Remembrance of things past

By GREG COOK  |  July 10, 2007

What do we lose when the military might behind 19th-century American slavery and a gun-toting radical ’60s African-American political movement that advocated for jobs, homes, education, and health care become costumes for a night? We forget the messiness and the difficulty, the hard work and the mistakes and the fighting that underlie social change.

Bonnie Donohue looks at how little people can effect big changes in her exhibit “Vieques: A Long Way Home” at the Center for Latino Arts. The Jamaica Plain resident, who has taught at the Museum School since 1979, first visited Vieques in 2000, when demonstrations were heating up over the Navy’s use of the Puerto Rican island as a live-fire training range. “My interest,” she tells me, “is how people who have apparently little power can use their power to face an overwhelming power.”

The Navy bought up much of Vieques during World War II, displacing tenant sugar-cane farmers who lived on and worked the land. The military turned the eastern third of the island into a training range and the western third into munitions storage. Over the years, many Puerto Ricans objected to the Navy’s activities there, but protests snowballed after a mistargeted bomb killed a local civilian security guard working on the range in 1999. Under orders from presidents Clinton and Bush, the Navy moved out, and between 2001 and 2003 it turned over much of its property to Puerto Rico and the US Department of the Interior.

Donohue’s exhibit, a variation on a show that premiered in Vieques last year, presents her photos of abandoned Vieques munitions bunkers from 2004 to 2006 with archival data and photographs of the island. Thirty-six black-and-white photos from a March 1941 Navy aerial survey of Vieques show the island’s lush shore and mountain peaks, farm land, beaches, docks, houses, and boats before the Navy took over. Donohue’s 2006 triptych Before the Last Crop (In Between) After the Last Crop shows, at left, an aerial view of a Vieques factory chugging away surrounded by a cluster of homes ringed by sugar-cane fields. The center photo depicts a woman and her children before some wood and tin shacks in November 1941. In a 1943 aerial view at right, the factory is idle, the homes are gone, and bunkers have sprouted along the roads. Elsewhere, maps show people sprinkled across the length of island in 1941 and concentrated in a belt down the center in 1943. A poster lists sugar-worker families who were displaced.

Donohue appropriates Navy aerial surveillance color photos to show protesters camped out on the bombing range with the words “Love” and “Bieke” (an indigenous name for Vieques) spelled out in stones on the ground and a white cross attached to an old tank. Her own photos are mainly panoramas of abandoned munitions bunkers nestled in lush green valleys. “I was really struck by those structures out in the landscape,” she says. “There’s nobody who lives out there. I just thought the silence and emptiness of them really spoke of what happened to the landscape.” Three round-topped bunkers stand steadfast under the angry skies of an approaching storm while leaves shiver in the breeze. In another photo, vines creep over and into a bunker’s open metal doors.

Donohue has assembled lots of relevant facts and pictures to imply human heartbreak, but the feelings remain mainly outside the art. Maybe the landscapes need to be balanced by more pictures of people — displaced sugar workers, protesters, Navy pilots, politicians — and their individual tales.

‘Greta Pratt: Nineteen Lincolns’ | Bernard Toale Gallery, 450 Harrison Ave, Boston | Through July 28

‘Bonnie Donohue: Vieques — A Long Way Home’ | Center for Latino Arts, 85 West Newton St, Boston | Through July 25

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