Don’t despair, dear art lover. There is a ray of light emanating from Borinquén to New York to brighten these dismal times. Thanks to Embajada co-founders Manuela Paz and Christopher Rivera, who decided to ditch the saturated New York art scene to open their own art gallery in the San Juan, Puerto Rico, neighborhood of Hato Rey in 2015, the art world is now a more racially and spiritually diverse ethnocentric place.
At first they were uncertain if what they envisioned could actually flourish. But despite having to go up against the island’s own special brew of political and natural disasters in recent years, Embajada has managed to not only make a mark domestically for itself and its artists, but it’s put itself on the global map of “it galleries” with write-ups in publications like The New York Times and Vogue Mexico.
Much more than your average gallery, Embajada has a cultural and diplomatic mission to its creation: to serve as an artist-benefitting bridge between New York and Puerto Rico, explain Paz and Rivera from their Brooklyn apartment when I pay a virtual visit to them via Skype. Their idea for Embajada was also to fill the need for more alternative spaces on the island in light of the fact there had been a boom in its art scene during all the upheaval.
The couple met at a gallery after party in New York back in 2010. They were introduced by mutual friends, and after the initial sparks they spent months emailing ideas back and forth. She was working at The Armory Show after graduating from the School of Visual Arts in photography, while he was at Hunter College for an MFA in combined media. New York-born Paz had gained experience working at the nonprofit NADA, whose community-like environment prepared her for the eventual birth of Embajada. There she learned how to write consignment forms and how to push artists professionally; in essence it taught her how she could launch her own gallery. As an artist, the Puerto-Rican-born Rivera knew a lot of artists and curators — so combining forces they knew they had a better chance of starting something on the Borinquén island than on overpriced Manhattan Island.
Then when COVID-19 struck, cancelling the art industry’s major deal-making events like the Venice Biennale and Art Basel, and galleries nationwide began losing their leases, Paz and Rivera did the opposite of downsizing. Instead they decided to open a gallery from the comfort of their own home. So in unstoppable power couple fashion they used the pandemic as an excuse to toss the rule book out the window and expand Embajada´s diplomatic reach from back in San Juan to the white bare walls of their Brooklyn apartment.
The creation of art spaces is all the more urgent during a time of economic hardship and political strife. “It has been difficult,” says Rivera. “The art economy is changing and we haven’t been able to go fly back to Puerto Rico so it has been hard to predict what is going to happen.”
In May 2020, they launched Embajada Foyer, an exhibition space that extends its San Juan program to the Caribbean neighborhood of Prospect Park South/Flatbush where they live. Their current exhibition “Mostronamiento” is by the Brooklyn-based Puerto Rican artist Jonathan Torres. By way of paintings, drawing and sculpture, Torres examines a monstrous notion of the human experience through the lens of a fantastic and strange world embedded with notions of anxiety, anguish and crisis. It’s viewable online, by video tour, and operates on an appointment basis.
“This pandemic taught us to slow down. Before the lockdown, we were in Cartagena one week, then Mexico, back to New York then over to Madrid and back again. We never stopped.” They hope that these virtual tours through Embajada Foyer can promote deeper engagement and friendships in the art world.
Looking forward, looking back
Home is a common theme for Embajada’s two current locations since its Puerto Rican headquarters is actually located on the second floor of the house Rivera lived in until he was three. It’s a place where his mother still operates a clothing store on the ground floor and where his aunt once ran a strip club and sex shop. In this fun, funky and familial place, Puerto Rico’s most important artists can now have a conversation with the island and the world through their art.
Puerto Rican society was introduced to Embajada’s vision for the first time in 2015 with the inaugural exhibition entitled “He Put a Hot Fish in Her Navel.” Rivera tells me that the provocative title pays homage to the space’s pole dancing past and that it’s slang in ancient Sumerian for having sex. For their debut Paz and Rivera featured artists whose work resonated with the erotic theme, such as Cristina Tufiño’s nude photographs, Elizabeth Jaeger’s erotic sculptures and Giovanni Garcia-Fenech’s images of distorted bodies.
Five years ago they envisioned taking all their New York experience and creating an artist run space in Puerto Rico. Although the idea seemed abstract, they needed to go and understand Puerto Rico’s art scene and learn how to build a gallery in an island nation that lacks the proper support, structure and funding to empower and nurture their artists. When they discovered this they knew they could make a bigger impact and they have.
And there’s more good news in the embassy world: They will participate in the June Art Fair this August with a solo show by the Puerto Rican artist Jorge González whose work attempts to produce new narratives between the indigenous and the modern. Then on August 8 they will finally reopen their San Juan space with a solo show by the American artist Katherine Bernhardt, who’s been traveling and exhibiting in Puerto Rico for many years. They’ll also be officially launching Embajada’s franchise of artist-created apparel that originated in Colombia called MALL.
As we approach the end of my virtual tour through Embajada Foyer, I am given some final close ups of Jonathan Torres’ captivating creations. Throughout the interview I could hear the sounds of birds chirping in the background, as if we were in Puerto Rico’s rainforest and not in an urban setting. “Oh, that’s just Mario, Josephine, Valentino and Lupe,” they tell me. While at the start of the pandemic they were the proud owners of just two parakeets, there were suddenly four when two eggs hatched over the lockdown. For Paz and Rivera life and art continue to flourish, perhaps even more so in these strange times.