WINTER PARK, Florida — Vengo de una isla de confusión/I Come from an Island of Confusion at the Rollins Museum of Art is printmaker and installation artist Elsa Maria Meléndez’s first solo museum show outside of her native Puerto Rico. The exhibition boldly explores gender inequality, as well as the artist’s relationship with Puerto Rico’s colonial status, disasters that have ravaged the island, and destructive public policies that leave the prosperity of its people at the bottom of the United States’ socioeconomic priority list. 

Meléndez’s large-scale embroidered and textile pieces are sumptuous. The blue and pink padded materials of “Lengua versátil” (Versatile tongue) allude to the gender divide between men and women. Text added to the work calls out a familiar Spanish curse, “me cago en tu madre” (I shit on your mother), often expressed at the slightest inconvenience. Here it encompasses our padres as well, who are often protected from scorn due to cultural and societal notions of their role. She achieves this not only by contrasting pink and blue, which have gendered connotations, but by stating “me cago en tu padre” (I shit on your father) with equal attention to detail. 

In pieces like “La isla de las nostalgias” (Island of nostalgia), “Aún así” (Even so), and “La isla apagada II” (The island off II), Meléndez delves into a rich tapestry of themes encompassing motherhood, femininity, and her identity as a feminist artist. Nude and topless depictions of her own body serve as a purposeful avenue to explore the intricate connection between feminism and her personal journey.

Elsa María Meléndez, “La isla de las nostalgias” (Island of nostalgia) (2020–22), embroidery on canvas with discarded stuffed stockings and wire; canvas 170 x 56 inches; structure 38 x 39 x 14 inches

By positioning her body as her central motif, she subverts conventional portrayals of women, herself included, as passive. This choice invites contemplation about how societal norms often situate women as vulnerable, marked by objectification and control. Through the act of exposing her body in her creations, she reclaims authorship of her narrative and asserts her own agency.

This act of self-empowerment is particularly resonant against a backdrop of historical narratives that have perpetuated the disempowerment and marginalization of Puerto Rican, and other, women. In “Aún así,” the artist is surrounded by red and pink lips and tongues expressing sexual desire through lewd gestures. This powerful imagery mirrors Puerto Rico’s idealization and exploitation, as it grapples with financial distress and gentrification amid a “picture perfect” Caribbean backdrop. 

With “La isla apagada II” she employs clever wordplay to address the physical act of cutting the umbilical cord during childbirth and the metaphorical disconnection between mother and child. This analogy extends to the broader context of Puerto Rico’s struggle with blackouts from repeated natural disasters and its contentious relationship with electrical company LUMA Energy, which manages and operates the island’s power grid. By drawing parallels between the two, she allows her art to resonate on multiple levels. 

Through her artwork, Meléndez prompts audiences to delve into complex themes, fostering a sense of empathy, as well as awareness, dialogue, and change. This approach not only makes her work compelling, but also centers how Puerto Rican women are often disregarded by established art and social institutions within the United States. By tackling subjects like hyper-sexualization, gender norms and biases, and stereotypes, she skillfully merges artistic expression with sociocultural critique, and encourages viewers to reevaluate their understanding of these concepts and foster a more equitable status quo.

Elsa María Meléndez, “Es una trampa” (It’s a trap) from the series Sprout Again (2019), silkscreen printed on filled textiles, embroidery, and synthetic padding, 48 inches diameter 
Elsa María Meléndez, “La isla apagada II” (2022), embroidery on canvas, stuffed textiles, discarded and refilled stockings and acrylic on canvas, dimensions variable
Elsa María Meléndez, “Quiero más o la pelea del cuerpo (I want more or the body battles) (2017), intaglio and xerographic printed puppets, wooden box lined with screen-printed textiles and commercial fabrics, embroidery, foam and synthetic padding, 25 x 26 x 8 inches
Elsa María Meléndez, “Lenguas versátil,” detail (2016), padded textiles, embroidery, synthetic materials and sequins, 72 inches diameter 
Elsa María Meléndez, “Aún así” (Even so) (2022), embroidery and acrylic on canvas with multiple stuffed textiles, 115 x 60 inches

Elsa María Meléndez: Vengo de una isla de confusión/I Come from an Island of Confusion continues at the Rollins Museum of Art (1000 Holt Avenue–2765, Winter Park, Florida) through August 27. The exhibition was organized by l’Artban and the Rollins Museum of Art. It can also be viewed via 360 virtual view

Denise “The Vamp DeVille” Zubizarreta is an interdisciplinary artist, independent researcher, and writer. Her work focuses on her connection to self through exploring childhood angst, chronic illness,...