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The Hartford Courant

Oh Say Can You See -- And Sing, And Wear


July 25, 2003
Copyright © 2003 The Hartford Courant. All rights reserved. 

How ¡Que bonita bandera!: The Puerto Rican Flag as Folk Art describes itself and how it strikes a viewer make for an interesting double whammy of an experience. Purportedly an examination of folk art, this is anything but a simple display of artifacts. Rather, it is an examination of the tangled relation between political and social identification and the mythic symbols of statehood. The "pretty flag" stands as a sign -- depending on whose hands are holding it -- of political aspiration or cultural identification.

This is an exhibit that necessarily relies on photo documentation since "folk art" doesn't confine itself to the formal framework of gallery display. The "folk" wear this art, or ride it (there's a wonderful bicycle that commands the center of the exhibition space, bristling with a hundred flags), or put it in a shrine, or paint it onto a mailbox or into a memorial wall mural. Grandmothers tat it into lace -- and bikers sprout it from their helmets.

A Hartford folk artist, Ilka Robles, incorporates it into the robes her Three Kings wear in her small watercolors; Graciela Quinoñes-Rodriques engraves it into the bulging belly of the beautiful cuatro (a traditional string instrument) she fashioned by hand (the "voice" of this instrument, whose soundbox is made from a gourd, is extraordinarily beautiful, reports Lynn Williamson, Program Director of the Institute for Community Research).

This flag is the motif -- for beach blankets, for carnival masks, for political parties -- with at least two sides to every presentation. The politicos see it as a semi-sacred sign of their hopes for statehood, while the popular culture knits it into the very fabric of everyday life.

This is an art that depends on its living elements -- music, dance, poetry, political fervor -- to be truly experienced, something that still photographs can suggest but never quite portray. Still, the back-and-forth of reverent activism and irreverent affection is as lively and complex as the reality of a vivid culture that lives with its feet astraddle the continental US and the island of Puerto Rico -- a population of almost equal numbers in each locale and a habit of "hopping the pond" to keep everything first-hand.

From a visitor's point of view, the most telling corner of the exhibition is an installation titled "Mas Bonita Se Viera: A Nuyorican Tribute to Don Pedro Albizu Campos" by Jorge Zavala that occupies nearly a quarter of the space. A rambling assemblage of elements -- the artist's metaphoric representation of the sky, the earth and the sea -- it lays out a geography of landfall and distances, personal memorabilia and political history, freely gathering bits and pieces of furniture, bunting, Christmas lights, religious imagery and folk tradition.

A homey little shrine stands at the center, at its base a trickling fountain (the sound of tears) made of a washboard and tub emblazoned with the Virgin, on its tabletop, an "ancestral hand" rises between four mosaic images and is tattooed with taino, African and European symbols. Above it, sweeping swags of red and white bobbin lace, sparkling with electric lights, "fly" from the altar to each of the three chairs, tying them together like the airways which connect Puerto Rican families between New York and the island.

The title, and a large illuminated painting of Campos -- the island's great nationalist leader -- let us in on the big picture, represented by three wooden chairs, painted black, which mark off a territorial triangle. Each chair demarcates one perspective in the ongoing debate about Puerto Rico's relation to the larger powers which have dominated its history (its Spanish colonial past, its present U.S.-commonwealth status, its hopes for independence).

But the invitation to the viewer to take off his/her shoes, enter the space and add a colored bean to a glass fishbowl tells the story in a wonderfully engaging way. Provided are four colors of beans -- red, white, black and yellow -- representing your relation to Puerto Rico (native-born, New York-born, somewhere-else-born, or in love with a Puerto Rican). There in that little corner, with the trickling sound of water, under a sky of twinkling lights, amid a thousand so-personal relics and toys, there is nothing sweeter than dropping a little bean into the colorful mix.

This exhibit was developed and curated by folklorist Elena Martinez of City Lore in New York City, a longstanding community arts organization whose mission is to foster America's living cultural heritage. Hartford is the only New England venue for ¡Que bonita bandera! After September 12, it will travel to the historical societies in New York and New Jersey.

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