An island is a world
By Nicholas Laughlin
published in The Caribbean Review of Books, November 2007
Not even the US Census Bureau knows the exact
Caribbean population of New York City, I’m sure, but I’d be surprised
if the numerous Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Haitians, Cubans, Jamaicans,
Trinidadians, Guyanese, etc etc etc, who live in the city legally or
illegally didn’t add up to a cool million. You could concoct a clever
sort of post-colonial (or post-national?) argument that not just sheer
numbers but density of diversity — that is, the fact that so many men
and women with roots in such a variety of Caribbean territories now
live and work in a space the size of Barbados — makes New York the
capital city of the twenty-first-century Caribbean world. So it seems
entirely apt that the most important survey exhibition of Caribbean art
in over two decades is currently showing at the Brooklyn Museum, and
even more apt that Infinite Island:
Contemporary Caribbean Art opened on the last Friday in
just three days before the West Indian American Day Carnival — better
known as Labour Day Carnival — the biggest and most public
manifestation of the Caribbean presence in New York.
Reviewers in the New York press have felt obliged to point out that Infinite Island is lacking in clichéd images of the Caribbean, like palm trees and colourful market scenes; it also, for the most part, lacks paintings on canvas, still the gold standard for most art galleries and collectors within the Caribbean. Instead, curator Tumelo Mosaka has focused on sculpture, photography, video, and installation. He includes eighty works by forty-five individual artists (plus a collective of architects and designers from the Dominican Republic) with roots in fourteen Caribbean territories, home- and foreign-based and from the diaspora, and all the region’s linguistic groups represented. Simply to see works by such a breadth of Caribbean and Caribbean-descended artists in one place, in a single frame, is revelatory. They sprawl across two floors of galleries, and it took me two visits and a total of perhaps six hours before I felt I’d given everything in the densely packed space its due attention. Yet this represents only a narrow slice of what is currently being produced by contemporary Caribbean artists, and Mosaka has deliberately restricted the show to works from the last six years (including pieces specially commissioned by the museum).
Actually, this is one of the most exciting aspects of Infinite Island: realising that you could assemble a survey of contemporary Caribbean art of equal size, scope, and quality without duplicating a single artist here. This testifies to the growing variety and vitality of the work of today’s Caribbean artists, even in the relative absence, in many islands, of supportive institutions and markets. But, making my way slowly through the galleries, where there was almost too much to take in, I also found myself reflecting that an exhibition like this couldn’t be staged in the Caribbean itself. In the first place, there is probably no institution in the region with the wherewithal to organise a show on this scale, and few with the physical space. And even if there were, a survey of recent Caribbean art organised in the region would look very different, even allowing for differences in individual curatorial intent. Our “master artist” fixation would all but demand the inclusion of key elder figures who have managed to capture secure places in our separate national art-historical narratives, at the expense of younger artists whose work collides uncomfortably with the expectations of local art markets, local cultural histories, and notions of cultural authenticity. (Only two artists in this show are over fifty, many are under forty, a few are still in their twenties.)
Refreshingly, Mosaka — a South African, and an associate curator at the Brooklyn Museum — need pay no attention to such expectations. He comes to Caribbean art as a smart, sharp, and sharp-eyed outsider, and it’s just possible that Infinite Island can offer us a new vantage point from which to consider the work being made by the artists in our midst.
Few works in Infinite Island fail to repay sustained attention. Unsurprisingly for a show this size, the works that immediately stand out are the biggest, loudest, strangest, funniest — like the Jamaican-British artist Satch Hoyt’s Say It Loud! (2004), positioned near the entrance to the first gallery. Five hundred books — volumes of art history, African history, modern philosophy, novels by black writers — are heaped up around a set of tall portable steps, such as you might find in a library; at the top of the steps is a microphone. On a wall overhead, a speaker plays a snippet of James Brown’s eponymous 1968 song, overlaid by the artist’s voice, intoning, “I’m ... and I’m proud,” with a gap for the viewer to fill in the adjective of his or her choice, where Brown’s lyric specifies “black.” Half-joke, half-serious, this jaunty comment on the ambiguities of race seems to speak both to the centuries-old ethnic fluidity of the Caribbean and to a very twenty-first-century notion of constantly shifting identity.
