“Juan / Miguel / Milagros / Olga / Manuel / All died yesterday today / and will die again tomorrow / passing their bill collectors / on to the next of kin […] / All died / hating the grocery stores / that sold them make-believe steak / and bullet-proof rice and beans / All died waiting dreaming and hating” — from “Puerto Rican Obituary” by Pedro Pietri
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Upon entering Novenario, surrounded by art that evokes mourning, and artistic transformations of that universal experience, viewers might begin to grieve through a different light, and even find a spiritual refuge to meditate and celebrate despite their losses.
The exhibition, at the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Puerto Rico (MAC) through April 12, provoked this feeling in me, a Puerto Rican living abroad who has experienced most of Puerto Rico’s recent duelos (mourning) from afar. Rather than centering on death, Novenario (Novena, in English) broadens the meaning of mourning as it explores how artists transform pain and loss, whether personal or collective, “into a state of creative potential in which pain, anger, and beauty insist on coexisting,” as curator Lydia Platón-Lázaro expresses in her curatorial essay.
The notion of mourning in Puerto Rico has taken on another dimension after María, a Category 4 hurricane when it made landfall on the island and ripped through this already ailing country on September 20, 2017. Even though Novenario isn’t centered exclusively on María, the exhibition is timely — 2022 marks the five-year anniversary of the catastrophic hurricane that taught Puerto Ricans new, unexpected ways of facing the specter of death and mourning.
María’s path of destruction left thousands dead — during its powerful hit and in its aftermath. The hurricane also devastated the island’s infrastructure and created a humanitarian crisis that exposed local and federal authorities’ neglect of Puerto Ricans. Inevitably, Hurricane María is essential to Novenario.
Bringing together 35 works from 28 artists of different generations and diverse practices, Novenario considers themes that span from personal losses to tragedies that have impacted Puerto Rico collectively, such as the devastation of hurricanes Irma and María, earthquakes, and different forms of violences — from criminal to political to gender-based.
“The artwork selected commemorates imaginary novenas, nine night ceremonies to name the work of mourning. It marks the nine months of gestation of new lives, the nine days and nights in which different spiritual communities gather in Puerto Rico to say rosaries, play drums, or to wait for the passing of the spirit,” writes Platón-Lázaro in her curatorial essay, which considers the symbolic nature of this exhibition, conveying mourning and its rituals.
The works in Novenario underscore what Platón-Lázaro describes as “the labor of mourning” by provoking dialogues on mourning with viewers. By the “labor of mourning,” the curator refers to one of the core aspects of her investigation: what she describes as the transformation of mourning through the materiality of art, manifested here in various mediums. “A way of recovering is through action: doing,” she told me.
Walking through the exhibition alongside Platón-Lázaro, the memories conveyed in the artworks felt almost as if they were my own. I reminisced about my loved ones who had passed, like my grandparents, through Daniel Lind-Ramos’s painting “La abuela de la madre de la hija” (1999-2000), which represents maternal lineage and ancestral wisdom.
Novenario opens with Antonio Martorell’s book Los muertos cuentan, Serie: Libros (2018), in which each page displays a number in calligraphy accounting for a life lost during María. This piece was part of Martorell’s 2018 exhibition ¿Queslaque? Es que la… at the Taller de Fotoperiodismo in Puerto Pico. The show paid tribute to the victims of the hurricane while its title alludes to the Spanish word for obituary, “esquela.”
In this work, which resembles a funeral registry, the artist conjures up the collective frustration after the local government numbered hurricane-related deaths at 64 despite public knowledge that the death toll was much higher. A Harvard University study later estimated that 4,645 people had died due to the hurricane and its aftermath. Martorell’s piece urges that the dead are never forgetten, and their memories are respected.
Every artwork on display in the show reflects a personal connection. In Jotham Malavé’s painting “Viento Cegador” (2019), a blue tarp floating over a rural landscape refers to the roofs thousands of people lost after María, depicting a landscape intertwined with painful memories for many Puerto Ricans.
In the first gallery, Frances Gallardo and Elsa María Meléndez enact the “labor of mourning” through textiles and fabrics. Gallardo’s pieces trace in embroidery and openwork paper the familiar yet terrifying image of a hurricane, while Meléndez reflects on the hurricane and accumulation through works composed of textiles and embroideries from a fabric store destroyed by María.
