is manipulated and governed. Activism also means resistance — the critical questioning and re-imagining of the status quo.” These artists’ intimate stories of diasporic displacement, ecological grief, and incomplete recovery reshape the ruins of Puerto Rico into a site of interconnected collective struggle. While Guerrero makes it clear that artists have been at the center of Puerto Rico’s resistance movements, the question of whether or not no existe succeeds in re-imagining the status quo of American art, especially at the Whitney, remains unanswered.
As someone who’s been studying the ways we can use art to grapple with climate change’s physical and psychological toll and the role of culture in advancing environmental justice, stepping off the elevators into no existe un mundo poshuracán was like entering into a living case study on eco-cultural storytelling. You saw how human and non-human lives became subjected to the same colonial violence that have wrecked ecosystems and facilitated infrastructural collapse. The show’s refusal to follow a neat chronology emphasized these intersecting throughlines, bridging the past, present, and future. Even when the show’s critique of tourism fell flat (far too few works took up this subject explicitly), the profound emotions of grief for fractured communities, lost family members, and damaged ecosystems resonated throughout.
There’s this question that’s persisted in my museum studies classes, one that I kept returning to days and weeks after I saw the show: Is it possible to make meaningful institutional change from the inside? In a time when many museums have quietly stalled on promises for more diverse shows, equitable collecting, and DEAI hiring initiatives, it feels like curatorial activism’s radical potential has reached its limit. The exhibition’s call to expand the scope of contemporary American art to include creative voices from Puerto Rico was a subtle, yet strong, sign of optimism. That Guerrero chose artists who transformed the personal into the political also felt like an important pushback against many museums’ desire to maintain a facade of neutrality (code for a white, colonial, patriarchal hegemony). While choices like bilingual exhibition text have become integrated into the museum’s wider practice. The show’s decolonial, transhistorical subject matter should be sustained long after its closure.
no existe is described by the museum as “the first scholarly exhibition focused on Puerto Rican art to be organized by a large U.S. museum in nearly half a century.” Besides the glaring minimization of efforts by other institutions, I had to wonder why it took a tragedy, and the hiring of a Puerto Rican curator, to focus on Puerto Rican art in this profound way. Why had this not been done before? What will happen with this momentum after the show is over? Janes and Sandall note that museum activism succeeds when it “help[s] make sense of the challenges we face, not only in the approach to exhibitions and public programming, but also in the approach to collections.” If Guerrero, were to facilitate new acquisitions, this choice to grow its institutional canon by collecting works from these artists would be a substantial gesture of solidarity beyond the short-term limitations of a temporary exhibition. As we begin to put on more shows about political, socioeconomic, and ecological crises, it is not always enough to put on a public-facing show and hope you educate your audience. Decolonial moves to advance the work of marginalized artists, should also happen internally, part of systemic change to undo generations of cultural exclusion.
While former Governor Rosselló once described post-Maria Puerto Rico as a “blank canvas,” the artists of no existe challenge this invisibility by filling the Whitney with signs of resistance to government corruption, systemic silencing, and ecological exploitation. Witnessing became a tool of their — and the exhibition’s — activist strategy. By positioning Puerto Rican art as an integral part of American art history, Guerrero, as she writes in the catalog, shows how “post-Maria Puerto Rico is a harbinger of things to come for those who are most vulnerable, not just in the Caribbean but worldwide,” connecting the island’s struggles of environmental racism and socioeconomic abandonment to parallel turbulence on the mainland.
Yet as powerful as this curatorial gesture is, no existe is only one step towards changing the status quo, especially in a museum with a long history of keeping artists of color off its walls. While no existe’s future remains uncertain, the show offers exciting possibilities for deeper trans-American connections and greater long-term commitments to elevating Puerto Rican and diasporic voices in the institution. Yet the many storms at the heart of no existe un mundo poshuracán are far from over.