Historically, Puerto Rico is only 512 years old. The island was discovered on November 19, 1493 by Christopher Columbus on his second voyage to the New World. On the island he found Taino Indians living there. Juan Ponce de León came to the island in 1508 as its first governor. In 1521, the city of San Juan was established.
During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Puerto Rico was attacked by the Dutch and English, Spain's enemies. The island was struggling to attain economical stability by raising cattle and farming on a small scale. By the end of the nineteenth century, Puerto Rico had grown considerably socially, economically, and politically. The Cédula de Gracias of 1815 offered many incentives and advantages the immigrants of the new Latin American republics. Puerto Rico became a sugar exporting colony. After the Spanish-American War in 1898, Puerto Rico was ceded by Spain to the United States. In 1917, Puerto Ricans became U.S. citizens and adopted the Commonwealth state in 1952.
Although Puerto Rico is relatively young artistically, it has gone through major cultural changes, first with the Spanish conquest, and then with the United States and other immigrant groups. The artistic production of painters and craftsmen, through these not yet five hundred years, reflect these cultural shocks.
Puerto Rico, like the United States, is a land of immigrants. It is presently in the process of establishing a cultural statement. Because of the diversity of its inhabitants, no statement of a unified artistic expression can be made. In earlier times, the discovery, the colonization period, and later some stability in the nineteenth century, the artistic production was basically unified, that is, it portrayed Puerto Rico through single statements, its people, its vegetation, eminent politicians, religious beliefs, etc.
The contemporary artists have expressed their ideas in more complex and stylized ways. This is not saying that the earlier works were primitive or archaic. It simply means that the times demand different artistic visions of what the Puerto Rican reality is now. Art will provide some explanation and insight into the life and reality of our people.
The Taino Indians
The Taino Indians had been living in Puerto Rico for hundreds of years when the Spaniard conquerors arrived in the fifteenth century. They were a branch of the Arawak people of South America who had migrated to the islands. The Tainos called Puerto Rico, Boriquen or Boringuen, the land of the valiant men. The word Taino means peace and friendship, and they were a peaceful people. Because of the benevolen climate on the island, the Indians lived a leisurely life, farmed, fished and worked on their crafts. They were skillful in stone sculpture, shell and bone carvings, pottery, and gold plating. The Indians made charms and amulets, ceremonial artifacts, and everyday utensils in clay, cotton, and straw, wood, stone, shells, and bone. Among their stone sculptures are stone collars and belts, cemis, face masks, dujos (duhos), and weapons. Their work was of religious content and is not easily understood.
The stone collars could have served a series of purposes, from protective game gear in the batey, a type of ball game the indians played , to funeral offerings. There were two types of collars, the massive oval or the slender pear-shaped form. The collars were very heavy and it took many years to finish one. The indians also carved cemis out of stone or wood. These three-pointed carvings frequently depict the form of human or animal heads on one end and animal legs on the other, sometimes the head is found in the central projection. At times the cemi is not carved at all, it is simply a three-pointed stone or wood figure. The cemi was believed to have magical to religious powers.
The stone face masks that have been found seem to have had ceremonial significance. They may have been...