Artist Anabel Vázquez Rodríguez's Two Worlds: New England And Puerto Rico


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Annika Darling

Anabel Vázquez Rodríguez moved from Puerto Rico to the U.S. 16 years ago to pursue her passion for photography and further her education as an artist. In pursuit of her dreams, Vázquez  Rodríguez found her world turned upside down, and was challenged by an overwhelming feeling of displacement; Of not belonging wholly to either Puerto Rico or to the U.S. In her new installation, Retropical: Superstitions of the Other — open for viewing at the Yellow Peril Gallery in Providence, R.I. — Vázquez Rodríguez shares her experience and examines this state of self-exile through a combination of moving images, photographs, drawings and maps.
Anabel Vázquez Rodrîquez
Vázquez Rodrîquez’s work is heavily autobiographical and made up of images from both Puerto Rico and New England. Vázquez Rodríguez describes her exhibition, saying: “Visual composites are made up of imagery from the places I call home, where one reality is inserted into another. Tropical scenery cuts into the New England bleakness and the use of color and black-and-white imagery sets in motion a rhythm that reveals the intermediate spaces that come out of this latitudinal relationship.”
The title is “a little sarcastic” she admits. Explaining that Retropical is composed of a number of meanings. The “retro” comes from “retrospective” and she uses this in its literal sense. However, by combining “tropical” and “retrospective” she intends to explore the idea of the stereotype that Puerto Rico is purely a tropical location.
“People think that when you go to Puerto Rico you’ll be drinking a Piña  Colada, and there will be palm trees and it’s so tropical. But there is so much more,” says Vázquez Rodríguez.
She explains that while it is definitely possible to find palm trees and Pina Coladas in Puerto Rico that there is also a lot of poverty and economic crisis happening. “Each island in the Caribbean has such a deep complete history. So [the title] is breaking that stereotype a little bit because what you get it not really that.”
To fully negate the idea of Puerto Rico as simply a tropical paradise, Vázquez Rodríguez uses the color black. Throughout the gallery the theme is apparent. One wall of the gallery is completely painted black, there is also a tall black palm tree, and giant maps of Puerto Rico and New England are painted black on black.
Vázquez Rodríguez procured the maps during her employment at the Boston Public Library. Working as an archivist, she encountered colonial maps of Puerto Rico and New England. “I started looking into the history of it all. And Puerto Rico now has a very much colonial status and, at the time New England was a colony too, so I started thinking about reappropriating those maps and painting them black.
“I decided black because of this idea of people not really knowing a lot about Puerto Rico especially, a lot of history in general and I think I’m always surprised with people not knowing their own countries. Especially here in the U.S. or the U.S. territories.”
Not only does Vázquez Rodríguez utilize black to express this idea of a void, of missing information, and the disconnection of learning but also to relay the feeling of nostalgia as a sense of mourning.
Anabel Vázquez Rodríguez
“I love that and the blackness to me can represent that too,” she says. “It’s this nostalgia that has transformed into something else. I’m  mourning, like I’m not who I was when I was there, and I’m not who i was when I first came here. It’s a combination and who I’ve become now, and thinking about all these things coming together.”
There are more than 40 pieces of work in the exhibition and were created over the span of a decade. One of the earliest pieces created in the exhibition was done in 2002, and holds the same title as the show: Retropical. It is a photograph of her as a little girl with a picture of a tropical landscape behind her; a photo her father took of her. She then took an image of Puerto Rico and inverted it and placed it below the photo her father took. The result is her as a little girl looking down at palm trees and a beach that are upside down. “I wanted that relationship of the world being turned upside down,” she says.

Vázquez Rodríguez’s exploration of sociopolitical issues is most apparent in her use of film, in her ongoing Dream series, Liz Munsell, Close Distance Curator, further described the project in a statement on Vázquez Rodríguez’s website, saying, “The voyeuristic perspective of an outsider with camera-as-shield contrasts her own occasional appearance on film, referencing how in dreams we sometimes see ourselves. Footage appropriated from the mass media is combined with intimate takes and the landscape.”

“The images are spliced together,” says Vázquez Rodríguez. “So you’re not sure where you are at times; other times you are very much in a tropical area; other times you are very much in New England. So, I’m putting them in a dreamlike state kind of evokes this idea when you travel that first night you are not sure where you are. You wake up and you kind of think you are still home, but you’re not.”
Robert P. Stack, Curator at Yellow Peril Gallery, says, “What we were attracted to about Anabel’s work is that she was dealing with this whole theme of belonging in two places or two cultures at once and that she had been working on this series dealing with having one foot in Puerto Rico and one foot in Boston and the experience of going back and forth and that was attractive to us because it fit the mission statement of the gallery. Plus she’s a great artist.”
Vázquez Rodríguez says that her exploration of the theme of not belonging, or “otherness” as in relating to alien, is a universal one even if you are migrating to another state, but especially, she says, for first generation and second generation people who don’t feel a sense of belonging to either where they are or where their parents were born.
In the end, Vázquez Rodríguez says she has found her sense of belonging, and that is a belonging to oneself. “I think it’s finding that place regardless of where you live,” she says. “It’s more about the journey and of belonging. I’m belonging but it doesn’t necessarily mean I’m belonging to Puerto Rico or to Boston, but it’s a coming together of who you are.”
As well as working as an artist, Vázquez Rodríguez curates at LA GALERÍA Villa Victoria Center for Arts in Boston, where she just recently opened her annual curatorial project MUJERES: Iron Maidens. Vázquez Rodríguez has also began adding performance art to her portfolio, and has a few up and coming events scheduled in and around the Boston area.
Yellow Peril Gallery, 60 Valley St #5, Providence
On View: March 13 – April 20, 2014
CLOSING RECEPTION: APRIL 19, 6-9PM w/ slide show performance
Gallery hours: Thursday + Friday 3 -8PM, Saturday + Sunday 12-5PM and by appointment