"a thorough show
that takes the
viewer through the
history of the
diverse cultures of
by Lori Zimmer
guest curator Elvis Fuentes has assigned four central themes to tie together this eclectic collection that represents many different nations, traditions and histories – Fluid Motions, Counterpoints, Shades of History and Kingdoms of this World.
Fluid Motions represents the Caribbean Sea, which both connects and isolates each cultural hub throughout the region. Water is essentially the lifeblood of the Caribbean, enabling trade and travel, but it also separates one nation from the next, preserving diversity. Within this theme, water-related imagery, both literal and folkloric, fill the exhibition. Seminal Haitian artist Rigaud Benoit’s Sirena, painted in 1962, portrays the iconic mermaid as religious symbol, the figure surrounded by fish and objects from the Haitian Vodou religion. Contrasting to Benoit’s traditional piece is Touch, by Janine Antoni, is a video showing the artist tightrope walking across the horizon line on a wavy beach, her steps touching the horizon line as she moves across the screen. Originally from Grand Bahama, Antoni chose the site of the beach in front of her childhood home, aligning the rope with the horizon line that inspired her, as a child, to look out beyond her tiny island homeland.
Counterpoints is a multi-layered and complicated theme, addressing the history of the Caribbean economy, which includes slavery, plantations, as well as the sugar and tobacco industries, contrasting with today’s commerce surrounding tourism and ecology. Within this theme are many historical paintings and photographs, showing both actual Caribbean life, and that which wealthy patrons wanted portrayed. Fuentes chose Agostino Brunias’ Linen Market, Dominica, painted in 1780, to show the fantastical vision of island life that plantation owners wanted the rest of the world to see. Here, the painting shows what Fuentes refers to as the “whitewashing” of history, an image of mostly lighter skinned women mixing happily with natives, completely shirking the social and racial conflicts that held true at the time.
Kingdoms of this World, celebrates colorful traditions of Carnival, spirituality and religion. This section is not only the largest, but is the most vibrant and enigmatic. Visitors are transported to Carnival itself with Laura Anderson Barbata’s sculpture, The Cheese Ball Queen, whose royal blue skirt fans out, coupled with an extended gold headdress. Lively carnival music could be played on Instrument for Four Persons by Everald Brown, while the glittering sequins in Ryan Oduber’s video Kima Momo evoke the garish costumes seen in each nation’s celebrations. Jumping outside of the Caribbean itself is Tam Joseph’s piece, Spirit of the Carnival. Tam, who lives in London, shows the familiar decadently costumed Carnival goer, faced with dogs and the riot gear of seemingly endless British policemen. The piece captures the artist’s experience of celebrating traditions of his culture in another country, which he feels are ill received by his hosts, the British.
Shades of History weaves a thread through the many cultures that have influenced the history of the Caribbean throughout its torrid and war-torn past and have created long-standing issues surrounding racial identity, ideals of beauty understood through skin and hair color, as well as cultural traditions, both native and adopted from colonization. The most obvious example of this is Renée Cox’s photograph Redcoat from the series Queen Nanny of the Maroons, in which the artist, who is from Jamaica, dons the redcoat costume of the invading British. The influence of these outside cultures on beauty is shown in Ebony Patterson’s Untitled Species series, which shows portraits from Jamaica’s dancehall culture, where skin bleaching has become popular, with lighter skin considered to be more beautiful. This betrayal of the native look is the direct result of the Caucasian influence and infringement on Jamaica culture over history. Arnaldo Roche Rabell’s We Have to Dream in Blue is a textured portrait using elements of the Caribbean landscape to make up the subject’s face, and has also been chosen for the exhibition’s cover image.