Caribbean

by Cristina La Porta

Enrique Grau, Mulata Cartegenera, 1940, Courtesy Museo Nacional de Colombia, Bogota, ColombiaCaribbean: Art at the Crossroads of the World, edited by Deborah Cullen and Elvis Fuentes. New York: El Museo del Barrio, in association with Yale University Press, 2012. 491 pages. Illustrated.

Published in conjunction with the exhibition “Caribbean: Crossroads of the World” (June 12, 2012–January 6, 2013), organized by El Museo del Barrio in collaboration with the Queens Museum of Art and The Studio Museum in Harlem, this richly illustrated volume is not a catalogue per se, but a multifaceted examination of a complex region. The authors of the twenty essays include some high-profile names in Caribbean culture studies. An additional selection of twenty literary excerpts, from the fifteenth to the twenty-first century, demonstrates the many roles the Caribbean has played in the imagination.

This companion book begins wisely with a map of the Caribbean, which challenges the pre-conceived notion of the area as a cluster of sun-drenched tourist islands. The map includes the southern part of the United States from Texas to Florida, Central America and the northern part of South America. It could also be extended to represent the growing communities of the diaspora, including significant populations of Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and Haitians living in New York City.

A map is an idea, a space of identification, and it contains vestigial histories. The Caribbean map reflects the legacy of colonialist mercantilism, the indigenous and creole cultures, and the slave trade. Maps carry conceptual baggage. As Lowery Stokes Sims states in her essay “Surrealism in the Caribbean,” when the Surrealists re-drew the map of the world illustrating an ideal geography, they designated the only bastions of primal iconography as “Alaska, Easter Island, Mexico, New Guinea and Russia.” The lower forty-eight of the United States and the continent of Europe “are practically charted out of existence.” The Surrealist poet André Breton and the Cuban painter Wilfredo Lam also latched onto Haiti, a center of avant-garde activity and the Négritude movement, fomented by writers such as Aimé Césaire from Martinique.

Gerald Alexis’s essay, “The Caribbean in the Hour of Haiti,” deftly explains the complex trajectory of Haiti in the world of image-making and gives an in-depth account of how the Haitian revolution brought on a myriad of artistic convergences. Idealized portraits of the independent nation’s leaders were painted by Europeans such as the French painter Anne-Louis Girodet. But black artists, stresses Alexis, came from Santo Domingo, such as Séjour Legros, or from Guadaloupe, Guillaume Guillon-Lethière, and the Haitian sculptors Normil Charles and Edmond Laforestrie commemorated Haiti’s major revolutionary leader, Toussaint-L’Ouverture.

Alexis also notes examples of racial stratification. Racial issues and the breakdown of Indian caste systems in Trinidad are expertly discussed in the catalogue, along with gender and body studies, exemplified in Rocio Aranda-Alvarado’s essay, “The Body in Caribbean Art.” The catalogue’s addendum of literary excerpts traces the course of racial colonialist policies in Le Code Noir (1687), attributed to Louis XIV, Martinique-native Suzanne Césaire’s The Great Camouflage (1945) and the Trinidad-born V.S. Naipul in The Middle Passage: The Caribbean Revisited (1962).

The catalogue essayists represent a wide range of perspectives, emphasizing literature, history and anthropology as well as art. Edward Sullivan contributes an overview of exhibition history in his essay, “Displaying the Caribbean: Thirty Years of Exhibition and Collection in the United States.” Here he highlights a timeline of major exhibits showcasing Caribbean and Latin American art by museums such as the Metropolitan Museum, Museum of Modern Art, Brooklyn Museum and Philadelphia Museum. As he indicates, many pervasive stereotypes concerning Caribbean societies and culture are being re-addressed, thanks to the current efforts of collectors and curators whose projects are brought forward in “the context of our constantly mutable social, political, and aesthetic situation.” It is in this spirit that one of the editors of the catalogue, Deborah Cullen, seeks in her essay, “Out of the Shadows: The Harlem Renaissance and New York’s Afro-Caribbean Diaspora,” to change how we consider African American artists with blood ties to the Caribbean. Discussing artists such as Edward Mitchell Bannister, Mary Edmonia Lewis and Jean-Michel Basquiat, she warns that “Caribbean artists in the United States are often folded into the categorization African American, thereby rendering them invisible.”

Richard and Sally Price, two social anthropologists, broaden discussions of the Caribbean basin’s cultural diversity by investigating the evolution of maroon societies, self-liberated slaves in Brazil, Colombia, French Guiana, Jamaica and Suriname. They explain: “Maroons in Suriname and French Guiana” are not ”holdovers from original African traditions,” but are instead constantly evolving. They celebrate ever-changing models of coastal imports by incorporating them into their art works and playfully give them creative names referring to political conflicts, marital gossip or global news. One example of this playful spirit is a carrying case for a stereo boom box carved and painted, about 1985, by Feno Obienté, from the Aluku village of Loka in French Guiana.

Art historian Katherine Manthorne discusses, in “Sweet Destiny: Anglo-American Traveler-Artists in the Caribbean, 1714–1898,” how the sea and the increasing interest in botany, as well as the popularity of travelogues with copious and detailed sketches during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, helped to ignite dream visions of the Caribbean. Winslow Homer did many watercolors of life by and in the waters of the Bahamas, Bermuda, Cuba and the Florida Keys. Frederic Church was captivated by the Caribbean, but his focus was on the sunsets and storms in the mountainous regions of Jamaica. The imagination is further discussed in Yolanda Wood Pujol’s “Visual Caribbean: Images and Imaginaries.” She states: “At the turn of the millennium the Caribbean reveals an accumulation of images created by others and by us that gives contemporary art meaning through intertextual poetics. In that history of images and imaginaries, an iconographic tradition is discovered and renewed.”

Writers shaped their ideas of the Caribbean upon existing texts, for example, Shakespeare’s The Tempest, inspired by a shipwreck off the coast of Bermuda. Maryse Condé, noted Francophone author from Guadaloupe, sees the Atlantic Ocean as a field not of disjunction but of interconnections. “In the Caribbean the Atlantic Ocean,” she says, “is the true master,” because “It does not split up the world into islands, continents and subcontinents, but on the contrary unites it in a fistful of waves, seaweed, and spray.” Catalogue editor and contributor Elvis Fuentes continues the remapping in his essay, “Crossroads, Crossing and the Cross,” exploring the fraught relationship between the United States and the Caribbean. He uses American painter Edward Laning’s T.R. in Panama (1939) to explore history from a double perspective. Roosevelt, dressed in white, arrives in 1906 to oversee the construction of the Panama Canal. A steam shovel emits black smoke, and above it flies the American flag. On the ground is an all-white labor force. A few crosses are a reminder of the many workers who died during the creation of the canal. Fuentes points out that the crosses recall an earlier history, the transport route, called the Camino de Cruces (Road of Crosses), where thousands of slaves died transporting Peruvian silver to Spain and European goods back to the colonies.

The catalogue’s illustrations encompass art and artifacts from the eighteenth century to the present day. Uniform buttons worn by Toussaint-L‘Ouverture depict a vivid mix of fashion styles. Copies of images by Agostino Brunias (1730–96), an Italian painter commissioned by the British to document Caribbean life, show black people in a mélange of Western and island clothes. One man wears breeches and white hose and carries a tricorn hat, but has on his head a turban-like headdress. A beautiful barefoot mulatto woman wears a low-cut Western dress and a white turban. Bartholomew Dandrige’s A Young Girl with a Dog and a Page (c. 1725) is a more straightforward example of racial dominance. The pale young mistress is elegantly dressed, while the black page nearly disappears into the background.

Today’s Caribbean artists consider history through reinvented iconography. The Nuyorican painter Myrna Gutierrez’s Island of Enchantment (La Isla del Encanto), from 1986, is mounted like a banner on wooden dowels. The top portion, on a bright yellow backdrop, holds pleasant images of family, exotic flowers, a musician playing his guitar, a body of water with deep blue waves, and other elements belonging to the local language. In the middle, a dark-skinned naked woman is stabbed by a white man’s hand. This visual vocabulary, suggesting the traditional “Instruments of Passion” trope from Christian art, serves as a grim reminder of the years of forced sterilization of Puerto Rican women. The bottom half of the work displays icons of war—military boats and falling bombs, against a dark orange backdrop. The U.S. nuclear tests in Vieques, a beautiful island east of Puerto Rico, are here candidly critiqued. Gutierrez draws a parallel between the violence inflicted upon Puerto Rican women and Vieques, seen as an island-woman, its waters and fauna ravaged by U.S. naval exercises. This richly documented catalogue is a beacon to pluralistic learning. The variety of works in many mediums, from different periods and spanning all territories touched by the Caribbean Sea, are beautifully illustrated. They are a vivid testament to cultural cross-pollinations and launch the Caribbean ever more into its rightful place of investigations. 

American Arts Quarterly, Summer 2013, Volume 30, Number 2