Meeting “las nenas” of the Puerto Rican Urban Art scene
“People tell me ‘you can’t make a living out of art’, but… I’m living right now.”
Her name is Raysa and she just explained the life of every artist in one very simple sentence. She has beautiful curly hair, the kind of natural beauty you feel when entering a room. I had never even seen her in person before, yet once we introduced ourselves it felt more like meeting an old friend over coffee than anything (I mean, we were at a coffee shop).
I was interviewing Raysa because she’s one-fourth of the Moriviví Collective, a group I first heard of some years ago, thanks to a controversial mural they made near a freeway in San Juan. They are four incredibly talented, young Puerto Rican women who create the most ethereal modern art I’ve ever seen – I also knew they went to the same visual arts high school as one of my best friends (Puerto Rico is a small island). I was intrigued by their art and story; however, when I asked Raysa if they meant for the collective to be constructed of just women, Raysa told me it had actually been purely coincidental.
“There was a conference where a bunch of artists came to our school and talked to us… Alexis Bousquet was one of them.” Bousquet is the curator and organizer of Santurce es Ley, which is a Puerto Rican event dedicated to urban art.
“A group of like 40 kids went up to him in the end and we asked if we could create a mural for the upcoming Santurce es Ley 4. He said ‘yes, yes, of course! Take my number’. So we called him later on and… For some reason, those of us who made it to the first meeting, were all girls – friends or classmates – and [the original members of our collective were] the ones who kept on going, the ones who made the first draft, got the wall and all of the materials and paintings. We brought the paintings from our own houses, because [Bousquet] had a budget and resources, but that was only for the invited artists, and we basically snuck in there. So he gave us a wall, a ladder, and electricity, and we took care of the rest.”
And that is how eight girls created their very first mural, while still Seniors in high school. Although they had to hand in final projects and assignments in order to graduate, they missed class sometimes to work on Santurce es Ley 4. “They started calling us ‘Las nenas’.” She says with a smile, remembering the beginning of Moriviví.
So when, or rather how, did the name “Moriviví” come to be?
Well, around the time when people would call them “Las Nenas” (“The Girls”), Bousquet approached the up and coming collective and told them they should come up with a name. And so, in a place surrounded by nature (“trash and rats after 7 P.M.”), the girls started brainstorming. “[Rock] Collective, [Rocks] Crew…. we were just messing around. But at one point, one of the girls, Joy, suddenly said ‘Colectivo Moriviví’… and we all loved it. We were all just like ‘that one! That’s the one!”
Later on, they realized that moriviví is a common plant from Puerto Rico – that it’s both Caribbean and a female plant, the name felt appropriate for an all-girl collective. Interestingly enough, it also represents the dualism of life versus death (morí-viví literally translates to I died-I lived), which is a topic they’ve explored in their work before.
An example of this is the mural they created for the next Santurce es Ley 5. I confessed to Raysa that this is one of my favorite murals. She explained how in the mural they presented the current state of the island as a half-dead working-class man receiving the breath of life from a woman. The breath is represented by Monarch butterflies, a recurring motif in most of their earlier work.
Monarch butterflies are also detailed in a mural they did back in 2015, which caused huge controversy and ignited a conversation about women’s rights and the oversexualization of the female body in Puerto Rico.
As a collaboration with the movement “Paz para la mujer” (Peace For Women), they wanted to “create an awareness of domestic abuse, without making an essentially violent mural”, so they painted two versions of the same black woman, completely naked while covering her face. The model is a friend of theirs and the collective portrayed her body as covering her face in order to protect her identity. However, although the mural addressed a very serious problem in our society, a lot of people felt “insulted” by the sight of bare breasts. Raysa told me how, as they were painting the mural, some drivers would roll down their windows while passing by and shout at them “¡Pónle un bracier!” (“Put a bra on her!”).
Another incident Raysa told me about, was how a mother was passing by with her child, and once the mother saw what was being created in this very public wall, she covered her son’s eyes so he wouldn’t see the naked lady. “But that’s when you censor it. That’s when you teach your child ‘no, don’t look at this, this is wrong, this is not normal’, when really, the naked human body is something that is completely normal. It shouldn’t be censored nor over sexualized.” Said Raysa.
But that wasn’t nearly the end of the controversy. Not long after the mural had been finished, somebody vandalized it by painting a white bra and panties on the two women. The result was a kind of “revolution” that blew up on social media, of women (all shapes, sizes, and colors) just standing in front of the mural, shirtless, covering their faces just like the woman in the portrait. Some mothers even breastfed their babies in front of the mural. It was a way of saying “you will not silence us [again]”.
In the end, the collective decided to cover up the vandalization in a creative way: with a clever collage of pictures posted on social media of these shirtless women in front of the mural. “We didn’t want to paint over it again, because that would’ve been like erasing the past, and the conversation that was ignited by that mural should not be erased.”
I spoke with Raysa for over an hour and a half – talking about everything from the details behind all of the group’s murals, to her opinion on Puerto Rico’s current state of affairs (both economically, and socially). Raysa is very humble – she recounted the time they went to China to paint another mural matter-of-factly – and she spoke passionately about the times the Moriviví Collective has worked with different communities and how those experiences have taught them sympathy. For now, the group is mainly focusing on this kind of work, where they can give back to people through art.
Written by Rosario Félix
Photos provided by Rosario Félix
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