Jeannette Ehlers (Denmark, b. 1973)
Black Bullets, 2012
Courtesy of the artist.
Relational Undercurrents: Contemporary Art of the Caribbean Archipelago, curated by Tatiana Flores. Museum of Contemporary Latin American Art, Long Beach, California. September 16, 2017 to March 3, 2018.
The exhibition Relational Undercurrents: Contemporary Art from the Caribbean Archipelago at the Museum of Latin American Art, Long Beach, recounts a cohesive and complex history of the intertwined islands in the Caribbean Sea through contemporary art. Curated by Tatiana Flores as part of Pacific Standard Time: LA / LA, and shifting around the archipelagic theory of scholars such as Michelle Stephens, who co-edits the show’s accompanying book, the exhibition opens with two works located on either side of the galleries’ threshold—one by Dominican American artist Scherezade Garcia and the other by Cuban artist Tania Bruguera [figs 1 and 2]. Garcia’s In my Floating World: Landscape of Paradise (from the series Theories of Freedom), 2011, is a large mural installation composed of blue lifesavers, some transparent, and others with bands of silk-screened images of black figures and water. A luggage tag directed at New York’s John F. Kennedy airport marks each lifesaver. In my Floating World narrates a global and eternal story of migration: people escaping poverty, war, discrimination, and destitution for better pastures at great risks, through hostile waves and dry deserts. For Garcia in particular, this work traces the memory of Dominicans who attempted to leave the Dominican Republic for Puerto Rico using overcrowded and poorly built boats especially in the 1990s, many of them perishing during the journey. At the same time, the artist creates an abstracted mural of intermingling lines and circles positioned at different heights and made of vernacular objects that only suggest the Caribbean Sea without literally reproducing it.
Across from Garcia’s work, a stack of postcards are placed along the counter that lines the entrance to the galleries. These comprise Cuban artist Tania Bruguera’s work The Francis Effect, 2014, and state on one side that “dignity has no nationality” while requesting Vatican citizenship for undocumented people and refugees from Pope Francis. On the reverse of the postcard, Bruguera drew a map of Vatican City State. In 2014, the artist distributed the postcards oftentimes at the entrance of museums in the United States as a performance that involved surveys and interactions between the artist and museum visitors. Challenging tenets of Christianity that call for charity, Bruguera developed a socially-engaged work that raises global awareness for the current citizenship and refugee crisis particularly in the world of upper-middle-class museum-goers. The work also demands accountability from the Pope, one of the most venerated, powerful, and respected officials on the planet. On the postcard, the layout of the Vatican is emerald blue, the same color as the ocean on a casual bright sunny day of a Caribbean island, relating the work to the fabric of the Caribbean and its consistent history of migration. While addressing global issues using traditional contemporary art practices of performance, Bruguera’s work is also very local.
Together, these two works introduce the many themes found in Relational Undercurrents, which include not only movement, diaspora, and the Caribbean Sea as a border and framework, but also feminism, vernacular traditions, international relations, contradictions between the local and global, and the history and consequences of slavery and racism. Divided into four sections—Conceptual Mappings, Perpetual Horizons, Landscape Ecologies, and Representational Acts—the exhibition features over eighty artists from the Caribbean and its diaspora, especially in the United States and Europe. Flores applies interdisciplinary theories of the archipelago to contemporary art. In the extensive exhibition catalogue, Flores and co-author Michelle Stephens state that instead of reiterating a narrative of fragmentation in regard to the Caribbean, they introduce an “insular imaginary focused less on romantic ideas of island interchangeability,” and more on specific issues that address nationalistic and regional problems.1 This emphasis on inward-focused resemblances is developed in four sections that each focus on a central element of the Caribbean: the horizon, the racialized and politicized body, violated or idealized landscapes or seascapes, and imagined cartographies that reconsider the space of the island and its position globally. Through this exhibition, Flores devises a paradigmatic idiom for understanding Caribbean art, with the contemporary offering myriad starting points for approaching the region’s art history. Through theories of the archipelago, she also includes Caribbean contemporary art in notions of global artistic production based on the fabric of islands and their interrelationships.
