Chicago

Bibiana Suárez

Sazama Gallery

In Bibiana Suárez’s recent show, entitled “In Search of an Island,” the geographic silhouette of Puerto Rico dominated six of the eight large pastel drawings exhibited. Here, the island of her birth is malleable and chameleonlike, mirroring her conflicting feelings about her homeland. It appears as a black hole absorbing life and light, as a dangerous-looking spiny sea creature, as a bit of tropic flotsam sailing by in a placid sea, or even as a chamber of the human heart, veined and throbbing with life. Animating these sequences is the ambiguous and tortured geopolitical status of Puerto Rico itself—the varying psychological ramifications of its position, as commonwealth, colony, protectorate, state-to-be, province, or nascent independent nation vis-à-vis the larger United States. Suárez’s heritage lends her commitment to pictorialize her personal sentiments as well as to partake in the current struggles and aspirations of her compatriots special urgency.

But this exhibition is in no way an analysis of the Puerto Rican dilemma. Suárez’s memories of and hopes for her home are deeply textured and imaginative, and they tap into a wide gamut of emotions; these works are fueled by a wistful sense of loss, brief flashes of anger, declarations of chauvinistic pride, the wincing pain of disenfranchisement, and feelings of longing with respect to the inexpressibly complex idea of a homeland. In Rio de Agua Viva (River of living water; all works 1991), Puerto Rico appears, capped by one palm tree, as a small green island in an orange-red sea. Engulfed by the shadow of an enormous jellyfish, the island nevertheless floats along, unaware that its tropical fantasy is vulnerable. In Isla Erizo/Urchin Island, however, Suárez’s Puerto Rico sports spiny black needles; now it is a weapon that can defend itself against any aggressor. In Uprooted, the island seems ripped from a living body, leaving a web of veins behind. In Isla Madre/Isla Negra (Mother island/black island), Puerto Rico erupts in two enormous volcanic mountains—twin breasts that both nurture and destroy as they spew matter across a tiny silhouette of the United States.

Puerto Rico’s various roles cannot be reconciled, except in the realization that nationhood inevitably functions as a metaphor for muddle—that with patriotism as with love, anything is possible. Suárez’s convictions are presented assertively and with importunity, and she seems willing to eschew much of her skill as a draughtsperson to achieve a kind of confrontational graphic immediacy. Her skills and position as an artist allow her to make visible the incredible irony and cruelty of the Puerto Rican’s status in America today—to investigate what it means to be seen as a foreigner and an expatriate within one’s own nation.

James Yood