Just weeks before Hurricane Fiona hit Puerto Rico earlier this month, a valuable collection of paintings arrived in Chicago from the island.
The artwork is on loan from a museum in the town of Ponce on the southern coast. Now, Chicago’s National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture in Humboldt Park is the temporary home to a small but significant exhibit.
“This collection comes from the Museo de Arte de Ponce, the museum of Ponce,”
said Billy Ocasio, CEO of the National Puerto Rican Museum of Arts & Culture. “It’s an art museum. It’s really the first museum to open up in the Caribbean and the first one to get accredited back in 1959.”
Much of the museum remains closed following an earthquake in 2020.
“The thing was, they have this collection, the biggest collection in the whole Caribbean, and they wanted to do something with it,” Ocasio said. “They want to stay relevant, wanted to reach out to different places, and so they reached out to us. And I said, I’d love to have an art collection, an art exhibit, made up of Puerto Rican artists and painters.”
The trove features historical artwork dating as far back as the 1700s — including paintings created in Puerto Rico’s colonial era.
Most focus on the landscape and the people of the island.
“It’s called ‘Nostalgia for My Island.’ Not only will you feel nostalgic about the island if you’ve ever been there, but it has you dreaming, it has you thinking of different sorts of things,” Ocasio said. “This exhibit deals with three issues — it deals with my people, my island, my home.”
Ocasio said the pieces in the exhibit have largely never left the island.
“These are pieces that we as Puerto Ricans have seen in books,” he said. “We may have seen pictures of them but we’ve never really seen them in person, and so for us to have this collection here is just a remarkable thing.”
The museum in Humboldt Park upgraded its galleries to secure and protect these rare works, most of which were painted in oil.
Raul Ortiz Bonilla is an artist and volunteer at the museum.
“It’s the first time that we have this type of exhibition in Chicago, in the U.S,” Ortiz Bonilla said. “I know a lot of people definitely are going to be super proud to be able to see this, a lot of people that never had the opportunity to go to the museum in Ponce. To be able to see this here, they will be overwhelmed, but it will be great.”
While the art has landed in Chicago, something that didn’t make it out of Puerto Rico before the hurricane were most of the catalogs for the exhibition, which remain on the island.
“What I want people to take away is that there’s a history behind the Puerto Rican people. Yes, we are American citizens but you should also take a look at who we are,” Ocasio said. “Puerto Ricans are one-third Spaniard, one-third African, and one-third Taíno Indian. This exhibit explains exactly who we are as Puerto Ricans.”
The exhibition is called “Nostalgia For My Island” and just opened at the National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts & Culture, 3015 W. Division St., and is open until June 9, 2023.
Note: This article will be updated with video.