A graduate course that Susanna W. Gold once taught at Temple’s Tyler School of Art explored the Atlantic Ocean as a “connective cultural force” between the nations and peoples on its shores. That same perspective, now applied to the Caribbean Sea, informs “The Expanded Caribbean: Contemporary Photography at the Crossroads,” curated by Gold at Drexel University’s Leonard Pearlstein Gallery.
That cultural connectivity is borne out in the works of 16 photographers and artists Gold has selected for her exhibition. All have worked on Caribbean projects, covering 14 nations among them. Despite their diverse heritages, most of Gold’s participants were born in the United States. Several of them work within recognizably contemporary trends, and all are clearly familiar with them.
Unsurprisingly, much of this work draws on the fraught histories of various Caribbean islands.
Adrián Fernández, who is Cuban and lives in Havana, photographs 20th-century, government-approved Cuban postage stamps that were intended to show the country in its best light. But Fernández makes them difficult to see clearly by zooming in until they’re slightly blurred. He also enhances colors and crops his images.
The resulting prints suggest an alternative truth. His 2014 work Beyond What You Can See (The Great Rock), from a stamp issued shortly after the Cuban revolution, shows a family seated together on a rocky precipice, surveying a majestic Cuban landscape. Fernández has cropped the view that this family is enjoying to eliminate the far-distant horizon, subtly underscoring the uncertain future of the country at that time.
Ivette Spradlin, a Cuban American photographer and video artist based in Pittsburgh, is represented here by a series of photographs she took during a trip to Cuba in 2006 to visit family members. (Spradlin’s mother fled communist Cuba in the late 1960s, and Spradlin grew up in Miami). Her large color photographs capture intimate glimpses of her relatives’ homes, the details of which reveal their conflicted feelings about life under Castro, from an official portrait of the president laminated to a bedside table to an aspirational ceramic sailing ship placed atop a vintage TV.
In Barbados, Haverford photographer William Earle Williams continues a project of three decades that has taken him across North America, England, and the Caribbean, shooting spaces, landscapes, and structures related to African and African American history. His silver gelatin print Whites Alley, Bridgetown, Barbados, 2008, depicts a quiet, unpeopled view of what was once the main trading street for the British Royal African Co., which delivered African captives to the New World. In Sunbury Plantation, Barbados, 2008, Williams presents an ordinary scene of a linen-covered card table on a lawn at Sunbury, now a guesthouse for tourists. Chillingly, nothing in this placid black-and-white image speaks of the plantation’s history as the site of a famous slave revolt.
Barbados-born Kara Springer constructs minimalist white structures and places them in island seascapes as temporary installations, which she then photographs. Her 2014 series “Repositioned Objects” brings sculptor Donald Judd to mind — his 1965 essay “Specific Objects” addressed a new art combining elements of painting and sculpture. Springer’s work also speaks poignantly of memory and loss, referencing the sense of displacement she experienced as the daughter of a Bajan father and Jamaican mother growing up in Ontario. (She is now based in Philadelphia).
Her photograph of a group of open cubes on a beach in Barbados, along with a subsequent photograph of the same structures lying broken on the sand, struck me as an uncanny foretelling of the current hurricane ravagings of various Caribbean islands. So did a haunting photograph of solid white rectangular forms floating in the sea off a Nassau beach.
“The Expanded Caribbean: Contemporary Photography at the Crossroads” also features photographs, photo-based works, and videos by Susan S. Bank, Vincent Dixon, John E. Dowell, Jr., O’Neil Lawrence, Matt Levitch, Conrad Louis-Charles, Karyn Olivier, Tony Rocco, Erika P. Rodriguez, Sheena Rose, Ron Tarver, and Byron Wolfe.
Through Dec. 10 at Leonard Pearlstein Gallery, Drexel University, 3401 Filbert St., 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. 215-895-2548 or drexel.edu/pearlsteingallery.
Image above: Tony Rocco’s photograph “Small Town Gambler (La Florida, Colombia)” (2012), archival pigment print, from “The Expanded Caribbean” at Drexel University’s Leonard Pearlstein Gallery.