Using an antique rug as his canvas, Martorell’s “Consuelo (Las manos de Andrea)” (2019) honors the artist’s sister, Consuelo, remembering her as an expectant mother. Adding another layer of mourning and remembrance, Consuelo’s hands were modeled by Andrea Ruiz-Costas, who would become a victim of gender violence and a failed system. The 35-year-old was murdered in 2021 by her former partner after she appeared in court more than once seeking protection.
The death of Ruiz-Costas, who was was mourned by Puerto Ricans, is a symbol of the island’s state of emergency over gender violence. Seeing her hands as Consuelo’s is emblematic of art’s power of freezing in time a memory of someone or something.
The loss of family members and tributes to loved ones recur across Novenario’s seven galleries. Nayda Collazo-Llorens’s poignant “Evidencia” (1999) is composed of found items collected in small plastic bags, each bag serving as a record of a moment in time. A number of works are dedicated to the loss of fathers, including the stirring photographic documentations in Marisol Plard’s “Me fui. Cuídate.” (2021), Gabi Pérez-Silver’s “Our Mind; A Weapon” (2018), and Gabriella Báez’s “Ojalá nos encontremos en el mar” (2018).
For her deeply contemplative work “Un minuto de silencio” (2005), Carola Cintrón-Moscoso requested a moment of silence from strangers in a park. Dhara Rivera’s “Minuflí ahora” (2021), an eerie gallery-wide installation, commissioned by the MAC en el Barrio program, was inspired by her grandmother’s stories of the 1899 hurricane San Ciriaco. In this piece, a rocking chair that swings to and fro ominously, like a pendulum, and a length of fabric with crochet patterns are juxtaposed with a video projecting the calming image and sound of water. As she invokes her grandmother and her family’s sewing history, Rivera transports viewers to a physical and emotional space in which, as the curator reflects, solace finally comes.
Some of the artists explore violent chapters in Puerto Rican history. For instance, Rafael Trelles’s mesmerizing 2011 painting “Camisa Negra” memorializes the 1937 Ponce Massacre, and the equally striking woodblock print “La muerte lo sorprendió en el campo” (1979) by Rafael Rivera-Rosa and drawing “Tríptico de Maravilla” (1986) by Nelson Sambolín address the 1978 murder of independentistas Carlos Enrique Soto Arriví and Arnaldo Darío Rosado Torres at Cerro Maravilla.
Along with mourning, transformation is a key concept in the exhibition. Yolanda Velázquez’s installation Terrario (2021), outside the galleries, offers an opportunity to meditate on change and continuity. In this terrarium, plants grow in cans on a wooden bench; above them, hanging blue tarps echo the natural disasters the island has faced and the resilience of its inhabitants.
Other artworks invoke mourning in relation to colonialism, AIDS, and migration. The exhibition also touches on anger; circling back to Hurricane María, Rosaura Rodríguez-Muñoz’s watercolors, such as “La gente está muriendo y nos tiran papel toalla” (2018), articulate the anger many Puerto Ricans felt toward the local and federal governments for their failed response to the hurricane. In this piece, the artist alludes to the island’s blackout following María’s destruction through images of fallen electricity poles and the public outcry that ensued when Donald Trump threw paper towels at a crowd while surveying the storm’s aftermath.
Since the exhibition opened, the MAC has hosted several events inspired by Novenario including Réquiem, a remembrance led by voice performer Ivette Román and Todos mis muertos, a performance by dancer Merián Soto, dedicated to the memory of her brother, featuring an altar made in collaboration with artist Awilda Sterling. These events are part of the museum’s socially engaged role in its community but also of Novenario’s role in familiarizing and educating people about the histories the artworks address.
The solemn complexity of Novenario evokes Puerto Rico’s novenas, processes, and rituals to cope with personal and collective losses. As curator and professor Nelson Rivera said to me, the exhibition “recognizes our dead who otherwise would remain ignored, as the government would prefer, and it offers a space to cope with pain and transform loss to a place of gathering, healing, and collective creativity.”
Novenario continues at the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Puerto Rico (Ave. Juan Ponce de León, esquina Ave. Roberto H. Todd, Parada 18, San Juan, Puerto Rico) through April 24. The exhibition was curated by Lydia Platón-Lázaro, supported by the MAC and a Warhol Foundation Curatorial Fellowship.