‘Colonial to neo-Colonial’: Puerto Rican artist’s Baroque style tells modern-day stories of climate change and identity

By using religious altar pieces and tarot imagery, Patrick McGrath Muñiz tackles themes of colonialism, identity, and climate.

Listen 3:43
Patrick McGrath Muñiz poses for a photo. His paintings are visible behind him.

Patrick McGrath Muñiz has a new exhibition on display at Taller Puertorriqueño. (Vicky Diaz-Camacho/WHYY)

From Philly and the Pa. suburbs to South Jersey and Delaware, what would you like WHYY News to cover? Let us know!

Hurricane Maria hit home for Texas-based artist Patrick McGrath Muñiz, who grew up on Puerto Rico.

That year, he lost his art studio, and his mother lost her home. The 2017 storm was the catalyst for his latest exhibition, “Arcanas: Neocolonial Retablos Inspired by Tarot,” which will host its opening reception at Taller Puertorriqueño on Friday, Sept. 15.

Losing his studio and home was his “turning point.”

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

He recalled: “Oh, I was desperate. I couldn’t sleep. … What can I say, just so many memories there [in Puerto Rico], childhood memories just lost. Overnight.”

Just weeks prior, he had weathered Hurricane Harvey in Houston, where he resides.

When he returned to the island, he was able to salvage a few things — his journals full of sketches, and a 30-year-old tarot deck he purchased on the streets of Puerto Rico for $5 from Cesar Villanueva, a man who locals called “El Loco.”

As he grappled with loss, he began to paint. He turned inward, reflecting on his identity.

“That dual identity is reflected in the work as well,” he says. “Me being a half-Irish American, half-Puerto Rican? Well, I can relate to McDonald’s, but I can also relate to Catholic iconography, you know.”

McGrath Muñiz’s exhibition explores ideas of climate change, loss, and the embedded impact of colonialism on not only his community, but the world at large.

“The way I see it — try to channel [loss] and translate it into art, and to making new art,” McGrath Muñiz explained. “Better art than the one that I lost.”

A painting shows a religious figure in the style of tarot cards.
“El Mundo,” by Patrick McGrath Muñiz. (Courtesy of the artists)

The collection of 30 paintings, on display until Oct. 21, is also a personal reflection.

He thought about the rollout of FEMA aid, media coverage, and the storm’s catastrophic, lingering impact on Puerto Rico — an island that has struggled to rebound economically from the 2008 recession.

McGrath Muñiz zeroed in on the relationship between the U.S.’s colonized lands and the Spanish colonization of his home island. He began to draw parallels between Christopher Columbus forcibly converting Native Americans to Christianity and the Spanish conquest of Carribean islands.

“The artist recreates scenes that mirror his experience living in a world impacted by the onslaught of digital communication and information, climate change, social inequality, and the global pandemic,” an excerpt of the event reads.

Themes range from present-day effects of religious propaganda and advertisements, all the way to consumer culture.

Some works — framed in gold or in paneled triptychs — look like they could be hung in a 17th-century cathedral. Others look like part of a modern-day tarot card deck.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

“I saw a continuous line of a narrative between … the colonial to the Neo colonial,” said McGrath Muñiz.

This resonated with curator Daniel DeJesus.

“What a lot of the work does is it really emphasizes the ills of commodity when it becomes toxic… [It is] taking us to the nucleus of it,” DeJesus said.

Daniel DeJesus poses for a photo.
Taller Puertorriqueño curator Daniel DeJesus. (Vicky Diaz-Camacho/WHYY)

“When I see Patrick’s work, I see someone commenting on that very idea, but then bringing it to now … he’s creating a window, where he’s pulling the past to the present.”

Multiple themes emerge throughout the collection, such as consumerism, the duality of identities, and conflict between religion and mysticism.

A painting in the style of religious triptychs.
“La Panacea” by Patrick McGrath Muñiz. (Courtesy of the artist)

His painting style replicates Baroque techniques used in the early colonial period: reverent figures, with sharp contrast, dramatic scenes, and rich colors.

And the use of gold? It is meant to imbue work with an aura of the sacred, he says.

The larger paintings hover around 6 feet tall, while the smaller works are the size of icons or altarpieces found along the walls of a church.

As curator and artist, DeJesus identified with the overarching themes. They say the exhibit addresses these questions: “What is Latinidad? What does it mean to be Latino? Where do we come from, and what makes us who we are now?”

Daniel DeJesus, left, with Patrick McGrath Muñiz, right.
Daniel DeJesus, left, with Patrick McGrath Muñiz, right. (Vicky Diaz-Camacho/WHYY)

The show begins with “El Loco,” or “The Fool,” modeled by Cesar, the artist’s friend and muse who first introduced him to tarot. It concludes with a painting inspired by a conversation with a Catholic friar who told the artist he had begun to look at the hurricane in a different light.

“They saw Hurricane Maria as an embodiment of the Virgin Mary because it, in a way, was positive, because it brought the community together. And I kept thinking about that.”

The final work is the largest in the series, nearly 6 feet tall. A pregnant Virgin Mary, surrounded by tarot cards — the personification of the hurricane. An inscription at the bottom reads, “Semper Sor Lucet Post Tempestate,” which means “light always comes after the storm.”

In a full-circle moment, McGrath Muniz’s wife, who was pregnant with their son at the time, was the model.

“You always have to try to find the goodness, the positivity … the thing that brings you back to life and something to look forward to,” the artist said, adding, “Our son, Francis, would be born nearly a year after the hurricane.”

“Arcanas: Neocolonial Retablos Inspired by Tarot” is on display until Oct. 21. The opening reception takes place on Friday, Sept. 15 at Taller Puertorriqueño from 6–9 p.m. Registration is encouraged.

Get daily updates from WHYY News!

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal