Brave New World

Three New York art museums take on the complex topic of the Caribbean

Agostino Brunias, A Planter and His Wife, Attended by a Servant, ca. 1780. From “Counterpoints” at El Museo del Barrio.


The first thing to understand about “Caribbean: Crossroads of the World,” the cluster of exhibitions opening concurrently at El Museo del Barrio, the Studio Museum in Harlem, and the Queens Museum of Art in June, is that these aren’t shows of Caribbean art. They’re shows of art about the Caribbean.

That distinction is crucial, says Museo del Barrio curator Elvis Fuentes, a driving force behind the landmark project. In the planning for more than five years, “Caribbean” is an unprecedented collaborative effort to consider the multiple historical, cultural, and social forces that shaped not only 28 countries but also their diasporas in North and South America and beyond.

In its multidisciplinary approach, and its focus on how the movement of peoples and products around the globe created new, hybrid civilizations and artifacts, “Caribbean” is part of a wave of recent scholarship on American cultures that includes studies such as Charles C. Mann’s 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created.

But “Caribbean” tells the story entirely through art. Natives, newcomers, slaves, revolutionaries, plantations, tobacco, coffee, Carnival, merengue, Toussaint, Trujillo, Castro: all of these and more are rendered, or represented, in objects.

The shows offer a large selection of what might be described as Caribbean art as traditionally defined. There are portraits, religious scenes, and landscapes, by figures such as Puerto Rico’s José Campeche, Haiti’s Hector Hyppolite, Jamaica’s Edna Manley, and Venezuela’s Armando Reverón, among many others, reflecting the meeting of native and foreign cultures and the emergence of new creole societies. And since the project is concerned with how the outside world sees the Caribbean, the exhibitions feature images by well-known foreigners, such as John James Audubon, Paul Gauguin, Camille Pissarro (a Saint Thomas native), Walker Evans, and Jacob Lawrence.

Contemporary artists bringing a more conceptual and metaphorical approach to the project include Nari Ward and Renée Cox (born in Jamaica), Janine Antoni (Bahamas), Pepón Osorio and Enoc Pérez (Puerto Rico), Edouard Duval Carrié (Haiti), Abel Barroso, René Peña, and Sandra Ramos (all from Cuba), and Hank Willis Thomas (from the United States), to name a few.

The project was launched when staff members of El Museo and the Queens Museum discovered that both institutions were considering shows on contemporary Caribbean art and decided to join forces. They then approached the Studio Museum, and so began the collaboration. As two of the original museum directors and many of the original curators moved on, the team pondered a strategy to use the medium of art to “make order out of chaos,” bringing perspective to a region smaller than the United States but “much more fractured,” as Queens Museum director Tom Finkelpearl puts it.

As curators’ ideas coalesced, they became aware that the story they wanted to tell had not been told anywhere before, within the Caribbean or outside it. And they realized that the contemporary era alone doesn’t contain the whole story. For this reason, they decided to start in the late 18th century, around the time of the Haitian revolution. Then they abandoned their chronological approach in favor of individual exhibitions based on themes. They also determined that they would have to go beyond the Caribbean to properly explore the subject, and so they included coastal regions and diaspora cities like New Orleans and Miami.

“There’s a common history—and at different times very different histories that are fascinating in their differences,” comments Julián Zugazagoitia, who ran El Museo del Barrio when the project was conceived and now directs the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri. “The life of the project itself reflected life in the Caribbean—as much as we tried to be organized and rational, the Caribbean took over in the process.”

Fuentes was largely responsible for determining the themes of the individual exhibitions. “Kingdoms of This World,” the Queens Museum show examining popular traditions and religious practices, is named after Cuban author Alejo Carpentier’s novella The Kingdom of This World, set in Haiti around the time of the revolution. The exhibition focuses on subjects including Santeria, Rastafarianism, and the idea of Carnival, which has become a form of visual art in itself. “Fluid Motions,” also at Queens, looks at the geographical and political realities of a region whose components are separated by water.

Fuentes conceived “Land of the Outlaw,” slated for the Studio Museum, when he searched for the word “Caribbean” in the New York Times. Examining the results, he says, “70 percent of the things related to some kind of crime”—though, he adds, that crime was usually chronicled in some kind of fiction, ranging from books to music. The show, about “dual images of the Caribbean as a utopic place of pleasure and a land of deviance and illicit activity,” explores the role of iconic figures ranging from pirates to missionaries. A companion show, “Shades of History,” addresses the significance of race in Caribbean culture, past and present.

“Counterpoints,” at El Museo, taking off from studies by anthropologist Fernando Ortiz on the impact of sugar and tobacco on Cuban culture, looks at the role of plantations and international trade. “We have a love/hate relationship with sugar in the Caribbean,” says Fuentes, who was born in Cuba. Using art objects commissioned by plantation owners for their mansions—among them the first landscape images painted in the region—the show also explores the culture of tobacco, its workers, its marketing, and its associations with modernity. The sixth segment, also at El Museo, titled “Patriot Acts,” examines how artists and intellectuals contributed to the identity of nascent Caribbean nations.

With an accompanying publication that covers music, literature, and other arts not addressed in the exhibitions, along with extensive educational initiatives that were conceived hand-in-hand with curatorial programs, the project is considered a game changer by the leaders of the three institutions, each of which is expanding its mission by engaging in the collaboration. “The historical aspect is very new for us,” notes Finkelpearl, whose museum has focused on the era from 1939 (when its building was constructed) to the present.

For El Museo, it is a foray into the non–Spanish speaking Caribbean. And for the Studio Museum, it offers a new model of presenting shows rooted in anthropology and history—not to mention the collaborative aspects of the curatorial and educational planning.

“It’s not just the exhibition, it’s the way it’s being formed,” says Studio Museum director Thelma Golden. “It will impact the way we think about the institution.”

The exhibitions will be at the Queens Museum and El Museo del Barrio through January 6 and the Studio Museum through October 21.

Robin Cembalest is the executive editor of ARTnews.

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