A traveling exhibition showcases the diversity of contemporary art from the Caribbean.
The nations of the Caribbean are incredibly diverse in culture, ethnicity, and language, but they have in common a 400-year legacy of slavery and colonialism as well as a complex and conflicted set of ties to Europe and the U.S. A traveling exhibition now on view at the Delaware Art Museum in Wilmington ambitiously attempts to discern some commonality among the various modes of visual creativity deployed by artists from the 21st-century Caribbean. “Relational Undercurrents: Contemporary Art of the Caribbean Archipelago” (through September 8) is curated by art historian Tatiana Flores and was organized by the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach, Calif., originally for the massive multi-exhibition event “Pacific Standard Time LA/LA,” in 2017. Since then, it has gone on the road, making stops at the Patricia & Philip Frost Art Museum at Florida International University, the Portland Art Museum, and the Wallach Art Gallery at Columbia University.
The exhibition features over 80 artists with roots in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Cuba (this island alone accounting for an astonishing 25 percent of the total), Puerto Rico, Curaçao, Aruba, St. Maarten/St. Martin, Martinique, Guadeloupe, Trinidad, Jamaica, the Bahamas, Barbados, and St. Vincent, working in media including painting, installation art, sculpture, photography, video, and performance.
The title of the show (and the accompanying scholarly catalogue, edited by Flores and Michelle A. Stephens), while not the most euphonious, does indicate a strong conceptual focus. “Relational Undercurrents,” in evoking the currents flowing beneath a body of water and the connections among the islands in it, signals what the curators call an “archipelagic paradigm.” While the Caribbean is not technically an archipelago, the term is meant metaphorically, as a way to stress the islands’ links and combat the sense of isolation with which they have traditionally been viewed. For Flores and Stephens, the Caribbean is “a geo-material and geo-historical assemblage of sea spaces and sea islands” in which they discern “unexpected mirrorings and inevitable unities,” unities that the artists themselves are conscious of. Today’s globalization has enhanced the archipelagic nature of Caribbean culture.
The exhibition is divided into four themed sections, titled “Conceptual Mappings,” “Perpetual Horizons,” “Landscape Ecologies,” and “Representational Acts.” The works in “Conceptual Mappings” challenge the colonial projects of map-making and border-drawing; “Perpetual Horizons” showcases works that deal with the fixity and luidity of geography; the works in “Landscape Ecologies” take on the centuries-long history of environmental exploitation and destruction in the region; while those in “Representational Acts” deal with issues of the individual and community, self-depiction, gender, race, class, and sexuality.
Cuban artist Marianele Orozco’s Horizontes / Horizons (2012) merges several of these themes into one powerful image, like many of the works in “Relational Undercurrents,” a photograph. It presents an imaginary horizon, with sky and clouds above and below, instead of land, a woman’s head and outstretched arms, seeming to form an island with a rise in the center beaches sloping down to the water’s edge. By identifying the human body with the land, Orozco portrays a Caribbean island as a place in which a new kind of humanity was formed from indigenous and European elements. The serenity of the work belies the fact that the bodies and the land were both brutally exploited but proudly proclaims the vitality and self-determination of contemporary Cuba and, by extension, the Caribbean as a whole.
Barbadian artist Ewan Atkinson’s Empire from the Series Starman Visits (2009) uses a combination of photographic transparency and lightbox to superimpose a superhero-like figure composed of glowing lights enclosed by a human form in outline over a dilapidated theater’s façade. Could the stars within the Starman’s body be the islands of the Caribbean? Is this a visitor from another world entirely, vivifying the post-colonial decay with the power of the imagination?
Not surprisingly, many of the works on view in “Relational Undercurrents” depict the sea, whether realistically or symbolically. In Haitian artist Edouard Duval-Carrié’s Lost at Sea (2014), part of his “Imagined Landscapes” series, a sole human figure floats in the water, hemmed in by land. It is as if all the islands of the archipelago have merged together, and the plant growth, gray with shadows, is so dense as to be frightening. Venezualan Ricardo de Armas’ photograph Viernes, 14 de Agosto, 10:30 a.m. / Friday, August 14, 10:30 a.m. (2010) intriguingly gives views simultaneously above and below the water’s surface, as if as a direct illustration of the show’s theme of underwater links. On the other hand Dominican artist Fermín Ceballos’ Aislamiento / Isolation (2005) could be seen as representing the fragmentation that the outside world has imposed upon the various Caribbean islands; in this photography we are shown an island so tiny that it is just a big rock, with a single human dwelling perched on top, surrounded by brilliant blue ocean. Haitian artist Roberto Stephenson’s 2007.07.16 09:04:57 – Lac de Péligre, département du Centre 18.921258° – 72.0043 97° > SE from the series Peyizaj takes a more reportorial approach, giving an aerial view of the seascape in a way that subtly suggests the archipelago concept.
The more human-oriented works in the exhibition express more intimate sides of Caribbean life. In Haitian artist Didier William’s Dancing Pouring, Crackling and Mourning, a 2015 acrylic and collage on wood, two black figures are partially revealed, partially concealed by a textile with Vodoun imagery and what looks like a flayed skin made of bark. The dance-like movements and mysterious quality of the imagery give the work a feeling of ritual and suspension of time. Puerto Rican photographer Miguel Luciano’s Amani Kites, SmART Power, Kenya (2012) is a joyous revelation of childhood’s exuberance, set not in the Caribbean itself but in Africa, from which the ancestral roots of the Caribbean diaspora grow.
By John Dorfman