As with the introductory works of Garcia and Bruguera, the exhibition includes installation, performance, video art, conceptual photography and other media. With such a diverse selection and through the themes of the four sections, Flores intends to position Caribbean art within the broader discourse of contemporaneity and Latin American art history. Caribbean artists are often marginalized from contemporary art history for their works’ focus on the local or less-accessible geographical location. Similarly, Latin American art history selectively includes or excludes Caribbean artists, favoring the Hispanophone countries and dismissing the French, Dutch, Anglophone and other islands. This occurs despite the etymology of the term Latin America, which comes from French intellectuals working in the mid-nineteenth century. Additionally, the issues that Caribbean artists address are relevant in other Latin American countries and parallel the work of artists in the Southern Cone and Central America.2
The first section of the exhibition, Perpetual Horizons, is installed in a long gallery, providing the impression of walking between two horizon lines. Some works didactically depict a horizon line with a blue ocean, such as the Martinique photographer Jean-Luc de Laguarigue’s prints of dilapidated architectural structures with idyllic views of the infinite sea and sky [fig. 3]. Another work that takes a conceptual approach to the theme is the Trinidadian artist Christopher Cozier’s installation that depicts rocking wooden rods with anonymous heads in profile attached to them. Concluding the section is the eerie work by the Danish artist of Trinidadian descent Jeannette Ehlers depicting the torsos of black bodies and their reflections as they walk through a nondescript body of water, disappearing at the end of the horizon line and referring to the oppression of black bodies in the Caribbean [feature image]. Perpetual Horizons examines an unavoidable trope of Caribbean art: the horizon as a point of identification exemplifying safety and hope for the future of a better life beyond it as well as a longing for the island once abroad. In the exhibition’s framework of archipelagoes, the horizon is an inevitable feature of islands around the world, which may tie Caribbean islands to other groups of islands and their artistic production. The repetitiveness of the horizon in the works throughout the long gallery corridor emphasizes this image as an essential feature of Caribbean identity.
Representational Acts, the exhibition’s second section and arguably its most complex one, includes works that decolonize stereotypes of Caribbean identity, culture, and history through representation. Many of the artworks challenge racist gender constructions, including installations by the Jamaican artist Ebony G. Patterson and the Dominican artist Raquel Paiewonsky [fig. 4]. Patterson’s altar Untitled (Gaffa) from the series Out and Bad (2012) depicts a bodiless silhouette of a dancer typical of Jamaican dance hall culture standing on hot pink cinderblocks, which are mirrored in the small installation in front of the painting. The scintillating texture of the canvas and the abundance of flowers questions definitions of masculinity in Jamaica through a focus on dance hall fashion. Patterson employs the fabric as a marker of identification in process—rather than skin color or body shape—in order to critique the way culture and race stereotypically define masculinity, particularly in Jamaica.
Similarly, Paiewonsky challenges conceptions of femininity in the Dominican Republic through an oblique representation entitled Bitch Balls (Mentirosas) (2012), depicting a floor arrangement of large beach balls embroidered with microfiber resembling breasts with elongated and straight nipples that could be mistaken for attack sticks. Ranging in color from white to dark brown and grey, the identical balls challenge the racist conceptions of black women as sexually promiscuous and white women as chaste. As in the rest of Paiewonsky’s oeuvre, this work promotes a feminist approach to the body in a heavily Catholic region where sexuality is still highly taboo, and advocates for women’s freedom in the way they express themselves and their bodies.
Other works in this section examine contemporary politics, such as the Dominican-American Charo Oquet’s All Tied Up/Amarre (2006), in which the artist tied herself to a Haitian food vendor with red rope, avoiding a ball that viewers kicked around the charged space of the Museo de Arte Moderno in Santo Domingo [fig. 5]. Alluding to the centuries-old conflict between the two countries that share the island of Hispañola, Oquet also asked visitors to write about their impressions of the relationship between the Dominican Republic and Haiti.3 The variety and diversity of political issues packed in this section are vast and almost insurmountable, but seems inevitable when discussing a space as complex as the Caribbean as an “insular” whole.
The third section of the exhibition, Landscape Ecologies, explores the fabric of the Caribbean including its flora and fauna, oftentimes from a critical point of view. The London-based Bahamian artist Lynn Parotti’s work Thirst II: Clean water cost to a consumer by municipality per 100 gallons, based on app. 4000 gallons a month usage in US dollars (2009/2016) explores the cost of clean water in sixteen global cities such as Dakar, Dubai, Damascus, Mexico City, Auckland, and Nassau. Through data acquired from the Global Water Intelligence, Parotti expresses the range of inequality of basic rights related to ecology by depicting numbers and letters using a traditional typescript with deep maritime colors expected from images of the Caribbean Sea. In this section other works take a historical approach to the Caribbean landscape, including the Haitian American artist Edouard Duval-Carrié’s large-scale painting Lost at Sea (2014), whose scintillating black heavy forest of palm trees, contrasting bright blue water and dark blue sky reveal a centralized figure, referring to a Vodou deity or simply an unidentified black man that summarizes the historical movement of black bodies to and from the Caribbean, from the Middle Passage to contemporary migration to the United States and Western Europe. Resonating with the first section Perpetual Horizons, this part of the exhibition mines the landscape of the Caribbean to understand the relationship of the body with its space, and explores the diversity of this region and its problems beyond the stereotypical image of the paradise-like virgin beach.
