Brooklyn-based Puerto Rican curator brings the enduring devastation of Hurricane Maria to the Whitney Museum

painting by puerto rican artist in hurricane maria exhibit
Collapsed Soul, by artist Gamaliel Rodríguez, features in a new exhibit documenting the devastation of Hurricane Maria. The exhibit was curated by Brooklyn-based artist Maria Guerrero.
Ximena Del Cerro

Five years after Hurricane Maria swept through Puerto Rico, the where she was born and raised, Brooklyn-based artist Marcela Guerrero has assembled the work of twenty artists to tell a story of disaster in “No Existe Un Mundo Poshuracán: Puerto Rican Art in the Wake of Hurricane Maria,” a new exhibit at the Whitney Museum.

The exposition looks at the half-decade since Hurricane Maria, during which time not much has been solved. Puerto Rico’s population is still dealing with the damage the natural disaster caused when it devastated the entire island in Sept. 2017  — the loss of almost 3,000 people, trauma, the fractured infrastructure, the ecological devastation of the shores, and an economically-driven migration — all of which has now was aggravated when Hurricane Fiona hit earlier this year.

maria guerrero speaks at panel at hurricane maria exhibit at the witney
Brooklyn-based Whitney curator, Marcela Guerrero speaks about her work putting together the soon to be open exhibit “No Existe un mundo poshuracán”, about the dragging damage caused by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. Photo by Ximena Del Cerro.

This exhibition takes its title, “No Existe un Mundo Poshuracán,” roughly translated as “a post-hurricane world doesn’t exist,” from a poem by Puerto Rican poet Raquel Salas Rivera, which is featured in the exhibition as an artwork.

“Things haven’t changed much and the future is bleak,” said Guerrero, who was the chief curator of the exhibit. “With the climate crisis, we just know, factually, there will be more hurricanes in Puerto Rico and the idea here is to make people wonder what happens in places that are a colony. These two situations combined are a recipe for disaster that is completely neglected.”

Through painting, video, installation, performance, poetry, and newly commissioned pieces created for the show, the Whitney Museum’s exhibition brings together over fifty works by an intergenerational group of artists who are either still residing in the island or part of the community here in the states.

“The tone of the exhibition is set by the desire of the artists to be frank and honest about the political situation in Puerto Rico without being pessimistic, but the fight matches the grief,” Guerrero said. “This is a place where there is corruption, there is disaster, but there is also people trying to make art and beauty.”

Pieces by artists Armig Santos touch on the enormous death toll of the storm, and the grief carried by survivors. Photo by Ximena Del Cerro.
ripped street pole in hurricane maria exhibit
An untitled piece by artist Gabriella Torres-Ferrer. A ripped street pole with a sign that reads “Validate your American citizenship”. Ximena Del Cerro

At the time the storm hit, the curator was working as a curatorial fellow at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles.

“Just like so many people, I wasn’t able to get in touch with my family or friends,” she said. “I was feeling very frustrated not being able to do much, but now I have this important platform that I can use to promote the artists from Puerto Rico.”

Some of the pieces in the show talk about the summer of 2019, when hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans marched into the streets demanding the resignation of then-Governor Ricardo A. Rosselló. Following the insufficient response to those affected by Maria and the leak of offensive messages targeting the population, one of the largest demonstrations the island has ever seen pushed the governor out.

Other artists focused on the inequality endured by the locals.

“The policies in Puerto Rico don’t benefit the people who live there,” she said. “They are there to create an economy made for people who use the island as a playground.”

art made with sand at the Whitney Museum
La Concha, by artists Yiyo Tirado Rivera from 2022, made with sand and wood. Photo by Ximena Del Cerro.

As an Assistant Curator at the Whitney, Guerrero sets the agenda for the exhibitions and brings works into the museum’s permanent collection. She is part of the Emerging Artists Working Group, the Indigenous Artists Working Group, the Equity & Inclusion Committee, and co-leads the bilingual initiative at the museum. “No Existe Un Mundo Poshuracán” will open on Nov. 23 and runs until Apr. 23, 2023.

“I want Puerto Ricans to come see the show and feel proud,” she said. “I want the average museum visitor to remember that moment when President Trump went and threw paper towels to people. I want them to reflect on who the people standing there were and what are their lives like now.”