Potions for Puerto Rico and Adrift: Reclamation for the Island
By MERKIN KARR Illustration SENDRA UEBELE
Jasmine Dillavou is a Puerto Rican artist based in Colorado Springs. In fall of 2018 she create 100 Potions for Puerto Rico in reaction to Hurricane Marìa and the tragedies that followed. People could come and buy any of the 100 potions. All proceeds went directly to helping those on the Island. Her current work, Adrift is being shown in The Gallery of Contemporary Art in downtown Colorado Springs. Adrift is a performance and an art installation that brings attention to the historical and continuous colonization and commodification of Puerto Rico and its people.
In your own words how did 100 Potions for Puerto Rico come to you? I know that Hurricane Maria and the horrific events that happened after and the Trump Administration's reaction, or lack thereof, played a major role, but I hoped you might be able to speak on how this all came to you?
J: Before the hurricane hit, even early on, we were just seeing things like “this is coming and we are so ill prepared” and nobody knew what to do. When you’re outside of the island there is so little, not connection, but contact already so as soon as the phone lines went down, internet goes down and all of a sudden you’re not getting any information except for the news and you’re just like, “Cool what are we even supposed to do?” It felt so scary and so absent and so sensitive, but there's nothing you can do. It’s not like I could book a flight out there, but there are all my cousins and my family there and there was nothing I could do. I feel like naturally as creative people our instinct is to react artistically. Whether that is writing or poetry or drawing or whatever. So I was like, I don’t know how to react artistically that doesn’t feel self masturbatory. Because it’s not about me healing necessarily, it had to be something bigger. I'm pretty a sensitive and intuitive person and I have this cultural history of brujaism so how do I make something more visceral and more physical that can also be healing but can also tell the story and also be political and also help people understand how I was feeling. I was talking to people in the community and how they feel so I wanted to also pull their story in and have something that people looked at and would have no choice other than to feel it and see what was and is going on. When the hurricane hit it was all over Instagram and Facebook, you remember? It was crazy. It was like those first two weeks that's all we saw, but there wasn’t a whole lot of “this is what you can do” it was a whole lot of “this is horrible and it’s mostly our fault”. There wasn’t a whole lot to do. I was just running to make things. Things that could be used as rituals later and things that had actual magical properties to it. And then as the project got bigger and started getting interest from people who either wanted a potion themselves or wondered how they could help the grant popped up just in time. I said, “Okay, let’s go for it.” And so that’s what I did.
Can you take me through the average process of creating a single potion?
J: Well because there were so many of them the process was different for each one. As I was starting to make them and was getting used to what I wanted them to look like and how I wanted to tell the story I figured out that there were better ways of making them then others. So for some I would start by saying, “I know there are certain things I need to talk about historically that were really important.” We can’t understand the Portician debt crisis without understanding early colonization. It was a lot of taking the story and kind of writing down a basis of what it means and then figuring out how to visually interpret that. I have so much material in my studio just because I generally work with found objects and things. So it was pulling materials and pulling material asking, “Can this represents this in this way? Metaphorically and poetically? Can this represent this and this?” Also trying to look at it from, okay so now I have told the story part of it so how do I interpret it into a healing potion. What kind of floral aspects or several aspects revitalize or heal from the story? Or act as a marker for it, symbolically? Some are easier than others because I would come across news headlines like, “US government did this in regards to hurricane relief”. So on the one hand it's like this is something new to work with and incorporate, but on the other hand it’s just like, “Jesus Christ!” So, talking about historical aspects is really important and also incorporating a magical aspect into them. And some of them definitely rely more on magical healing potions. So it was really weird because all of them worked really differently. When I first started making them before I had gotten the financial grant and everything a lot of it was me just making magical potions that felt, to me, very healing and comforting. I was collecting different herbs and stones and coordinating colors symbolically. After I got the grant, I had a little bit more freedom to work with bigger stories and I could go on searches for materials to point me in a better direction and help people visually understand what I was trying to say.
