Five Years of Embajada
The Puerto Rican art gallery wants to be a bridge between the island's art scene and the rest of the world.
Stuart Lorimer's Christopher & Manuela (2020), on view at Embajada's latest show Documento.
Since 2020, art destinations have had to adapt to the conditions brought on by the ongoing pandemic. But amidst the countless zoom-studio visits and Instagram-live conversations, Puerto Rico’s Embajada Gallery, has stood out by the way it has continued to expand its reach. Founded in 2015 by the husband and wife duo of Christopher and Manuela Paz-Rivera, and named after the Spanish word for embassy, Embajada’s mission is to be exactly that, to act as a bridge that connects artists on the island with the rest of the world, putting their connections within the New York art world into action. Embajada celebrated their 5th anniversary over the holidays, and has already grown out of their space—a former sex-toy store in the neighborhood of Hato Rey—into a shape-shifting space that takes many forms on the island and abroad. GARAGE spoke to Christopher about the gallery’s trajectory and how they’ve navigated the art world so far.
**What was going on in the island and the art world when you began to think about opening a space?
**Between 2012 to 2015, before opening Embajada I was working with Ramiken Crucible, hosting an art exhibition inside a cave in Puerto Rico. We would rent a house and invite international artists; it was like an unofficial residency. Meanwhile, Manuela had the experience of working for the Armory Show and NADA, so that got us thinking about adding to what was going on in PR’s art scene. 2015 was an important year [for the art scene on the island], we opened the gallery around the same time as KM 0.2, El Lobi, and I think Hidrante as well. What’s so interesting is that it wasn’t planned, it all happened organically. I think the recent social and economic problems were a driving force behind this surge. In the ‘80s and ‘90s there was a big gallery scene—we even had an art fair before MECA. But I think now it’s become more diversified and in-tune with reality. Think about it, those four galleries I mentioned were all founded by artists. And I think these spaces respond to different needs and conversations happening there.
**How did you go about finding the artists that now form part of your roster?
**We waited some time to announce a roster of represented artists, as we learned from them, considering how well we worked together, etc. But like the reasons we had for opening in the first place, the process was very organic. I wasn’t thinking from a money perspective when I opened the gallery, [it was more] about my contribution to the creative wave happening on the island. So when we started to sell pieces we saw the possibility and power support and to keep making things happen for artists and their practices. And now we represent artists like Chemi Rosado-Seijo, Daniel Lind-Ramos, Jorge Gónzales, and even Claudia Peña Salinas, who all have socially-engaged practices.
**And it makes sense because their practices have similar goals in engaging communities, which is why you guys opened the gallery in the first place.
**Exactly! In working with these artists we’ve gained their trust to create unique exhibitions, and these are artists that give it their all for their concepts because they live their concepts! Take Chemi for example, he made that skate bowl at Art Omi. He gets X amount of money to make it. And what does he do? He invites like 10 to 20 of his skater friends to do the residency with him. He considered them part of his practice.
**Your vision has proven to be successful in bridging the gap, not only between artists in different locations, but local and international audiences as well. Being a gallery in Latin America, how has your experience been when it comes to participating in art fairs?
**We feel that that’s our contribution in part: we help make it happen for them. We try to make things work in our favor and our artists’ favor because, and this is something I’ve talked with other collectors and gallerists, we cannot just live off grants. That’s the reality. And someday there could be no more funding! Could you imagine if Trump would have won again? So definitely, it’s part of our mission to insert them into broader conversations and the general markets, because that’s how they’re going to make money to keep making their art. And the intention for us is to go beyond being a “Latin American gallery,” to be an Art gallery. That it can function in any context. Of course the work coming from Puerto Rico and the Caribbean has certain concerns and topics, but the gallery is called Embajada. It's our way of amplifying our belief in being part of an international community. Of course, we’re super Rican, but we’re artists, and art is art wherever you go.
**In 2020 you opened new spaces in Puerto Rico and New York, can you talk a little about how they came about?
**Well both were actually in the works before the pandemic hit. The Foyer first came about with Frieze NY, which ended up being virtual this past year. But even before, I was starting to imagine this space in our apartment as something to experiment with. Then we started to really see its potential after being locked in for a month. So when the time came for Frieze we got thinking “Wait, we have some of Claudia’s inventory stored here. Why don’t we install it?” And so we did, and we started getting zoom calls. It was very organic, and as time progressed with the pandemic still around we began coordinating shows to happen at the gallery in Hato Rey in conjunction with the Foyer. We did this with José Luis Vargas, and we interviewed him through IG live and created some programming. So we kept doing similar things with other artists. I would say that the response has been great. We’ve been able to sell pieces through video chat, there’s been a lot of traction with the IG lives. I think this was a great way of reinventing ourselves using the space we live in.
**And MallxEmbajada had been cooking for a while now, yes?
**We had done pop-ups over the last few years in the gallery and places like MECA and NY Art Book Fair. We sold books and t-shirts from artists in PR, DR, Mexico, Colombia… But when Adriana Martínez and Julianna Echavarría [the directors and curators of MALL an experimental gallery/store hybrid in Colombia] approached us to open a franchise of their MALL concept in Puerto Rico it clicked, even though there’s already too many malls in the island! [laughs] And it’s funny because the very first article published about Embajada talks about the gallery being inside a mall, when it’s really my family’s building where my mom has her clothing boutique. So it’s kind of a shopping center, but the biggest mall in PR is nearby. So our mission with this store is to promote value and interest in these publications, to invite people to think about art in book form. And it also serves as a place where artists can make their works available. We’ll be participating at Printed Matter’s virtual fair this year and we’ll be using the gallery and Foyer as exhibition spaces for the books too!