Similarly, four digital prints from a 2005 series by the young Barbadian Ewan Atkinson — in which he slyly inserts himself into doll’s-house montages that echo phrases from a colonial-era schoolbook — use visual jokes to question what the exhibition catalogue calls “‘high’ morals, respectability, and reputation.” And Haitian Jean-Ulrick Désert’s Negerhosen 2000, an ongoing public performance work begun seven years ago and documented in photographs, takes artistic picong to outrageous lengths. Désert, who lives in Germany, dons Bavarian lederhosen and strolls around public spaces in Munich and elsewhere, interacting with shoppers, schoolchildren, tourists, and sunbathers, who become supporting players in his performance. Some of them look delighted, most of them puzzled, by the spectacle of this black man whose leather shorts and suspenders might be a parody or a twisted homage to his adopted country; but they pose gamely. Who is laughing with — or at — whom?
The most quietly disturbing work in the show may be Mambrú (2006), a sculptural installation by Jorge Pineda of the Dominican Republic. A cluster of life-size figures made from cedar wood and sheets of lead depict children bearing assault rifles almost as long as they are tall; they all wear colourful fabric masks like those sported by Mexican wrestlers. You don’t need to catch the reference in the title — to a folksong starting with the line “Mambrú went to war” — to sense the sinister frisson between the cold grey of the lead and the soft pinks and yellows of the masks, or to notice the stiff awkwardness of the sculptures’ skinny little limbs and bare feet against the ugly angles of the firearms. Immediately adjacent is Levitando (2003), an installation by another Dominican, Raquel Paiewonsky. Dozens of feet cast in wax and cut off at the ankles are suspended in gauzy brown fabric slings that on closer inspection turn out to be women’s stockings. In their circular formation the feet sway gently, barely touching, like the weird fruit of a tree in a bad dream.
A couple of Infinite Island’s video works are really short documentaries that might be better served by conventional cinema-style screening. But some of the most indelible images in the show are offered by Waterboot (2003), a piece by the young Jamaican filmmaker Storm Saulter, and Under Discussion (2005), by the Puerto Rico-based duo Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla. In the former, a daredevil motorcycle rider chatting on his mobile phone reclines on the seat of his bike, with his feet cocked up on the handlebars, as he zooms down a country road and into a small town, in a performance as exhilarating as a tightrope walker’s or a knife-thrower’s. The latter is an extended visual metaphor: a man walks down to the sea at dawn, installs an outboard motor on a boat, and navigates around an island — except his boat is a large upturned table. A conference table, as it happens — hence the title — once used in negotiations over the status of Vieques, the site of a former US military testing ground.
An even more wrenching synthesis of politics and poetry is the video work Zona afectada (2006) by the young Cuban Alex Hernández Dueñas. Set in a blighted Havana neighbourhood, devoid of dialogue, it depicts a man making repeated trips from his apartment high in a crumbling building to a communal standpipe in the street below, lugging buckets of water. As he tires and struggles under the weight of his load, his muscles giving out and water spilling everywhere, the camera mercilessly follows. Just under nine minutes, it feels much longer, and by the end of this Sisyphean sequence my heart was racing and my teeth were set.
Among works like these, and among flashy
sculptural assemblages by
Dzine (aka Carlos Rolón, from the US, with Puerto Rican roots)
and Marcel Pinas (Suriname), a huge cartoon mural by Steve Ouditt
(Trinidad), and near-room-size installations by Annalee Davis
(Barbados), Veronica Ryan (Montserrat), and Remy Jungerman (Suriname),
some smaller works on paper are uncomfortably eclipsed. Photographs by
Polibio Díaz, Fausto Ortiz (both from the Dominican Republic),
and Deborah Jack (Sint Maarten), recording, respectively, the interiors
of working-class Dominican houses, undocumented Haitian immigrants, and
the artist’s travels, might hold their own in a quieter space. Here
they provide little more than background hum.
By contrast, Trinidadian Nicole Awai’s two large Local Ephemera drawings (2004 and 2005) stand out for the brashness of their scale and imagery. Cuban Ibrahim Miranda’s Noche insular: Metamorfosis (2004–6), a series of mixed-media works on paper, covers an entire wall of one of the back galleries with what looked like the tatters of a dream map populated by flora, fauna, and the island of Cuba transformed into an amoeba-like creature. It offers an unexpected parallel to Trinidadian Christopher Cozier’s Tropical Night drawings (2006–present), glowing in a softly lit space between two larger galleries. Dozens of small notebook-size sheets, on which a lexicon of metaphors is obsessively worked out, are hung in a careful grid. They look like a monumental storyboard, compelling the viewer to stop, gaze, and discern a narrative.
