Josué Pellot: Colonialism and the Politics of Cultural Consumption

Is there a correlation between colonialism and consumerism? In what ways does colonial history shape contemporary life? Living in Puerto Rico, these are questions I ask myself quite often. Consumers acquire products to satisfy a need created by advertisers. The effect is not inconsequential, as the consumer is never fully satisfied. Through this process of mass consumption, an alternate milieu is created where global socioeconomic problems simply do not exist. Is consumerism a driving force of colonialism? Can contemporary art help us understand? Born in Puerto Rico but residing in Chicago, artist Josué Pellot sheds new light upon the issues of colonialism, consumerism and the construction of a Puerto Rican identity. The artist takes recognizable scenes, signs and/or objects and transforms them into products that promote Puerto Rican culture and questions its very identity. He is not only speaking of culture as a commodity that is up for sale, but also about the power structures that exist within postcolonial cultures and the forces that sustain them.

In his installation entitled 1493, Pellot points to the similarities between colonialism and consumerism. 1493 is the year that the Spanish consquistador Juan Ponce de León, who travelled with Columbus, first came into contact with the Taíno indians in Puerto Rico. The installation, placed on the windows of a convenience store in Chicago, consists of neon signs portraying scenes of Spanish conquistadors in evident conflict with Taíno indians. One of these neons portrays an animation of a Spanish conquistador stabbing a Taíno at his feet with his sword, while another illustrates two Taínos drowning a Spanish conquistador. Two very opposing scenes that speak of the conflicts between coloniser and colonised. The neons narrate the abuse that the Taínos suffered under Spanish rule, but also their resistance. It is a history lesson for all to see. In this store front installation, culture and history become commodities for mass consumption just as much as the beer advertisments above them.

Amidst Puerto Rico’s political predicament, in what ways does the issue of colonialism still affect us today? In postcolonial studies, Puerto Rico stands as an island that remains in a colonial condition. From Spanish rule over to North American dominion, Puerto Rico still cannot define itself as a sovereign country. The concept of the ELA, created by the first democratically elected Puerto Rican governor Luis Muñoz Marín, translated as the associate free state, is a vague attempt in masking the island’s true political status; a relationship of co-dependence where the island is clearly a childlike figure standing under the tutelage of the motherland, as represented on the island’s coat of arms by an image of a lamb holding a white flag with a red cross. Puerto Rico is widely considered to be a modern day example of colonization, since a foreign culture, politics, media and language have slowly been injected. This affects every aspect of Puerto Rican life, from everyday behaviors to the construction of a national identity.

Pellot’s flag intervention Temporary Allegiance is another example of postcolonial discourse meeting consumer culture, in which an altered Puerto Rican flag was placed on a light post in front of Plaza las Américas, the largest shopping mall in the Caribbean. The Puerto Rican flag consists of 5 alternate red and white stripes. On the left of the flag is a single white five pointed star resting in a blue triangle. This white star stands for the commonwealth of Puerto Rico. Josué Pellot added 50 stars representing the 50 states of the USA inside the blue triangle, creating a hybrid of both Puerto Rican and American flags. Its intention is to provoke a discussion towards colonization and the power struggles between both countries. With this rendering, the power shifts over to the colonised, as the Puerto Rican flag predominates over the American one. It is a self-defining act against the powers that intend to dominate it.

Flying this flag right next to the most representative symbol of mass consumption on the island is not a coincidence. In fact, the mall’s logo consists of the sails of the three Spanish ships that first arrived to Puerto Rico in 1493. In From bomba to hip hop: Puerto Rican Culture and Latino Identity, Juan Flores speaks of Puerto Rico as the paradigm of what he calls the “lite colonial,” referring to the soft powers that have come to dominate Puerto Rican culture. According to Flores, the term ‘lite colonial’ “indicates that as colonial subordination becomes transnationalized, it also tends to shift from a primarily political, state and institution-driven force to a commercial one, impelled by markets and oriented towards consumers. In contrast to a colonialism based on production, the ‘lite colonialism’ is based on consumption.” By flying an intervened Puerto Rican flag that points to the island’s political indetermination next to the most represenative symbol of post-colonial globalization on the island, Pellot is saying that consumerism is a mechanism of colonialism.

Under these considerations, Pellot’s work turns the strategy of commercial persuasion against the dominating corporate advertising machine. Corporate advertisers try to tap into consumers needs and desires, attempting to make them feel dissatisfied, so that the consumer can repeat the consumption process. In the same way, Pellot intends for us to desire culture, history and autochthonous identity.