"Nor Wind, Nor Water": A new exhibition dedicated to Puerto Rican recovery
The new Da Vinci Art Alliance showcase features artists that are both from the island and part of the American diaspora community.
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Puerto Rican artist Edna Santiago’s career grew out of a personal tragedy that upended her world 13 years ago. After more than 40 years working as a physical therapist, Santiago’s only son passed away.
“My pride and joy,” she said.
The loss left what seemed like an unfillable void in her life and clouded her head with a search for answers. The only thing she found capable of healing both was the arts.
“I never knew I was an artist. I never gave myself permission and then it ended up being real and good,” said Santiago.
Since then, she became a self-taught painter and went on to own a gallery in Puerto Rico.
But in 2017, many of the same feelings Santiago felt many years ago would resurface as she experienced three hurricanes in the span of two months. After witnessing Harvey flood Houston, Santiago left and arrived in Puerto Rico two days before Hurricane Irma struck the island on Aug. 30.
In the short time between Irma and Hurricane Maria, Santiago’s mother passed away back in Houston. Before she could return to Texas, Maria had already started its course of destruction across Puerto Rico and stopped any transportation to and from the island.
The resulting trauma left Santiago mired in the same uncertainty, searching for answers.
“I’m delicate, and I don’t trust, and I’m uncomfortable, and I’m trying to heal,” she said of her experiences.
Santiago wanted to find a way to give back and help Puerto Rico recover, but her experiences had made her wary of the big aid agencies and organizations. Still, she felt the urge to do more and be an example for others.
“There was nothing else that would work,” said Santiago. “A helping hand, I would still feel like I didn’t do enough. A hand out wouldn’t feel right.”
She found her answer once again through art.
Her initial inspiration came from noticing that of all those that suffered during Maria, artists faced some of the most adverse effects to their livelihoods. With so much destruction, people didn’t have time to appreciate or consider art.
“It’s the least of their worries,” said Santiago.
With that in mind, Santiago pitched the idea of a show to empower Puerto Rican artists to the Da Vinci Art Alliance two years ago. She didn’t have the lineup of artists, but the vision was taking shape.
“It’s going to work if I can strengthen the artists and... they can strengthen the community,” said Santiago of her approach at the time.
The result, after two years of planning and production, was “Nor Wind, Nor Water,” an all Puerto Rican art exhibition celebrating the work of artists both from the island and the American diaspora community.
The name draws on the idea of overcoming the obstacles, physical and mental, that still stand between Puerto Rican artists and their craft in the aftermath of Maria and in the context of other hardships experienced by those on the island and in the diaspora.
“Not the winds of the storm, nor the distances in water can keep me from doing what I’m supposed to do,” said Santiago.
The gallery premiered at the Da Vinci Art Alliance at 704 Catharine St. in Philadelphia on the night of Aug. 21.
Many of the featured artists, including Santiago, were forced to flee Puerto Rico after Maria. One of them, Perez Perez, said the opportunity to feature his art was “completely unique.”
Two of his paintings are featured in the gallery — one shows the human struggle for survival without electricity or power on the island, while the other is a vivid depiction of nature’s destruction in the aftermath of the storm.
“I got to see first hand all that was the phenomenon of the hurricane in Puerto Rico,” said Perez.
“It was a very tough challenge that changed my life completely,” he added.
Unlike Perez, Gilberto Gonzalez was born and raised on Spring Garden St., in Philadelphia’s historically Puerto Rican neighborhood. He said Maria made him worry for his many family members — 24 aunts and uncles on his dad’s side, and 14 on his mother’s side — who still live in the mountains of Puerto Rico.
After growing up in Spring Garden, Gonzalez moved to North Philadelphia, where he has continued to make art inspired by his environment and neighborhood issues. His "Kensington Burning" piece, featured in the gallery, is his response to a factory fire which happened close to where he lived.
As a member of the diaspora Puerto Rican community, Gonzalez said that he was honored to be featured alongside the other artists, and stressed the importance of keeping a connection with Puerto Rico to maintain its rich culture. That ongoing relationship also works to empower the population on and off the island.
“If we make things better here — in Pennsylvania and in this country — then we’re going to make things better for Puerto Ricans on the island,” said Gonzalez.
Also featured on the gallery’s opening night was a performance by Colombian artist Salomé Cosmique. The act was a window into Puerto Rico’s history of disenfranchisement at the hands of the U.S.
As different moments in the history between the U.S. and Puerto Rico were displayed on a screen to the tune of the Puerto Rican national anthem, Cosmique brought out a Puerto Rican flag and laid it next to a pile of sand and stack of papers.
One-by-one, or sometimes two-by-two, Cosmique displayed to the audience the different historical moments written on each piece of paper — from the transfer of Puerto Rico to the U.S. following the Mexican-American War to the recent protests that ousted then-Governor Ricardo Rosselló — before burying them beneath handfuls of sand atop the Puerto Rican flag.
The performance ended when Cosmique pulled the flag from beneath the pile of sand and papers and laid it on top of the scattered fragments of history, representing a new beginning for the island in the name of the performance: Renacer (Rebirth).
“Nor wind, Nor Water” is on display at the Da Vinci Art Alliance until September 1.