Relational Undercurrents: Contemporary Art of the Caribbean Archipelago
(September 16, 2017—February 25, 2018)
The timing of this important and fascinating exhibit is grimly serendipitous, coming so soon after Hurricanes Irma and Maria pummeled the Caribbean archipelago, leaving behind unthinkable trauma and devastation. The storms also raised international consciousness about this fragile and beautiful multi-cultural part of the world. Curated by Dr. Tatiana Flores, Relational Undercurrents is a tour of these island nations through the visions of more than 80 contemporary artists from the Caribbean and its diaspora, a tour that gathers insight into the complex, multi-faceted cultural, geographic and historic—as well as pressing environmental—influences that drive them.
While part of PST: LA/LA, the exhibit does not focus exclusively on territories that could be considered Latin American because of links to Spain: like Cuba, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, etc. The scope is much broader and more inclusive, involving voices from island nations with ties to Britain, France, Holland and the U.S. as well. Featured is the work of artists with roots in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Curaçao, Aruba, St. Martin, Martinique, Guadeloupe, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, the Bahamas and Barbados— brought together with the intent of reflecting a commonality of themes confronting these islands today rather than adhering to circumstantial boundaries carried over from colonial times.
Heritage, race, identity, migration, sustainability, climate and landscape are among the recurring threads that emerge in the varied and compelling works assembled here, and which offer tantalizing glimpses into a treasure trove of island narratives.
Starting with maps—which are embedded with stories from colonial times to the present—Conceptual Mappings is one of four themes formally explored in the exhibit and a good jumping-off point for conveying how artists perceive the islands in the context of their interconnectedness and their relative position in the world. One of the most literal approaches to the mapping theme is the rendition of Bundlehouse Borderlines No. 3 (Isla de Tribamartica), a fictional island conceived by Nyugen E. Smith. The artist contrived the outline of this hybrid territory by overlaying maps of Trinidad, Cuba, Martinique, Haiti and Jamaica. Smith, whose background is Trinidadian/Haitian/Cuban, adapted the language of cartography to weave together multiple historical references: a lace border alludes to the traditional Madras fabric worn on the French island of Martinique, for example, while a network of differently colored lines stitched in thread throughout his map of the imaginary island represents the arbitrary way borders were imposed in colonial times, with complete disregard for the linguistic and cultural ties they divided.
The colonial powers could have had no inkling of the environmental havoc and the ravages of climate change these island communities would ultimately be destined to confront. Some of the participating artists address these concerns, grouped under the theme Landscape Ecologies. Among the most striking is the installation Mar invadido, 2015: Found Objects from the Caribbean Sea by Tony Capellán, in which the artist presents a collection of detritus gathered from the shore, organized in gradations of blue. The oddly beautiful arrangement of assorted bottles and other inorganic waste hints at the degradation and pollution of the once pristine waters. Also addressing a concern related to the environment, Lynn Parotti’s composite painting on aluminum, Thirst II: Clean water cost to a consumer by municipality per 100 gallons graphically documents the skyrocketing cost of clean water to residents of Nassau, Bahamas, along with other cities of the world.
The theme Representational Acts, connects works that seem to focus more on the personal lives of Caribbean residents from a sociological, cultural and political point of view. Among these are Myrlande Constant’s Haiti, Tuesday, January 12, 2010—the date a magnitude 7.0 earthquake unleashed death and destruction in Haiti. The vibrantly colored grand tableau portrays a parade of humanity interspersed with skeletons, composed of beads and sequins on a fabric background, in the tradition of the Haitian drapeaux.
This survey takes on an admirably ambitious task. Its formidable scope reveals an enticing selection of modern day treasures from the Caribbean, but also suggests that this is only a small sample of the burgeoning wealth of contemporary art from this culturally opulent part of the world.