You describe yourself as a Boriqua Bruja. Could you define them for readers who might be unfamiliar with these terms?
J: So Boriqua is just Puerto Ricans. It traces back to the Boriken people of the Island. And my family is Pahino Taìno which is the indigenous people who were there pre-colonization. So Boriqua is a really grounding term to use because it connects back to the Island itself. Like even within the diaspora of not living on the Island itself, which is thousands and thousands of us especially post Hurricane Maria. It brings us all back together via cultural roots. And then Bruja I claim over a word like “witch” or “wicca” because I think my sensitive and intuitive practice is grounded culturally. More so than it’s grounded in an aesthetic or anything. It’s just a different type of craft. It’s Santeria based, it’s Carribean based, it traces back to cultural roots which are African based. And the practice looks different because it’s a little bit more historically tied and it’s deeply complex. It’s difficult to maintain the practices and complete rituals and there are tons and tons of things that have been used and twisted over time. Whether you practice within Santeria or Carribean, or a “witch” practice, I think Boriqua Bruja just makes me feel more tied to my history and my roots to call myself that over anything else.
Talk to me about your current piece in the work Adrift?
J: So, Adrift is three contemporary artists speaking on the theme of drifting. It has a temporary home currently in the Gallery of Contemporary Art in downtown Colorado Springs. My contribution in the show is an immersive altar space that speaks on the ties between early Carribean colonization patterns and contemporary disaster capitalism. I use traditional Santeria materials, found objects, and hundreds and hundreds of pounds of culturally important ingredients like sugar and salt. I activated the installation with a performance where I returned a vein of sugar and salt back to the "island." These are things that were taken (along with womxn, ethnic identity and human slaves) during conquistadors early landing and thus deserve sacred reparation.
I know a lot of your art is activism. Can you talk more about that?
J: I definitely consider myself an “art-tivist”. Like just butchered version of an artist because I think it’s easy to create things for ourselves and make pretty things but it’s much more powerful to create something that could change someone’s life or outlook or ideas. To make something that might get someone involved in a community that they wouldn’t otherwise see themselves as an active part of. That art is not just for a passive viewer. It’s about someone participating with the piece itself, whether that's an immersive piece or a performance piece that speaks on a heavily political topic. Now you’re forced to participate with it and you're a part of it. By witnessing it you have now taken responsibility to be part of the conversation. And I think that’s what the potions have begun to do. If you bought a potion during the exhibition you are now taking home the story. You have now taken home and bottled the story of indigenous resistance and rebellion. Or the deep rooted colonization. Or the debt system caused by us that we are inherently complicit in. And now you’ve taken it with you and now you’re looking at it and on top of that every penny you spent to buy it has gone directly towards hands on the Island and fixing the issues that we cause. And now financially you have done your part for restoration on the island and hurricane relief. And now you’re completely part of the circle of this.
What does performance art to you mean in the context of being an “art-tivist”?
J: I believe performance art is about creating a real storytelling experience that folx can experience with you in real time. It puts us in the same narrative side by side. Activism doesn't work if folx don't understand our needs and experiences and don't see where they can make a change.
I know there is a lot going on in PR right now with corruption and resistance. Would you like to share any thoughts and feelings with what is going on on the Island now after Hurricane Maria and with the governor?
J: Well I think what's most important to walk away with is that people have power. People restored PR post Marìa, people brought Rosello down, people brought Warran Kanders down. Puerto Ricans are the strongest people you'll ever meet. We here in the diaspora need to be following the steps of those on the Island. Their lived experiences are ours. We have privilege here being off the Island. We need to pay attention and act accordingly for our families.
Mainstream media doesn't give a shit about colonies and islands. We need to find news sources that tell us about PR. Stay up to date about what's happening. Stay woke to the experiences of folx on the island because you're not going to see it on TV. This matters.
What is next for you?
J: Right now I'm buckling down to develop some new sculpture work. I’m applying for residencies and I’m working to support artists in our city trying to find their voices too. I got some ground work to do right now, so it's definitely time to get noisy.