Brave New World:One day Elvis Fuentes, a curator at El Museo del Barrio, decided to search 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 double-edged image of the region—as a “utopic place of pleasure and a land of deviance and illicit activity”—inspired an exhibition, called “Land of the Outlaw,” chronicling the role of iconic figures ranging from pirates to missionaries.
This edgy show is one of six in an unprecedented, ambitious collaboration staged by El Museo with two other New York institutions—the Queens Museum and the Studio Museum in Harlem—called “Caribbean: Crossroads of the World.” The exhibition is not a show of Caribbean art—it’s a show of art about the Caribbean, as seen from historical, cultural, and social perspectives.
In 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.
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.
Read more in my story in ARTnews.Arnaldo Roche Rabell, “We Have to Dream in Blue,” 1986. Collection of John Belk & Margarita Serapion. Courtesy Walter Otero Gallery