Finally, the last section entitled Conceptual Mappings, examines the inherent confusions in the different ways the Caribbean has been misunderstood geographically in the context of the Americas. Artists examine these contradictions sometimes from a humorous and ironic perspective as in the US artist of Trinidadian and Haitian descent Nyugen Smith’s Bundlehouse: Borderlines no. 3 (2017), in which the artist crafts together the different islands into one single block and populates them with unique small houses that embody the region’s history of migration. Other artists think more broadly about the location of the Caribbean, including the US artist of Jamaican and Puerto Rican descent Lisa C Soto’s installation Relational Realities (2017), a wonderfully intricate entangled constellation of wire and other objects that hangs from the ceiling, being so complex that it is almost impossible to trace the different lines across the grid. This work demonstrates the complexity of the Caribbean not only geographically, but also in terms of its histories, lineages, and movements.
Overall, Relational Undercurrents adds a theoretical framework to the study of contemporary Caribbean art through the lens of the archipelago, an approach complemented by Flores’s collaboration with Michelle Stephens. Its four sections not only examine the complexity of local resonances, but also the interrelationship between the different islands regardless of current spoken language. It reiterates lesser-known facts about the region, such as the inutility of understanding the Caribbean through colonial history alone, since it oftentimes shifted in the same spaces. While other exhibitions like the vast Caribbean: Crossroads of the World (2012) investigated similar themes about the region, the focus of Relational Undercurrents on contemporary art and its clear delineations into sections offers a provisional map for studying Caribbean art while maintaining the inherent contradictions and differences between countries in the region. Its abundance of contemporary artists and monolithic catalogue reveal the complexity of contemporary Caribbean art and provides a sort of repertoire for any future examination of the region.
Relational Undercurrents’ emphasis on the archipelago as a framework ultimately compels us to ask precisely what happens when we examine the artistic production of diverse islands as a single narrative, and this broad question remains rather open, particularly with regard to transnational experience. I still wonder how theories of the archipelago situate artworks by people of Caribbean descent living outside the region, which are abundant in the exhibition, since they are often isolated from islands (some artists in the show only have grandparents from the Caribbean) but still relate to the region. How would archipelagic theory address contemporary immigrants to the region from mainland spaces? In the context of the United States, how does the créolisation of artists from the Caribbean and their integration into Latino artistic communities change their experience of the island and differ from island-based artists? How can different Caribbean diasporas be understood according to their own singular, unique language when merged into the broad (and multilingual) categorization of Caribbean art? Combining all artists, regardless of their origin or transnational experience, threatens to undermine the fact that diasporas are producing a distinct language responding to their own issues and spaces. Attaining a specific definition of Caribbean art that would encourage the integration of the region into Latin American and Contemporary art history requires a nuancing between diasporic and island-based production. Relational Undercurrents can serve as a starting point for scholars to consider the archipelago in conjunction with other theories in order to understand the nature of contemporary Caribbean art and its complexities even more fully, if not completely. The Caribbean remains one of the most complicated spaces to tackle when writing history and the history of art, and Relational Undercurrents achieves this almost insurmountable task with its archipelagic approach.
Feature image: Jeannette Ehlers (Denmark, b. 1973)
Black Bullets, 2012
Courtesy of the artist.
Figure 1: Scherezade Garcia (Dominican American, b. 1966)
In My Floating World, Landscape of Paradise from the series
Theories on Freedom, 2011
Plastic tubes, prints, rubber and illustrations, variable dimensions
Courtesy of the artist and the Lyle O. Reitzel Gallery, New York
Figure 2: Tania Bruguera (Cuba, b.1968)
The Francis Effect, 2014
Arte de Conducta campaign
Photo by Gaetano Olmo Stuppia.
Courtesy of Estudio Bruguera
Figure 3: Jean-Luc de Laguarigue (Martinique, b. 1956)
Untitled from the series Nord Plage, Martinique, 2003
Photograph, 25 3/8 x 23 3/8 in.
Courtesy of the artist.
Figure 4: Ebony G. Patterson (Jamaica, b. 1981)
Untitled (Goffa) from the series Out and Bad, 2012
Mixed media jacquard woven tapestry with drug money,
fabric flowers, spray enamel on cinderblocks, and wallpaper, 78 x 54 in.
Courtesy of the Collection of Kyle DeWoody, Brooklyn, the artist and Monique Meloche Gallery, Chicago
- Tatiana Flores and Michelle Stephens, “Relational Undercurrents: Towards an Archipelagic Model of Insular Caribbean Art,” Relational Undercurrents: Contemporary Art of the Caribbean Archipelago (Long Beach: Museum of Latin American Art, 2017), 15.
- See Walter Mignolo, The Idea of Latin America (New York: Wiley-Blackwell, 2005).
- For more information about this work and the history of Hispañola, see Abigail Lapin Dardashti, “Embodying Hispañola: Urban Performance On and Around the Dominican-Haitian Borderland.” Public Art Dialogue 6:2 (Fall 2016): 253-272. Special Issue: Borders and Boundaries.