Some artists train their eye on the small things of life. Teresita Fernández isn’t one of them. Her art, she said, is driven by a desire to know more about the human condition and the ways in which the past continues to impact the present. “I’m curious always just for myself: Where am I? What is this place? So many of us don’t even know our own history,” she said.
Over the course of her career, Fernández, who was born in Miami to Cuban parents in exile, has taken it upon herself to learn her own cultural lineage, focusing on the Caribbean and its intellectuals like Cuban poet and philosopher José Martí, Jamaican novelist Sylvia Wynter, Saint Lucian poet Derek Walcott, and Martiniquan-born philosopher Édouard Glissant. “It’s an ongoing research project to learn about who I am,” she said, “as well as the underlying Indigenous erasure around the Caribbean.”
Many of these sources may not be readily evident in her sculptures and installations, however, and her latest work bears out these influences in somewhat unseen ways. During a socially distanced visit to her Brooklyn studio in November ahead of her new solo exhibition in New York, at Lehmann Maupin gallery, Fernández recalled her time spent in Europe as part of a college study abroad program and visiting the museums there. She came to realize that all of the wealth that was displayed in museums and cathedrals could be traced to the exploitation of the Caribbean and the labor of enslaved people.
“I became really interested in how we can decolonize the way in which we think of this region, which for most of the world is this periphery, this tiny thing on the edge of something that’s often very vulgarly associated with leisure or resorts,” she said. “It’s this paradise where real people somehow don’t make the picture—they’re invisible.”
For her Lehmann Maupin show, titled “Maelstrom” and on view through January 23, Fernández has created several new bodies of work that look at the histories of colonialism in the Caribbean, particularly that of Puerto Rico. (Alongside it, she also has on offer a “visual essay” microsite to contextualize the works and offers additional readings, which she described as the show’s “underlying social structure.”) “We are often in this conditioned mode of talking about colonization historically as though it’s something that happened a long time ago. But Puerto Rico is this experiment in colonization that never ended,” Fernández said, calling it the world’s oldest colony.
Puerto Rico’s ongoing colonial history informs one of the show’s series, “Hurakán,” which is composed of 20 6-by-8-inch abstract mixed media collages that Fernández created earlier this year, alone in her studio during the pandemic’s initial lockdown, a process she described as “cathartic.” The series takes its name from the Taíno people’s name for the god of storms, which was then adopted by Spanish colonizers (and later into English) to name hurricanes, the region’s tropical cyclones. (“The only place in the world where hurricanes get called hurricanes is in the Caribbean,” Fernández added.)
Each work in the series is named after a historic hurricane—Maria, Katrina, Paloma, even Teresita. Notably, the names are female, and Fernández connected this to the historic and ongoing practice of forced sterilization for women of color in the Americas, which has taken place in Puerto Rico since the 1930s. Between 1930 and 1970, 35 percent of Puerto Rican women were forced to be sterilized. Some of those women were also required to participate, often unknowingly, in clinical trials that led to the development of the birth control pill. “Those drugs were FDA-approved because they were tested on Puerto Rican women,” she said.
Fernández, who won a MacArthur “genius” fellowship in 2005, is intimately familiar with this history of medical experimentation because her mother experienced it. When her mother was 24 years old, she was forced to have a hysterectomy in the United States. “It was always referred to as la operación,” Fernández said, adding, “Things happened to them that they didn’t even know about.”
But, Férnandez said, these are not only horrible tales from the past—they are also “present-day realities as well,” as evidenced by the recent whistleblower revelations of forced sterilizations in ICE detention centers, primarily on Caribbean women. “The series was a way of taking all of these violent occurrences and recurrences and stacking them up and shaking them around this violence and abuse and dehumanization of certain women’s bodies. This is a big part of Caribbean history,” Fernández said.
“That it recently came to light in ICE detention centers is nothing new,” she continued. “It’s as old as colonization. It’s never gone away.” Taken together, Fernández said the exhibition becomes “a portrait of violence in many ways.”
The image of a tropical storm appears in another work in the exhibition, Caribbean Cosmos (2020), a 16-foot-long panel made of thousands of glazed ceramic tesserae that together form a created image of various swirls that mimic aerial maps showing hurricanes forming over the Caribbean. The work is at once beautiful and captivating—a gripping depiction of devastating destruction.
“That movement that you see looks like that kind of swirling hurricane,” Fernández said. “If you shrunk it down to a microscopic level, it would look like everything that’s happening in your body, and if you exploded it to be as expansive as the cosmos, it would look like the Milky Way.”
For another series, titled “Black Beach(Unpolished Diamond),” Fernández has created a suite of three large-scale works that each feature hundreds of pieces of whole charcoal, burned wood from whiskey barrels, and lava rocks (along with other materials) that are laboriously affixed to a panel of polished aluminum.
Because these materials have their own identity, they are “not neutral,” Fernández said. “It’s not like going to the paint store, buying a bunch of paint, and then painting a picture of a burnt landscape. I’m actually making an image of a burned landscape with pieces of a real burned landscape, which already has its own history. It’s almost like they’re haunted materials.”
For the artist, the landscape she has created contains the very elements it is meant to depict, and therefore it is intimately linked to those who inhabit that land. “It’s really about the history of people,” she said. What is represented is not just nature, but something more—an artwork that exists as “the history of human beings, the history of power, a history of ownership, a history of conquest. What we think of as the landscape, usually a passive thing that just exists, is actually very much a construct that’s created around notions of power and visibility.”