Digging Up the “Seeds of Colonialism”: Darice Polo at Some Time Gallery
“They tried to bury us, they didn’t know we were seeds.” You may have seen this popular slogan on posters at the women’s march last week. But the seeds that artist Darice Polo is examining in “Seeds of Colonialism” didn’t lead to unity and peace, but rather a century of oppression, discrimination, and exploitation. Technically, Puerto Rico is a U.S. “Unincorporated Territory”, and I will freely admit that I am woefully ignorant of exactly what that means. Can Puerto Ricans vote in US Elections? Will they ever become a state? Do they even want to be a state? You hear so much these days about Cuba, but what about Puerto Rico? I imagine these are the kinds of questions Polo hoped to generate with this interactive exhibition, using the power of words to elicit the voices of our community.
Polo was a recipient of the 2016 Creative Workforce Fellowship, and this exhibition is actually part of a larger project, a film she is making about the often fraught relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States. So think of it a bit like an art exhibition, but also an experiment. The show is made up of six prints (that she made in cooperation with Ping Pong Press, Corrie Slawson’s new print venture), all the same size, framed and mounted around a single room. Polo asked her visitors to anonymously comment on each issue (Below each print is a clipboard with papers attached). These responses will be the data used to develop the larger film project already in progress.
On each of the prints is an image of the Garita at Castillo de San Cristobal in San Juan; today the fort is a tourist destination, known for its romantic ruined beauty. But behind that beauty is a darker truth, as it is also the fort where the first engagement with the US navy occurred in 1898 – that bombardment led to more battles, and eventually Puerto Rico became a US Territory at the end of the Spanish American War.
Each print covers a topic (such as “American Invasion”, “Treaty of Paris”, “Freedom of Speech”, etc.) and has an actual statement made by US government officials at the time. The quotes reveal what the US thought about their new colony, and some of the language is shocking.
For example, “Legislation” has a quote from Ohio Congressman Jacob H. Bromwell, who on the floor of the House said he wanted to “make an example of Puerto Rico” to establish a precedent for the “unruly and disobedient” Filipinos, and hopefully have a “test case” before the Supreme Court (which would make these actions legal). Bromwell uses a demeaning and racist tone for America’s new subjects, even reducing them to simply “new possessions”.
This kind of thought is taken even further in the “Military Government” print. Here a US Colonial General expresses his concerns about giving these “inferiors” the right to vote – comparing them to “our reservation Indians”, and that they “certainly are far inferior” to the Chinese.
In a small second room, Polo placed a large map of Puerto Rico on the wall, and two boxes of colored coded pins. Her instructions were hanging on the wall next to the map:
I didn’t get to put a pin on the map, but it’s fairly obvious by the pins already there that visitors to Puerto Rico generally only go to two or three locations – whereas other pins were spread out across the island. So most American tourists don’t get to see “the real” Puerto Rico, but rather a carefully crafted tourist view of the island – hardly surprising, but this exhibition demonstrates that this process started all the way back to when America took control of the island in 1898.
Taking a look at the prints again on my way out, the discriminatory language used in each of these statements is so disturbing. But perhaps the most stomach-turning is the “Freedom of Speech” print that states: “Publications of articles criticizing those in authority and reflecting upon the government or its officers will not be allowed.” – this from the American Military Governor of Puerto Rico in December 1898.
I couldn’t help but think about the current political climate in the US today, and when viewed in that context, the exhibition to me felt like a warning. When your leaders use denigrating and intimidating language, and control information, those seeds will grow too. Like weeds.
The comments left by visitors will be presented to the public at the exhibition closing tomorrow from 5-8pm, and we will keep you posted about her film. Click here for more information about this exhibition and Some Time Gallery.