Lifestyle

Caribbean at the Crossroads

Identity in the Light

Kedon Willis

Sunday, August 12, 2012    

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The exhibit Caribbean: Crossroads of the World is being hailed as the big art event of this summer. And big it certainly is, both conceptually (questions of identity, history, geography, and religion abound) and physically (it spans three museums — El Museo del Barrio and the Studio Museum Harlem in Manhattan, and the Queens Museum of Art in Queens). Nothing of this magnitude has been attempted before to showcase Caribbean art in New York. If you are in or will be in the New York area, I urge you to go see it.

The works featured in the exhibit are as diverse and polyglot in nature as the Caribbean itself — oil paintings, sculptures, dioramas, video installations, photographs, mannequins and even poetry bear witness to the efforts of 379 artists from 39 countries. The idea, of course, is to examine the identity of the Caribbean through showcase. Given the unprecedented nature of this project, each work of art seems loaded with the question: “What is this saying about the Caribbean?”

Don’t expect any concrete answers. There are over 560 works throughout the three museums, and they provide more questions than answers. It doesn’t help that most of the pieces carry little explanation beyond its title and the name of the artist. The meaning of some of the items, no doubt, will be lost on a number of visitors.

But that is part of the idea, says Elvis Fuentes, associate curator at El Museo del Barrio. The history of the Caribbean is fertile, complex and messy; it’s natural that such moods would seep into the viewing experience.

“I didn’t want to over-explain,” he continues. “It wasn’t a good service to the artists. It’s for the people to come up with their own questions.”

To help visitors along, the exhibit is sectioned thematically — six in all; two for each museum. And time-wise, the exhibit carves out a narrative that starts with the 1791 Haitian Revolution and hopscotches its way to the present. But deciphering the many components of that narrative is up to the individual viewer, and there are many moments that are sure to give one pause. The heavy representation of works from Latin American countries dredges up awkward questions of geographical boundaries. And one may well wonder why an early 19th-century portraiture of Alexander Hamilton is present in the exhibit at all. But beneath the thicket of questions, piercing threads start to emerge. The myriad landscape paintings trumpet the shared history that binds all these lands — we are all, from the Venezuelan coast to the Bahamian shores, a part of what was once considered the New World.

The dual perception of this New World as an Edenic paradise and a hotbed of revolts is captured in the theme Land of the Outlaw. Romantic interpretations of verdant hillsides (by Europeans and islanders who studied in Europe) give way to the horror of plantation life and the tremors of rebellion that rocked the islands. Murder in the Jungle by Haiti’s Wilson Bigaud was particularly haunting.

The anxieties of our early colonisers ripple throughout these works, but so does their influence on shaping the backbone of our economies. Sugar cane, coffee and tourism all get their due. Colombia’s Leo Matiz conjures the majesty and degradation of Latin America’s vast oil wealth through his black and white photographs. The faceless bodies and muted colours of Albert Huie’s Crop Time suggests a Jamaica grimly beholden to the demands of agrarian labour.

The impact of slavery, along with the mixture of cultures it brought over from Africa, Asia and Europe, is alive as well. Jaime Colson’s Merengue and Gaston Tabois’ John Canoe in Guanaboa Vale are stylistically different and depict celebrations stemming from separate cultures. But both exude the spirit of outdoor expressiveness through song and dance, rung by intimacy and tinged with anti-colonial fervour that’s rife throughout the Caribbean.

Our revolutionary past and questions of modern identity are given ample consideration as well. Jamaica’s Renée Cox does a striking reimagining of Nanny in a British redcoat and holding a machete aloft. Strident representations of Toussaint L’ouverture and Simon Bolivar are given thoughtful representation as well. But a death-like sculpture of Cuba’s Fidel Castro by Spanish artist Eugenio Merino raises complications about the Caribbean’s own complicity in its ongoing quest for true independence. In this vein, Black Star Liner by Jamaica’s Dudley Irons hits at a complex array of emotions. The sculpture made almost entirely of matchsticks and depicting Marcus Garvey’s famed ship back to Africa, is a stirring symbolism of selfactualisation. But it is tempered by purposeful misspellings on its sides. Fate is spelt in bold on the front; a dark artillery weapon points ominously forward.

It’s a testament to the volume of works on display that viewing the exhibit through a single theme or through the works of one nation still leaves one burdened with many questions. Jamaican artists are well represented in this exhibit, and their pieces reveal not only a diversity of styles but also one of ideologies and perspectives. Jamaica’s streaked religious heritage shows up on a number of occasions: in Edna Manley’s elegant sculpture Prayer, in Carl Abrahams’ soulful Large Moses and in the bold, flattened perspective of Geneva Mais Jarrett’s Conquering Lion. Flashes of the everyday are keenly depicted through neatly drawn lines and bold, distinct colours in Barrington Watson’s Women Conversation and David Pottinger’s Pechon Street. Formalism is eschewed altogether via the wild expressionism of George Milton’s We Used to Be.

The motley ideas on display here naturally lead one to reflect. As these artists point out, Jamaica has a rich and complex story to tell considering its relatively short history. Who are we now as a people? One may be tempted to ask. What essential notion defines our country? The outsized global impact or our monstrous murder rate? North Coast beaches or West Kingston squalor?

But perhaps these musings are unfair. No country is free of the contradictions and inequities that plague societies. And perhaps, a mere two generations after Independence, our defining characteristic may be our unwillingness to yield to any outside expectations foisted on us.

In the Studio Museum at Harlem, Ebony G Patterson’s Untitled Species stands as one of the most impressive pieces of the exhibit (Elvis Fuentes, the lead curator behind the project, is a huge fan). At first glance a portrait of a black man, it is more a collage of parts rather than a whole person — a black body meets a mask-like white face adorned with jewel-encrusted glasses and blooming red lips. For Patterson, it is an examination of the shifting ideas of masculinity in Jamaica. “Popular culture has affected the way in which the contemporary male crafts himself,” she explains. Masculinity has always measured itself against femininity, but now, paradoxically, the masculine is incorporating more of the feminine to declare itself.

Taken in a broader context though, her portrait could be seen as a look of a country’s search for its identity. In light of this 50th anniversary, and climbing from the backs of slavery and indentureship, colonialism, labour riots, socialism, reggae, garrison culture and dancehall, perhaps we are still searching for the whole.

Caribbean: Crossroads of the World runs through October 21 at the Studio Museum in Harlem. It runs until January 6 at the Queens Museum of Art and at El Museo del Barrio.

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