Hew Locke’s El Dorado (2007) is similarly arresting. It is Infinite Island’s signature piece, reproduced on the cover of the catalogue. Ten feet tall, composed from thousands of gimcrack dime-store made-in-China objects — gilded plastic beads and baubles, artificial flowers, tinsel, plastic lizards and insects — and bristling, porcupine-style, with dozens of plastic swords, it depicts the head of Queen Elizabeth II, in a pose familiar from postage stamps and banknotes still used in much of the Anglophone Caribbean. At once cheeky and eerie, it raises all sorts of questions about the thriving legacy of the colonial enterprise. It reminded me simultaneously of C.L.R. James’s description of Columbus landing in the New World and enquiring “urgently” for gold, of the Trinidadian Carnival bands whose costumes are now fabricated cheaply in Asia, and of all our Independence-era public figures who are only too pleased late in their careers to visit Her Majesty and have medals and ribbons pinned to their breasts and letters like “OBE” appended to their names.
I’d seen photographs of similar works by the artist (British-born with Guyanese roots), and had high hopes for El Dorado, but I was dismayed by the way it was installed. Just outside the final gallery, in a long, tall room with a bank of elevators at the far end, it ought to act as an exclamation point to the rest of the show. Instead, it seems awkwardly
dwarfed by the space, its volume reduced. Weeks later, this still bothered me.
What, then, is Infinite Island’s big picture? What
does or can this
various and sometimes unruly assembly of objects tell us about our
various and unruly corner of the world? Shrewdly, Mosaka says his aim
is not to define the Caribbean, but to engage with it. He makes no
attempt to tick cultural or ethnic boxes; wide as Infinite Island’s
range is, there are obvious exclusions and missing constituencies, and
no claims to completeness. Mosaka’s catalogue essay demonstrates his
grasp of the region’s complexities:
In a big museum production, there is always a temptation to offer organisational “themes”. In Infinite Island, there are four: history and memory; politics and identity; myth, ritual, and belief; and popular culture. Mosaka notes that these all overlap. But the overlaps seem so broad — almost every work in the show has something to say to each theme — that they don’t make very helpful organisational principles. They don’t help us see anything new. And many of the artists I spoke to at the opening reception expressed uneasiness with having their work lumped into these passé-sounding categories. Perhaps that’s inevitable.
But Mosaka also suggests a more interesting
He also comments on the “tension between what might be termed place (connoting boundaries, insularity, containment) and space (suggestive of interconnection, flux, and transformation)” — terms often used by Christopher Cozier. Many of the works in Infinite Island raise questions about movement, mobility, migration. Reading the biographical notes on the artists, I am struck by how many of them have studied or lived outside the Caribbean; fully one third are currently based outside the region, usually in North America or Europe. They know and respond to the latest aesthetic and political developments and trends. Furthermore, almost all of these forty-five artists — the Cubans are the main exceptions — depend in large part on the international marketplace of galleries, museums, biennials, residencies, and grants to support their careers. Engaging in critical and financial conversations with the outside world is not a choice. In some cases their work may be better known abroad than it is at “home.”
This is simply the state of the twenty-first-century art world, you might say; artists everywhere are drawn into the gravitational fields of major art cities like New York, London, and Paris, and the most successful artists learn to manoeuvre through those fields to their advantage. But for Caribbean artists, the possibilities (and problems) of these international (and transnational?) arrangements are compounded by far older patterns of migration and exchange, of home and away, inside and outside, local and foreign — of place and space. Our most astute thinkers have long argued that the Caribbean is not a zone that can be described on a map, but a way of thinking, knowing, and being that evolved in very specific historical circumstances and has now been spread across the world by our various diasporas, where it continues to evolve, unpredictably, compelling us to endlessly re-imagine what a word like “Caribbean” can mean.
Which returns us to the title of the show. “The metaphor of the ‘infinite island’ was invoked to suggest a Caribbean space defined by its possibilities rather than its boundaries,” Mosaka writes. The actual phrase is borrowed from an influential essay published by the Cuban critic Gerardo Mosquera in 1996. It also summons up, to my mind at least, Wilson Harris’s novel The Infinite Rehearsal and Antonio Benítez-Rojo’s cultural study The Repeating Island. What both books have in common with Mosquera’s phrase is a sense of the Caribbean as unbound by geography or time, an idea defined, as Mosaka says, by possibilities, not limits. More than any other thematic construct, what I carried away from Infinite Island was a renewed sense of an energised Caribbean space which is (and has always been) simultaneously a global space, expanding through the work of these and dozens more artists. As I left the museum, Brooklyn felt not too far from home. +