Cresting a wave, a small boat glides into view, its cargo of colorful talegas piled high on the deck, each sack stamped with a date. A figure, formed from a folded piece of cardboard with a bugle attached, guides the oars. Nearby, gloves play a pair of conga drums, simulating a pulsating rhythm. El Viejo Griot (The Elder Storyteller) has arrived.
So begins Daniel Lind-Ramos’s expansive and engaging exhibition “El Viejo Griot—Una historia de todos nosotros” (“The Elder Storyteller—A Story of All of Us,” on view through September 4, 2023), which combines assemblage, performance, and video. Found objects, family heirlooms, tools, musical instruments, cooking utensils, palm leaves, tarps, and other materials gathered from around the artist’s home village of Loíza, Puerto Rico, have been joined together into towering constructions whose performative acts of recycling and reclamation speak to contemporary life and Afro-Puerto Rican history, including 500 hundred years of colonialism, environmental disaster, and cultural destruction.
Sitting in his fishing boat, El Viejo, a character from the annual carnival-like procession of the Fiestas de Santiago Apóstol, serves as the principal narrator. The dates on the sacks refer to pivotal moments such as the Taíno Rebellion (1511), the failed British invasion (1797), and the Commonwealth declaration (1952), locating viewers firmly within the island’s history of slavery, invasion, and occupation. The talegas reappear in the video Talegas de la memoria (Sacks of Memory) (2020), where they are carried from boats onto the shore, re-enacting enslavement, while Lind-Ramos and others wearing masks parade and dance as they perform rituals of self-liberation and cleansing.
Three sculptures that look like altars or sentinel figures reveal how Lind-Ramos transforms the mundane and prosaic into the poetic. Joining together such disparate elements as a DVD player, TV monitor, machetes, and a yucca grater with coconuts, palm branches, drums, and shovels, each work pays homage to local practices like traditional cooking and fishing now increasingly lost to tourism and migration.
The center of the exhibition focuses on recent events and environmental concerns. Three sculptures, collectively titled Las Tres Marías, refer to the Catholic religious figure and to the deadly 2017 hurricane that killed more than 5,000 people in Puerto Rico, forever changing the island. Continuing Lind-Ramos’s strategy of embedding history and memory into his work, each assemblage recycles debris from the storm, combining FEMA tarps, roofing materials, buckets, hoses and plastic tubing, fishing nets, shoes, musical instruments, and chairs to convey the hurricane’s devastation and environmental impact while also inviting reflection on sustenance, community, and strategies for healing. María Guabancex (2018–22) effectively conjures the terror of the storm and survival through its spiraling cyclonic form, which seems to spew metal siding, fronds, and cables even as its base becomes a protective barraca for weathering disaster.
Environmental concerns also circulate through Centinelas de la luna nueva (Sentinels of the New Moon) (2022–23), an arrangement of masked figures made from materials associated with agriculture, cooking, and fishing. With the title invoking the time when mangrove roots are harvested and planted, Sentinels of the New Moon underscores the importance of these trees to the local ecosystem and the need for their preservation.
Other recent works engage the pandemic and the fragility of daily life. In Alegoría de una obsesión (Allegory of an Obsession) (2022–23), buckets and mops recall the pandemic’s sanitizing and hygiene protocols, placing them in dialogue with the performances of La loca, the “mad woman” from Loíza’s fiesta processions, whose exaggerated sweeping now becomes a humorous act meant to lighten trauma and loss. Ambulancia (2020) (2022–23) is even more direct, with emergency lights, a mattress, megaphone, and shovel forming a makeshift cart. Pushed forward by two feet that appear to strain at the burden, this assemblage aptly summarizes our precarious existence in the time of Covid, as once again, Lind-Ramos joins provocation with healing.