Work of the Week: Antonio Martorell, “¿Quéslaque? Es que la…”

By on May 16th, 2022 in Blog, Work of the Week


“¿Quéslaque?” is Puerto Rican slang for “What’s up?” or “Whassup?”. As viewers, we read this familiar question at the top left of the large artwork in funereal black and gray tones. This
colloquial greeting is placed next to a silhouette that we can recognize as a map of the island of Puerto Rico (center) and the smaller islands of Vieques and Culebra (on the right).

As we get closer to the image we realize that the small partitions within the map of the island are not its municipalities, but cutouts from local newspapers. These are actually partly effaced obituaries of many individuals who died as a consequence of the paths of hurricanes Irma and Maria. These Category 5 storms with wind gusts of up to 178 MPH ravished the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico within two weeks of each other on September 6 and September 20, 2017. While the official death toll was grossly underreported by the authorities for political and methodology reasons, it has been anecdotally and personally felt deeply by all of us connected with the islands.

Antonio Martorell

Antonio (“Toño”) Martorell (born 1939) is a Puerto Rican multi-media artist, educator, and writer, and a pillar of Caribbean contemporary art history. An intellectual, an artist of artists, and an artist of and for the people, Martorell‘s prolific body of work spans over six decades, consistently making references to the histories, diversity and resilience of Puerto Rican culture in face of adversity. Martorell’s artistic practice dissects and reveals encoded systems within culture and daily life by examining the intersections of language, the imaginary of self-representation and public spaces.

Photo by Gabriel Suau

While his art and pedagogy are rich in aphoristic observations, these are far from
sanctimonious. The question “¿Quéslaque?” comes across as an act of humble approach and
willingness to engage. The map reveals the reality that the islanders are faced with: a grave
catastrophe within an accidental topography, a history that has been again sinisterly
attempted to be erased, a devastation of silence and inaction.

The brief slowed down response “Es-que-la” at the bottom right reminds us of when we are
stunned and fail by responding with a “It’s that…ehhh, hmm”. Medically speaking, this is no
less but an example of the impact of induced anxiety on affective response inhibition.
Somberly, in Spanish “esquela” also means “obituary”.

Gamaliel R. Herrera, MD
Volunteer Member, CFAM Collections Committee

Learn more about Antonio Martorell at the resources below

Watch a Video: Artist Talk with Antonio Martorell

View Works by Antonio Mantorell on the Rollins Museum of Art’s Collections page

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