"Quien a buen árbol se arrima, buena sombra lo cobija"
The capricious nature of identity at Roxana Pérez-Méndez’s new exhibition Quien a buen árbol se arrima, buena sombra lo cobija at Taller Puertorriqueño
Roxana Pérez-Méndez’s new exhibition Quien a buen árbol se arrima, buena sombra lo cobija at Taller Puertorriqueño is a dynamic meditation on the construction and perception of Puerto Rican identity. Using a mix of hologram-like illusions, audio and video recordings, photographs and paintings from the archives of Taller Puertorriqueño as well as other sources, Pérez-Méndez highlights Puerto Rico’s unique, multifaceted character.
Among the themes are Puerto Rico’s natural landscape and agricultural practices, Taíno cultural traditions and its complex relationship to the United States. Images, sound and video radiate throughout immersing the visitor in Puerto Rican identity.
To one side of the room we see representations of the island’s agricultural and physical heritage. In Cortando Caña (2015) a woman tired from laboring cuts and compiles sugar cane while Finca del Guaraguao (2017) depicts a hologram of the artist walking through the lush, physical landscape in Francisco Oller’s Paisaje de la Finca del Guaraguao (1884). La Zafra (2017) showcases a hologram of the farm fields burning to prepare the local harvest in between a frame of plants and nature.
In the center of the room we are greeted with representations of the island’s artistic culture. In Taíno (2016) a video of a group performing a traditional Taíno ritual dance is placed in the center of an inverted tire planter. On the nearby wall, Vejigante (2016) shows a video of the iconic trickster Vejigante, known from Carnival and the St. James Festival in the town of Loisa, dancing in a video projection.
The central aspect of Pérez-Méndez’s work, and perhaps the most noteworthy, is her use of a technique called “Pepper’s ghost” to create hologram-like images imposed upon physical objects. The method was made famous by the scientist John Henry Pepper in the 1800s and was used at the time for creating illusions known as “ghosts” in theatrical performances and theme parks.
As described by Pérez-Méndez on her website, “to create these “ghosts” a two-way glass mirror is positioned at a 45-degree angle. The screen acts as both a mirror and a reflecting medium simultaneously producing reality and illusion.”
According to the exhibit description, in the context of Pérez-Méndez’s work “Pepper’s ghost” serves “to merge the contemporary with the traditional, responding to the capricious nature of identity.”
For example, in Baquiné (2017) a hologram of the artist seemingly joins in mourning with the other figures in Francisco Oller’s painting El Velatorio (1893). Settled among the crowd in the painting the artist sings alongside the others. Audio in the background brings the scene to life.
The audio-visual effect created by these illusions is powerful. Through the use of “Pepper’s ghost” the contemporary artist firmly connects her present self to the past, interacting with the original figures as if she were there with them. In Finca del Guaraguao (2017), we see this as her projection onto the Francisco Oller painting, Paisaje de la Finca del Guaraguao (1884), calls out below to a man depicted standing by a farmhouse. The artist’s projection then descends down to him as if running to a friend. In this way, the past seamlessly unites with the present while simultaneously highlighting the feeble nature of identity.
As Perez-Mendez notes in her artist’s statement, “Uncanny, ephemeral and amusing by nature, this construction of vision is a tenuous one since the illusion quickly falls apart if the viewer steps to either side, revealing the simple mechanics of the work. Yet, this miniature world persists. The viewer witnesses a situation where no resolution is achieved nor stabilized, a place where the American Dream of naturalization is left unfulfilled.” Only if the construction is intact can the identity be expressed.
However, the exhibition is noteworthy not just for this technique, but also for highlighting the vast array of identities, sometimes conflicting, Puerto Rico is assigned. This is perhaps best indicated on the exterior wall of the exhibition, where the stereotyped image of Puerto Rico in a tourist video from America is contrasted with images of Puerto Rican migration to the United States.
In the former piece, entitled Ay, ay, ay, ay Puerto Rico! (2016), the tourist video labels Puerto Rico “Fiesta Island” and takes the viewer on a grand tour of the island’s main cities. As gorgeous, curated images flash by, a narrator describes the country as a lush, wonderful resort with beautiful mountains and beachs, exotic and tasty fruits, traditional Spanish architecture and a distinctly American feel.
To the video’s immediate left, this glorified, tokenized image is strongly contrasted with scenes of the migration of Puerto Ricans to the US in Crucero (2016). A large group of immigrants embarks on a ship to New York. Above hang photos of more realistic depictions of Puerto Rican life both in the US and on the island. A group of women pose for a photo in front of La Milagrosa church in Philadelphia. In a photo taken of the mural on the old wall of Taller Puertorriqueño we see Puerto Ricans selling items from stands in the streets of Philadelphia.
It is clear Pérez-Méndez has thought through each work carefully, selecting and creating pieces that attribute depth and dynamism to Puerto Rican identity. The experience of visiting the exhibit, ironically paralleling the “grand tour” of the tourism video, takes the visitor on a journey through different constructions of Puerto Rican identity commenting on the experience as a vibrant, constructed whole.
The exhibition is also an homage to the museum itself as reflected in the title Quien a buen arbol se arrima, buena sombra lo cobija, which, according to the exhibition label, loosely translates to “He who takes shelter under a great tree gets the best shade,” meaning those who benefit most in life are those who associate with something larger than themselves.” The exhibition claims this is a direct reference to the Taller Puertorriqueño in which the exhibit is housed.
Founded in 1974 by a group of Puerto Ricans and Latinos in North Philadelphia, for over 40 years Taller Puertorriqueño has sought to provide cultural training for local youth as well as develop the Latino community through the arts.
According to the museum history on its website, “in its evolution, Taller has gone from a grassroots, Puerto Rican graphic arts community center to a respected institution that celebrates the arts of Puerto Rico, Latin America, and the Caribbean. Providing an outlet for neighborhood children and youth by providing after-school activities and programming rich in artistic and cultural discipline, remains central to the organization’s mission and ongoing work.”
Most recently in pursuit of this mission, the organization opened a new building to house its cultural center this past fall, which contains Pérez-Méndez’s exhibit. The building is the largest Puerto Rican/Latino center in the mid-Atlantic region and includes an outdoor sculpture garden, electronic classrooms, a large exhibition gallery as well as dance and theater studios.
Seen in this context, Perez-Mendez’s commentary on the capricious nature of Puerto Rican identity is also an homage to the center itself, honoring its historical and present mission to serve the local community and beckoning forward an exciting future.
The exhibit is on view through March, 27 2017 at Taller Puertorriqueño.