The sky is gray and cloudy above the Bacardi plant in Cataño, Puerto Rico. Building letters are stained and weathered. At first glance, no human has been there in years.
The Art Deco-inspired building had been dominated by leafy foliage, palm trees obscure the main entrance and flowers hang from broken windows. The chimney that once emitted foul fumes was also covered with plants.
The jungle had reclaimed the abandoned tourist attraction. Or at least that’s what Puerto Rican artist Gamaliel Rodriguez wants you to imagine.
“Bacardi”, a dystopian work produced by Rodriguez during the pandemic, reflects on nature, architecture and power in Puerto Rico. The piece, along with dozens of other works by Puerto Rican artists, have found a new home at Florida International University’s Patricia and Philip Frost Art Museum.
The museum recently acquired the works of Dr. Gamaliel Herrera, a Cleveland Clinic diagnostic radiologist and art collector with a passion for contemporary Puerto Rican art and artists. His collection, which he donated to the museum, is on display in the exhibition “In Search of Knowledge: Art from Puerto Rico and the Diaspora”. The show is on until September 11.
As a Puerto Rican himself, Herrera said he wanted FIU students to have access to the diversity of contemporary Puerto Rican art. The FIU has a predominantly Hispanic student population and awards more degrees to Hispanic students than any other institution. He worked closely with Amy Galpin, chief curator of the Frost Art Museum, for the exhibition.
“It’s a great opportunity to find a home for these works and share them with an audience that would be very grateful and see themselves reflected in the collection,” Herrera said.
Herrera’s love for art and philosophy stems from her childhood. He was born into a family of teachers.
He grew up running around the University of Puerto Rico in Río Piedras. On days when his mother, a professor, worked late, Herrera passed the time at the art museum and the university libraries. Public works of art kept him busy.
As an adult in medical training, Herrera began collecting works by young artists, many of whom were his friends. After graduating, he took his collecting more seriously and set his sights on meaningful works.
In the first room of the exhibition, Herrera highlighted a large abstract work by Noemí Ruiz, a well-known Puerto Rican painter. The piece, titled “Vibracion en Rojo y Azul”, was displayed in the Puerto Rican Pavilion at a 1992 World’s Fair in Seville, Spain. Works like this — which was chosen to represent the best of Puerto Rico — rarely become available to collectors, Herrera said. The piece is a “focal point”, both for Herrera and for the history of Puerto Rican art.
“I learned so much from this journey of collecting these works,” Herrera said. “I insist on this because it is not just an accumulation of material things. For me, it has been an experiential process and an intellectual process.
“The Complexity Lurking Within”
The exhibition is rather small with only three rooms. Despite its size, “Seeking Knowledge” captures the diversity of contemporary Puerto Rican art and addresses themes relevant to the Boricuas who live on the island and abroad.
The opening room demonstrates Puerto Rico’s contributions to abstract art in the 20th century, Gaplin said. She added that most of the artists on display were also teachers who shared their knowledge with the next generation.
The most striking work in the first room may seem out of place for an exhibition on Puerto Rican artists. This is a sepia-toned three-panel tropical landscape that resembles an ancient Chinese painting.
The triptych, called “Huang con Chang”, was actually made by artist Miguel Trelles in 2003. Trelles, who is Cuban and Puerto Rican, was a student of Chinese art history and traveled to China every year to also teach.
Herrera said he wanted the exhibit to challenge preconceptions about what contemporary Puerto Rican art should look like. “Huang con Chang” is a perfect example. Instead of considering the rules of European art as a model, Trelles was inspired by Chinese tradition.
“There are these reducing forces that view Puerto Rican art and culture as a monolith or as something simply defined,” Herrera said. “Our thesis is that Puerto Rican society and art is actually very diverse.”
The next piece delves into politics and the Caribbean love of maximalism.
The first piece of art is a massive candy-colored painting by Melvin Martinez called “Napolitana,” after the chocolate, strawberry, and vanilla ice cream. Martinez stacked thick slabs and globes of oil paint, forming colorful peaks and trays. Next to it, a cube painted in a similar style rests on a pedestal. The paint flows onto the support, like melting ice cream.
Sweet and sick artwork is a celebration (or critique, depending on how you look at it) of excess and gluttony.
Other artworks in the exhibit speak to Puerto Rico’s often-laden history with American business, industry, and politics. On another wall, Rodriguez’s “Bacardi” is flanked by two other politically charged pieces.
One of these works is a print that many Americans would recognize. It’s a parody of the iconic Uncle Sam poster that encouraged young men to fight in the First World War.
Instead of a patriotic old man with a white beard, this piece is a self-portrait of artist Quintín Rivera Toro recruiting for the “ejército antillano internacional,” a fictional army defending the Caribbean islands.
“The Uncle Sam poster is very successful [as propaganda] because it’s iconic. It’s etched in our memories,” Galpin said. “And so Quintín takes that power and reinvents it.”
The second piece is a photograph taken by Myritza Castillo of an abandoned sugar factory. The photo is part of his “Post Industrial Dust” series about ancient candies vanquished by nature.
The themes of man’s impact on nature and the impact of the United States on Puerto Rico continue in the third and final section of the exhibit. Herrera and Gaplin have stepped through black curtains that lead to a dark room lit only by two projections and a television screen.
The exhibition’s finale is a wall projection of what remains of an abandoned military warehouse. The warehouse is now a skeleton. The roof is gone. The vegetation and the blue sky show through. Nature has reclaimed the building.
Castillo’s installation, titled “Territorial Landscapes – Monuments,” includes a mirror box that plays clips of nature on Vieques, a Puerto Rican island occupied by the U.S. Navy and used for bomb training.
The final room is eerie, haunting and meditative – a major departure from the colorful and whimsical pieces featured in earlier rooms.
“I hope it shows the inherent complexity of the culture,” Herrera said. “That’s what makes us rich.”
In Search of Knowledge: The Art of Puerto Rico and the Diaspora
Where: FIU Patricia and Philip Frost Art Museum. 10975 SW 17th St. Miami, Florida
Opening hours: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday. Closed on Mondays.
On view until September 11, 2022.
This story was produced with the financial support of the Pérez Family Foundation, in partnership with Journalism Funding Partners, as part of an independent journalism grant program. The Miami Herald retains full editorial control of this work.