At 1708 Gallery’s annual InLight exhibition, Steven Casanova (BFA ’15) used a broken street lamp, a tarp-covered house, solar powered lights, and footage of protests and a speech from Congressmember Luis Gutiérrez to give voice to Puerto Ricans in his installation, 1898 N. Colonial Ave. Below, he explains the genesis of his work.
I’ve been going to Puerto Rico a few times a year for the last 2-and-a-half years. I was working on a photo project in Puerto Rico in August 2017, before Hurricane Maria came through. I was telling my friends and family, “Okay, I’ll see you in December. Be back soon.”
Then Hurricane Maria came through, and I went back about two weeks after the storms passed. I brought supplies and was doing the best I could to help whoever I could, but I was also documenting everything I saw. It became abundantly clear that I needed to do more than just post these images online.
I remember joking with people in Puerto Rico about making this show. “I need to make it completely in the dark. I need to make it a long line to get in. I need to release mosquitos in the gallery room. I need to make the roof start leaking and just destroy the place.” But a fire was lit within me that I hadn’t felt before. I knew that, regardless of the barriers, I was going to do whatever I could to get this message across.
I had just come from a country of 3.5 million people living in the dark, every day. And then I came back to Richmond and went to InLight, which I love, hoping to feel better. It was on Broad Street, where they had shut down the city blocks, and there were thousands of people walking around in the dark for fun. That was really striking to me, to recognize my own privilege.
InLight draws a massive crowd that is not necessarily looking for socially aware art. To design a piece that forces people into an uncomfortable space—to see an uncomfortable message—was more successful than putting it in a space that people are already expecting to get that sort of message.
The fact that conversations started is so important to me. People in Puerto Rico can’t vote for themselves, so people in the states have to vote for them. At the very least, I need people to talk about it. The next step is that I need people to be a little more educated when they do talk about it. The end goal is that people become advocates for their neighbors, for the people around them who are from Puerto Rico or know people from Puerto Rico.
The message is much bigger than Maria. I often am trying to steer the conversation away from Maria, or from it being this administration’s responsibility. Because then people ignore that the Obama administration is who put PROMESA, the financial control board, in place. And that the Bush administration allowed the tax cuts to end in 2006 that led to the current economic depression. And the Clinton administration… It just continues to go back.
So, the message is to try to give an anecdotal definition to what colonialism is. It is studied and talked about, but rarely is it realized how deeply it affects a country, an island, a people.
I no longer feel the responsibility to hold people’s hands throughout educating them. Within all of my work, there are details that allude to something greater if you feel inclined to look into it. An important image for me in the video was the black and white Puerto Rican flag, which, if you Google it, you will already start learning so much about the problem.
Every single endeavor that I’ve taken regarding Puerto Rico—if it was what looks like a protest on the street, if it was a performance piece during First Friday, if it was a lecture, if it was an organized show or fundraiser—has connected me with more people that care and has provided opportunities to do more. Each thing has clearly built on the last action to lead to this point.
InLight was no different. From being able to show 20,000 to 25,000 people this piece, a number of them have already reached out and want to be involved in some way. That’s super exciting. I don’t seek to change the world with my art, but I hope to plant some seeds that flourish for a few people.
I’ve made sure to include elements within my work that are exciting for a Puerto Rican to see. I overheard people talking about the sound of the coqui [frog] that was playing. The coqui exists other places, but it’s often considered a pest. In Puerto Rico, it is loved so dearly. To be at InLight and to hear the sound of the coqui across the hill, I know this brought so much comfort to every Puerto Rican that heard it. I’m interested in educating, getting the word out, shocking people, and changing perspectives—but I’m also interested in giving Puerto Ricans hugs.
Steven Casanova is a Puerto Rican artist and educator living in Richmond, Va. You can follow his work and research on Instagram at @cheapgarlic.