‘To infect and to heal’
By John Weeks
Dorado native Carla Acevedo-Yates is one of a very few Puerto Ricans who serve as curators in major North American museums. She is the only one in the Midwest. Her influential work, now as Marilyn and Larry Fields curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (MCA) – where her work stimulated a museum-wide decision to become totally bilingual – highlights themes close to her own experience of migration, colonialism, and the “complex identities” that result from finding one’s way under the influences of multiple, often combative influences.
While Acevedo-Yates’ responsibility at MCA includes Latin America and the Caribbean, her most recent project directly reflects her natal home and present life. The museum’s “entre horizontes: Art and Activism Between Chicago and Puerto Rico,” with 18 Puerto Rican artists in diverse media will be on display until May 5, 2024.
A flavoring of artists represented are early influencers, painter-sculptor Rafael Ferrer and photographer Frank Espada; Chicago-based artist Edra Soto; painter and former political prisoner Elizam Escobar; videographers Beatriz Santiago Muñoz and nibia pastrana santiago; and Mayagüez-born DePaul University faculty member Bibiana Suárez.
These works reflect the early post-WWII diaspora that deposited more Puerto Ricans in Chicago than any city outside New York. Tensions were felt and expressed in prejudicial policies and brutal policing. These broke the surface in “rebellions” or “riots” – depending on one’s perspective – via the multi-day uprisings on Division Street in 1966 and Humbolt Park in 1977. One learns that the famous Young Lords group of radical Puerto Rican activists was founded in Chicago, not New York City.
Acevedo-Yates “choreographed” the exhibit so that visitors – even those who can only explore the show online – reflect on the interplay of art history with history. She acknowledges heavy reliance on mentoring from Chicago-based Puerto Rican community organizer and historian José López and civil rights attorney Jan Susler. The exhibit includes a timeline of relevant events.
One intent of the show is corrective. Acevedo-Yates seeks to “re-center Chicago as the epicenter of Puerto Rican activism for self-determination and also a training ground for Puerto Rican artists.” Chicago’s robust Puerto Rican population welcomed artists who sought off-island opportunities for education. Notably, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago figures in the CVs of multiple artists in the show.
I met Acevedo-Yates in April of this year in a chance encounter in the Peruvian Andes. She had come to Peru for the Peruvian contemporary art EXPO and to view the 20-year retrospective of my nephew, sculptor Ishmael Randall-Weeks, whose show had drawn me south. Her prior show at MCA, “Forecast Form: Art in the Caribbean Diaspora: 1990-Today,” was just closing.
Acevedo-Yates’ position as a translator between cultures is evident in the insightful dialogue “On Thinking and Being Caribbean: A Roundtable Discussion” on the museum’s website. The artist panel delves into many of the themes that inform Acevedo-Yates’ curatorial view, evident in the new exhibit, that it is her job, paradoxically, to both “infect and to heal.” I reached her for a short interview, edited here for clarity and space.
Q: The theme of migration repeats itself in your shows.
A: I always feel that personal experiences translate into collective experiences. As a Puerto Rican, I have been coming in and out of the island since I was 18, with significant time in France, in Spain, now here in the Midwest. I don’t have the difficult experience of being a migrant. I want to preface with that. Yet I am very interested in how identity is formed through displacements. I am Puerto Rican and at the same time all these experiences accumulated into a very layered and complex identity. Movement and displacement challenge notions of nationality and identity. There is a kind of human impulse to categorize and define into very discrete categories. I don’t think that’s how life works, that’s not how identity works. It’s a lot messier than that.
Q: Wikipedia used the term “riots” for what you called “rebellions.” Why the difference?
A: That came from José López, the director of the Puerto Rican cultural center who mentored me on the history. They were rebellions because there was a point of inflection where the people couldn’t take it anymore. There was a series of discriminating actions, housing discrimination by the city, police violence. This was clearly the community’s view. And when I was thinking about this show in 2020 there was a lot of talk, after the murder of George Floyd, about police violence. In Chicago, this is usually thought of as violence against African Americans. I wanted to show it is more complex here – that there is also police violence against Puerto Ricans and Latinos more broadly.
Q: There seems to be activism in your choices.
A: I don’t consider myself an activist. But growing up in a colonial context I’m always asking myself questions about the status of things. The status of how history is presented, stories presented, of how structures function. One such question is how this is reflected in the structure of the institution I represent. I want to structurally change the institution.
Q: An example?
A: One of the ways I think my work has done that is the museum’s bilingual initiative. A show I curated in 2020 with artist Carolina Caycedo was the first that was fully bilingual. That jump-started an institutional conversation on bilingualism. Then with Forecast Form, bilingualism became part of the strategic plan. The museum now has a staff translator. It’s happening. I’m not really that involved any more.
Q: This seems linked to the way you speak of your curation strategy as being “like a virus.”
A: I am in the institution, but I also have a foot out. Negotiating all these different things. It’s always a balancing act. I am bringing new histories, new stories to the institution, and new audiences with it. At the same time, I advocate for and support the institution. I believe in it. So how do we work within the structures, and do projects that always challenge the status quo? I am interested in curating projects that live within the institution and challenge it at the same time.
John Weeks is a retired journalist who lived in Puerto Rico from 2012-2015 with his spouse and daughter, and considers it his good fortune to have been able to return for a few months every year since.