When Hurricane Maria churned through Puerto Rico in 2017, it exposed more than the skeletal remnants of mutilated homes.
The devastation also revealed the island’s $72 billion debt, the legacies of U.S. colonialism and a staggeringly inept government response to the crisis.
Its artists have risen from the wreckage to create works celebrating Puerto Rico’s strong traditions, driven by a sense of both urgency and resilience.
“Puerto Rico: Defying Darkness” opens at 516 ARTS on Saturday, Aug. 11. The exhibition runs through Oct. 20. The works include sculpture, painting, photography and installation.
Organizers staged the exhibition because they “wanted to do something about Puerto Rico right now because of the hurricane,” curator Josie Lopez said. “There are still hundreds of people without electricity or water. We’re looking at probably the first climate change refugees, with over 200,000 leaving the island and coming to the mainland.”
Houston-based Patrick McGrath Muñiz returned to the island in February to rescue his mother from the disaster.
“My mom lost her house,” he said in a telephone interview. “I lost my studio; most of my work was there. I lived there for nearly 30 years,” Muñiz said.
“I have friends and family that still don’t have water and electricity,” he said. “My aunt and uncle don’t even have a roof. They’re going through hell.
“We’re trying to help them as a family. The agencies are very corrupt. FEMA denied help for my mother. She couldn’t prove that it was her house because the documents are lost.”
Muñiz’s oils reflect the resulting diaspora to the mainland as well as a heroine of another tragedy.
“Alba’s Dream” shows a woman holding a dog across her shoulders as she wades through water. Halos circle the heads of both figures like Renaissance Madonnas.
“I was inspired by this image from Hurricane Harvey in Houston,” Muñiz said. “There was this picture of a woman carrying a dog, and it went viral.”
His cousin Alba, who heads an animal shelter, was another influence. A submerged car and toppled telephone poles lean in the background.
The artist’s “Diasporamos” shows survivors crowding a boat. The head of an endangered manatee emerges from the water, while a naked siren holds a Shell Oil logo as a symbol of environmental destruction. Another figure holds a gold coin emblazoned with a bull, a symbol of failed capitalism. Above them all, a woman takes a selfie.
“I’m doing the disaster of capitalism in Puerto Rico,” Muñiz said.
Nathan Budoff painted his “Cosmic Love” before the hurricane. Distinguished by a red octopus flying through a city skyline, it comments on the fragility of the environment.
“We don’t think a lot about the things around us,” he said in a telephone interview from San Juan. “There’s no octopus in the sky, but there’s a whole sense that we don’t perceive the richness of our world.”
Boston-born and raised, Budoff has lived on the island for 24 years. He survived Hurricane Maria with little damage.
“I had a couple of windows blown out at my studio,” he said, “and a couple of shelves got blown down. We were without electricity for a month and a half.”
But there are people who just got their electricity back this month, more than a year and a half later, he said.
“People in the city tended to do better,” he said.
A more recent post-hurricane painting, “Temporal,” shows a leafless tree with an elephant flying among downed telephone wires through the branches. It’s environmental disaster with whimsy.
“It’s definitely outside the native species of Puerto Rico,” the artist said with a chuckle. “I wanted to make it more universal.
“Puerto Rico has this really strange political status. There’s clear evidence that the treatment was very different from the people in Houston or Florida. This storm came at a real moment of indetermination. There’s this fiscal crisis largely brought on by local politicians. The federal government made it possible by making favorable conditions for lending.
“The fact is all these years, nobody’s wanted to stop it.
“There was always this feeling of the Americans will always save us. Of course, it seems like exactly the opposite.”