The sky is gray and cloudy over the Bacardi factory in Cataño, Puerto Rico. The building’s letters are smudged and weathered. By the looks of it, no human has been there in years.
The Art Deco-inspired building had been overcome by leafy foliage, palm trees obscure the front entrance and flowers dangle from broken windows. The smokestack that once billowed smelly fumes was capped by plants, too.
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 Rodriguez made 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 the Patricia and Philip Frost Art Museum at Florida International University.
The museum recently acquired the artworks from Dr. Gamaliel Herrera, a Cleveland Clinic diagnostic radiologist and art collector with a passion for Puerto Rican contemporary art and artists. His collection, which he gifted to the museum, is on display in the exhibition “Seeking Knowledge: Art from Puerto Rico and the Diaspora.” The show is on view until September 11.
As a Puerto Rican himself, Herrera said he wants FIU’s students to have access to the diversity of Puerto Rican contemporary art. FIU has a predominately Hispanic student population and awards more degrees to Hispanic students than any other institution. He worked closely with Amy Galpin, the Frost Art Museum chief curator, for the exhibition.
“This is a great opportunity to find a home for these works and share them with an audience that would be very appreciative and that would see itself reflected in the collection,” Herrera said.
Herrera’s love for art and philosophy stemmed from his childhood. He was born into a family of teachers.
He grew up running around the University of Puerto Rico in Río Piedras. On the days when his mother, a professor, was working late, Herrera would pass the time at the university’s art museum and libraries. The public artworks 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 significant works.
In the first room of the exhibition, Herrera pointed to a large abstract work by Noemí Ruiz, a well-known Puerto Rican painter. The piece, called “Vibracion en Rojo y Azul,” was displayed in the Puerto Rican pavilion at a 1992 world fair in Seville, Spain. Artworks like this — which was chosen to represent the best of Puerto Rico — seldom become available for collectors, Herrera said. The piece is a “focal point,” both for Herrera and Puerto Rican art history.
“I’ve learned immensely through this journey of collecting these works,” Herrera said. “I emphasize that because it has not been just an accumulation of material things. For me, it has been an experiential process and an intellectual process.”
‘The complexity that lies within’
The exhibition is rather small with just three rooms. Despite its size, “Seeking Knowledge” captures the diversity of Puerto Rican contemporary art and touches on themes relevant to 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 professors 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. It’s a three-panel, sepia-toned, tropical landscape that looks like 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 annually to Ch
ina to teach, as well.
Herrera said he wanted the exhibition to challenge preconceived notions of what Puerto Rican contemporary art should look like. “Huang con Chang” is a perfect example. Instead of looking to European art rules as a model, Trelles was inspired by Chinese tradition.
“There are these reductive forces that think of Puerto Rican art and culture as a monolith or as something simply defined,” Herrera said. “Our thesis is that Puerto Rican society and art are actually very diverse.”
The next room dives into politics and a Caribbean love of maximalism.
The first artwork is a massive, candy-colored painting by Melvin Martinez called “Napolitana,” named after the chocolate, strawberry and vanilla ice cream. Martinez piled thick slabs and globs of oil paint, forming colorful peaks and plateaus. Next to it, a cube painted in a similar style sits on a pedestal. Paint drips down the stand, like melting ice cream.
The sickly sweet artworks are a celebration (or criticism, depending on how you look at it) of excess and gluttony.
Other artworks in the exhibition touch on Puerto Rico’s oftentimes fraught history with American companies, industries and politics. On another wall, “Bacardi” by Rodriguez is flanked by two other politically-charged pieces.
One of those 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 World War I.
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 poster of Uncle Sam is very successful [as propaganda] because it’s iconic. It’s etched in our memories,” Galpin said. “And so Quintín takes that power and reimagines it.”
The second piece is a photograph taken by Myritza Castillo of an abandoned sugar mill. The photo is part of her “Post Industrial Dust” series on old sugar factories that have been overcome by nature.
Themes of humans impact on nature and the United States’ impact on Puerto Rico continue into the third and final section of the exhibition. Herrera and Gaplin stepped through black curtains that lead into a dark
room illuminated only by two projections and a TV screen.
The exhibition’s finale is wall-sized projection of what remains of an abandoned military warehouse. The warehouse is now a skeleton. The roof is gone. Vegetation and blue sky peek through. Nature reclaimed the building.
The installation by Castillo, called “Territorial Landscapes – Monuments,” includes a mirror box that plays clips of nature in Vieques, a Puerto Rican island that was occupied by the U.S. Navy and used for bomb training.
The last room is eerie, haunting and meditative — a major departure from the colorful, whimsical pieces displayed in previous rooms.
“I hope that it shows the complexity that lies within the culture,” Herrera said. “That’s what makes us rich.”
Seeking Knowledge: Art from Puerto Rico and the Diaspora
Where: FIU Patricia and Philip Frost Art Museum. 10975 SW 17th St. Miami, FL
Hours: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Closed Mondays.
On view until September 11, 2022.
This story was produced with financial support from The Pérez Family Foundation, in partnership with Journalism Funding Partners, as part of an independent journalism fellowship program. The Miami Herald maintains full editorial control of this work.