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'Fragile Handle With Care': The Two Sides Of Puerto Rico At Mattatuck

A new exhibit at the Mattatuck Museum in Waterbury shows two sides of Puerto Rico.

In the first-floor Munger Gallery, modern and contemporary Puerto Rican artists show present-day visions of the island and its people: everyday lives, struggles, revered celebrities, beautiful landscapes, political views, symbolic and in-your-face representations of cultural identity.

Upstairs in the Monteiro Gallery is a Puerto Rico of days long gone by, in the form of hundreds of vintage postcards that show the island to its best advantage to strangers who may or may not ever have been there: views of Mayaguez, Ponce and San Juan, mountain and coastal towns, the outlying islands, workers, schools and modes of transportation.

Those classic images are accompanied by an array of santos, figures of saints. Most are worn-down, limbs missing, paint rubbed off.

“We are showing them unconserved. They are touched, not just put on a shelf. When people pray, they hold a figure,” says Mattatuck curator Cynthia Roznoy. “They’re a part of everyday life.”

The exhibit, titled “Frágil Maneje Con Cuidado: Bienvenido a los puertorriqueños a nuestra comunidad” (“Fragile Handle with Care: Welcome Puerto Ricans to Our Community”), was mounted in response to the hundreds of refugees who came to Waterbury after Hurricane Maria last year.

“We wanted to know how to make them feel welcome,” says Roznoy.

The show was guest-curated by Ben Ortiz of Ridgefield, and many pieces come from his collection. The postcards are on loan from José Rodriguez.

Ortiz has been collecting art since he was 8 years old. A piece he bought when he was 13 — Don Miguel Pou’s oil-on-board depicting flame trees — is in the exhibit.

The wall text is in one language: Spanish. Those who don’t speak Spanish won’t miss much in the translation regarding the postcards. They and santos speak for themselves. (A catalog will repeat the text in English.)

The hurricane, having occurred so recently, does not figure into any artworks, but Wichie Torres comes close with “La Espera,” a dark and detailed acrylic-on-canvas of Puerto Ricans huddled under umbrellas in a driving rainstorm. Similarly, Omar Velazquez’s mixed-media work “Fragile Handle With Care” is a representation of those words superimposed on a cardboard map of Puerto Rico.

Some artworks reflect a Puerto Rico that is no more, as the landscape changes and agricultural jobs disappear after other countries move in on the market. A collograph of a palm grove by Rafael Ferrer, an acrylic of a banana tree by Miguel A. Rodriguez and a watercolor of poppies by Carlos Osorio show a nostalgia for views that no longer exist.

Another work driven by sentimentality is “Ofrenda Yaucana,” a color silkscreen by Marcelina Sierra of Hartford. Sierra writes in her artist statement, “my work flows from the welcoming window of a Caribbean island where the culture of a visually rhythmic and colorful language lies in harmony with my soul.”

The devastation of Maria has made Ortiz curious about the future of landscape art on the island.

“Puerto Rico is never going to be the same. Part of it is lost because of what happened in nature,” he says. “A lot of this exhibit is going down memory lane. The hurricanes changed the dynamics of the island and its people, too. It was a great loss.”

Imna Arroyo, a retired art professor at Eastern Connecticut State University, references a Puerto Rico of folktales. With “Iroko a Yoruba Gaze,” Arroyo has constructed the mythological “Tree of Life” beloved by the Yoruba people whose culture strongly influences historical Puerto Rican culture. The heads of Yoruba earth deities emerge around the roots of the tree and the Yoruba gods dwell at the crown of the tree.

Other classic imagery of Puerto Rico is seen in the carved gourds by Graciela Quiñones of West Hartford and the terracotta deities by R. Colon. Ernesto Lopez of Waterbury cleverly evokes Puerto Rico in his artwork in the shape of dominoes, a popular pastime on the island.

Carlos Irizarry’s two 1969 silkscreens titled “Moratorium” use imagery from Picasso’s “Guernica” to comment on the Vietnam War, where 48,000 Puerto Ricans fought and hundreds died. A political statement from a more distant past is a 16th-century woodcut that commemorates the legendary killing of Diego Salcedo by Tainos who wanted to see if Spaniards were the immortal gods they claimed to be.

The Puerto Rican race itself is examined by Miguel Trelles’ 1991 silkscreen “You Don’t Look Porrorican.” The self-portrait has the map of Puerto Rico nailed to its forehead. In “La Colonia,” a self-portrait by Ángel Rodriguez Diaz, the map of the island covers his mouth, to symbolize cultural invisibility.

Ortiz points out that invisibility by relating a comment he heard since the hurricane.

“People said to me, ‘I didn’t know Puerto Ricans were American citizens. There’s still a lot of education to be had there.”

FRÁGIL MANEJE CON CUIDADO: BIENVENIDO A LOS PUERTORRIQUEÑOS A NUESTRA COMUNIDAD” is at Mattatuck Museum, 144 W. Main St. in Waterbury, until June 17. An opening reception will be May 13, from 1 to 3 p.m.

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