Cultural crossroads: A trio of Caribbean exhibitions staged in New York have a decidedly Miami point of view

For many Miamians, the artists and even some works in the Caribbean art exhibition now on display in New York are familiar. But Caribbean: Crossroads of the World’s setting offers context that makes them feel fresh—as John Coppola writes in this review for The Miami Herald.

The exhibition engulfs three New York City museums— El Museo del Barrio, the Studio Museum of Harlem and the Queens Museum of Art — as it ambitiously attempts to present a 200-year history of the region through its art.

“One of the main purposes of the exhibition was to look for connections between the Caribbean and the United States,” explains Elvis Fuentes, associate curator for special projects at the Museo del Barrio and project director for the exhibition, which was organized by the Museo del Barrio in collaboration with the Studio and Queens museums. “The history of the Caribbean has often been overlooked, sometimes ignored. If people paid attention, they would see more connections between the two regions.”

Some scholars have resisted treating Florida as part of the Caribbean, he says — a narrow focus he has tried to counteract with a broad geographic sweep that includes all the countries along the Gulf of Mexico as well as the islands within it.

Fuentes points out what South Floridians know well from daily experience: Miami is a Caribbean hub for more than changing airplanes. As a center for commerce and immigration and the U.S. home to huge communities of Cubans and Haitians, among others, Miami and its rich collections of art were the source for many of the exhibition’s works.

In addition to contributions by Miami-based artists, works were loaned by South Florida institutions — the Wolfsonian-FIU, Fontanals-Cisneros Collection and Bacardi Collection — along with galleries and individuals that spanned the Americas Collection, Pan American Art Projects, David Wallack and Ramon and Nercys Cernuda. The Cernudas are also among the exhibition’s sponsors.

The show is not organized geographically or chronologically but topically, exploring broad themes such as race and water. Fuentes and the show’s curatorial team are quick to point out that Caribbean Crossroads is not an exhibition of Caribbean art, but a survey through art of the Caribbean since the Haitian Revolution.

It actually might be more accurate not to call Caribbean Crossroads an exhibition at all, but rather an experience. At all three museums, more than 500 works — paintings, sculptures, prints, photographs, videos — are presented, sometimes stacked two and three high on the walls, with scant explanatory labeling. The goal, Fuentes says, is to create an immersion into the sights and sounds of the Caribbean, and it that succeeds. But it also challenges visitors who might want a more traditional fact-based presentation of its art and history.

El Museo del Barrio is exhibiting two of the six thematic sections. Counterpoints explores the region’s economic development, focusing on the shift from the plantation system, with its focus on crops, to oil and tourism. Patriot Acts explores Creole culture and national and regional identity.

At the Studio Museum in Harlem, Shades of History explores the role of race; Land of the Outlaw brings together works that address perceptions of the region as a nexus for both pleasure and illicit activity.

The Queens Museum of Art’s Fluid Motions sector highlights the significance of water in the region’s history, while Kingdoms of the World about spiritual practices and music and dance traditions, such as carnival.

Kingdoms includes two large sculptures by Miami artist Edouard Duval Carrie and a painting by José Bedia. Both are also represented in the sections at the Studio Museum. Other Miami-based artists with works on display are Colombian Gonzalo Fuenmayor and Cuban Glexis Novoa. Artists who have transited Miami are also included, among them the Nicaraguan master Armando Morales, who spent his final years here, and the German artist Guillermo Wiedermann, who emigrated to Colombia and died in Key Biscayne.

Fittingly for an exhibition aimed at capturing temporal flux, videos are among highlights at all three venues. None better epitomizes the exhibition‘s underlying theme of connections than David Pérez Karmadavis’s untitled video led,” in which a blind Dominican man is carrying a handicapped Haitian woman — image of a hopeful metaphor for relations between those two antagonistic countries. Other standout include Geandy Pavón’s Amnesia: A Portrait of Orlando Zapata, in which the artist uses dextrose and water to recover the dissident’s image, and Eduardo Gil’s eerily silent portrait of baseball star Roberto Clemente.

For those who will miss the New York exhibition, Fuentes hopes to stage a traveling version in a Miami museum.

Miamians will get an introduction to one of the stars of the show sooner than that, however; Ebony Patterson, who divides her time between Jamaica and teaching at the University of Kentucky, will be featured in an exhibition, Six Degrees of Separation, at Florida International University’s Frost Art Museum in the summer of 2013.

Although Patterson is represented in Caribbean Crossroads by a single work in the Shades of History section, it is an attention-grabber. In her mixed media drawing of a young man, Patterson explores what she calls the construction of masculinity in Jamaican pop culture and especially its dance-hall scene.

“I used materials traditionally considered feminine — wall paper and glitter — to measure masculinity,” she says. The stark whiteness of her subject reflects the recent popularity of facial bleaching among men, a cosmetic technique previously employed primarily by women.

Patterson’s materials are reminiscent of Haitian folk art. By design or happy accident, her work is juxtaposed with Duval Carrie’s portrait of General Touissant Louverture, crafted in a similar style. Seen together, they represent the connections between the old and the new, between history and art, in Caribbean culture.

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