If you want to make sense of the Caribbean, you had better prepare for some island-hopping: This is a place where not just people but ideas and images are constantly on the move. That’s the premise and the appeal of “Arte del Mar: Art of the Caribbean,” a concentrated showcase at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that plunges visitors into a sea of archipelagic thinking. It is the Met’s first show to reckon with the Caribbean as its own zone of contact, and includes not only art from the West Indies — specifically on the island of Hispaniola, now divided between Haiti and the Dominican Republic; Puerto Rico; Cuba and the Turks and Caicos — but also from the Caribbean-facing coasts of mainland Costa Rica, Panama and Colombia.
It’s only the size of a single gallery, and almost everything here dates from before the colonial era, some of it centuries before, or from the first years after European contact. And yet “Arte del Mar,” if its Spanish-language title suggests the colonial violence to come, reveals that ideas and images were crossing the sea long before Christopher Columbus misunderstood “Caribs” as meaning “cannibals.” By the time the first slave ships arrived, the Caribbean region was well-established as a zone of exchange and hybridity.
Many of the ritual objects in “Arte del Mar,” organized by the Met curator James Doyle and staged against walls painted a rich ultramarine, are creations of the Taino, a group of related indigenous people who lived mostly in the Greater Antilles but had settlements as far north as the Bahamas.
The Taino were organized into multiple polities, each governed by a leader known as a cacique, and each showcasing its wealth and strength through carved stones, wooden and woven furniture and luxuries obtained through trade with societies from Mexico to Venezuela. (Bartolomé de las Casas, the Spanish colonist, reported in 1542 that among the Taino on Hispaniola there were “five very large principal kingdoms and five very powerful kings, whom almost all the other lords, who were numerous, obeyed.”)
One portable wooden throne here, dating to the early 15th century and produced by a Taino artisan in what’s now the Turks and Caicos, swoops as gently as a hammock (a word borrowed from the Taino “hamaka”), while the seat features a zoomorphic figurehead with bared teeth.
You’ll also see finely hewed three-pointed stones, from the area that is present-day Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, that are carved with the faces of humans and animals. While they appear to have some connection to yuca and cassava production, they were probably meant for spiritual rather than practical use.
Central to Taino metaphysics was “zemi,” a spiritual power that circulated from gods and ancestors into the natural environment: the sea, the forest, the stones. A Taino leader would have perceived the presence of a zemi in the tree that was carved into this show’s most exquisite object: a ritual vessel in the form of a crouching, grimacing deity, standing a little over two feet tall and meant to hold a hallucinogenic powder known as cohoba. His ears have been elongated with plugs, while on his head he wears a woven skullcap of an intricate geometric design. Look closely and you’ll see that the artist (or artists) who carved this zemi took care to groove its face with two wide, vertical ridges that extend down from his eyes to his chin. This god is crying his eyes out.
By the 16th century, after the Spanish brought their weapons and their diseases to the New World, the Taino had almost completely died out. Their ceremonies were supplanted by Christian worship, their zemi statues by crucifixes and saints.
“Arte del Mar” might have been more illuminating if it were a bit larger, and extended past the pre-Columbian tradition to include the art of colonial settlers and of Afro-Caribbean populations. Yet Mr. Doyle has provided a sharp modern coda with the Cuban artist Wifredo Lam’s “Rumor de la Tierra” (“Rumblings of the Earth”), a 1950 painting on loan from the Guggenheim that depicts angular, mostly headless humanoids dancing or charging through a sea of brown. The placement of the figures is explicitly indebted to Picasso’s “Guernica,” but also draws on the forms of the Afro-Cuban religion known as Santería — and the prehistoric bird at the center bears a passing resemblance to the avian statuary elsewhere in this show.
Alongside “Rumor de la Tierra,” you can read on the wall a few lines from the Martinican philosopher Édouard Glissant, who argued that Lam’s art embodied a particularly Caribbean aesthetic. The painting allows African, indigenous, and European forms to jostle with and transform one another without losing their cultural specificity.
It’s encouraging to discover the voice of Glissant, perhaps the last century’s most profound thinker on global culture and identity, in galleries that were not too long ago designated for “primitive art.” Unlike the Mediterranean Sea, he proposed in his classic “Poetics of Relation” (1990), the Caribbean is “a sea that explodes the scattered lands into an arc. A sea that diffracts.” It’s not a melting pot, but a web of lived relations, where the Old World’s absolute categories of race, language or religion mix and mingle.
In that way, Glissant understood the Caribbean as a paradigm for a contemporary global citizenship, a way to understand identity in an era of constant motion. As the Met prepares a major renovation of its Rockefeller Wing, where some of this show’s Taino artworks have been on view for a generation, the best thing its curators can do now is to learn from these Caribbean examples, and to map the objects in its collection as links in an infinite, nonhierarchial chain of human encounters. (Montreal’s Museum of Fine Arts, incidentally, has recently rehung its collection in explicit tribute to Glissant, uniting all its departments into a single “Arts of One World.”)
This revived, rethought display of world cultures should reject boththe false promise of “universalism” and the formless box-ticking of “diversity.” It ought to pull artworks out of binary categories and put them into constant motion; it ought to be as nourished by exchange as the Caribbean itself. It ought to make us feel “rooted and open,” as Glissant encouraged: “lost in the mountains and free beneath the sea.”
Arte del Mar: Artistic Exchange in the Caribbean
Through Jan. 10, 2021, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; 212-535-7710, metmuseum.org.