Pia Catton continues her reports of her visits to the Caribbean: Crossroads of the World Exhibits in New York City in this article for the Wall Street Journal.
One of the most striking images in the three-museum exhibit “Caribbean: Crossroads of the World” is Leo Matiz’s 1939 shot of a man casting a huge circular fishing net from the bow of a boat. The net ripples and swirls against the sky just before it will be plunged into the water. “That is really hard to do. I’ve tried it,” said my museum companion for the day, the Barbados-born modern dancer Sean Scantlebury.
Mr. Scantlebury and I went to the Queens Museum of Art as part of my effort to see all three shows in the Caribbean exhibit—an expansive look at the region containing more than 500 works—with artists who have a connection to that part of the world. (This column is the second in a series that took me to El Museo del Barrio with novelist Oscar Hijuleos, who is of Cuban parentage; next up will be Jamaica-born choreographer Garth Fagan at the Studio Museum in Harlem.)
Mr. Scantlebury, 31 years old, came to America at age 4 and grew up on the edge of Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights surrounded by friends and family of West Indian descent; he returned to Barbados for a lengthy visit as a teenager. “No matter how long it’s been, you’re still influenced by the food, the music, the accent,” he said, adding that his plan is to end up back on the island. “I always say it’s going to be my last stop. I’m going to go to Barbados and stay there for a long time.”
Perhaps it was that sentiment—or maybe it was our journey on the No. 7 train—but somehow our conversation kept coming back to travel, which emphasized the “crossroads” theme within the exhibit. As a member of the TriBeCa-based Battery Dance Company, Mr. Scantlebury has toured the world with the company’s offshoot Dancing to Connect, an initiative that engages young people in creativity and team building through dance.
In May, the program took him to Suriname, the former Dutch colony on the northern edge of South America. Though not exactly top of mind in terms of the Caribbean, the low-profile nation came up twice in this exhibit. First, we spied detailed watercolors from the late 19th century, depicting scenes such as a riverside sugarcane plantation. If the pictures were intended to sell the folks back home on relocating, they probably did the trick—what with all the clear water, blue skies and tall palm trees.
Later, we spent some time examining a 1938 cruise-line advertisement that illustrated Suriname’s proximity to the Caribbean. A series of red lines showed where the lucky folks on the cruise ship would stop, and in doing so, it led to talk about the less tangible links between the Caribbean islands and nearby countries.
“In Suriname, and also in Brazil, the weather was so hot and the people were so nice, I felt like I was at home in Barbados,” said Mr. Scantlebury. “It made me homesick. I really want to go back.”
But it was his travels through Africa—to Tanzania, Namibia, Nigeria and more—that made him feel at home rather than homesick. “There was a sense that we’re all from Africa. Half the time, people thought that I was African. When I was dancing with the students, they were like ‘Are you sure you’re not from here?’ I guess the spirits and influence were there.”
Depictions of spirits and religious influences are captured in a thematic section called “Kingdoms of This World.” Haitian painter Hector Hyppolite—who was also a voodoo priest—held our attention with a painting that evokes Africa and female divinity, “Queen of the Congo,” but various depictions of the carnival tradition brought out the celebratory side. “Cuban Carnival” (1953) by Cuban artist René Portocarrero stood out as both abstract and representational with its vertical shapes in bright colors.
Masks pop up in spooky ways throughout this portion. Photographer Héctor Méndez Caratini has a 1979 shot, “Plena callejera, Loiza, Puerto Rico,” of a happy young man, possibly dancing in the foreground, but your eyes can’t help finding the masked figure just beside him. In “Milatoni Mask” (1944), the Haitian artist Simil (Emilcar Similien) evokes an erotic sensibility: The silhouette of a female figure wears an eye mask with red feathers and covers her nose and mouth with her arms. The most unsettling covering, however, was a sheer black veil with sequins and beads titled “This Is Hell” that completely disguises the entire head and face.
For Mr. Scantlebury, the idea of carnival—or “Crop Over,” as his Bhajan family referred to it—was a no-go while he was growing up in Brooklyn. “Someone was always getting shot and killed. My mom told me not to go,” he said.
Whatever dancing in the streets he missed, he has made up for onstage. (Battery Dance is in the Downtown Dance Festival, Aug. 11 to 17). At age 8, he made it into Eliot Feld’s Ballet Tech, a tuition-free ballet and academic school open to New York City students. “I was lucky to come to the U.S. Now I get to go abroad and teach people to dance. Sometimes we work with troubled youth. I tell them I am living proof that you can make it,” he said.
Which makes his travel all the more important.
For the original report go to http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10000872396390444330904577537311478112438.html