Indigenous Arts of the Caribbean

[Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.] James Doyle, assistant curator for the Art of the Ancient Americas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art writes about indigenous arts of the Caribbean (read full article in Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, June 2021).

[. . .] Caribbean peoples understood deities and ancestors to inhabit trees, stones, and other aspects of the landscape. This divine environmental force, known as zemí (or cemí) to the Taínos, was a central concept in art and ritual. Men and women leaders accessed zemí and mythological knowledge through ceremonies and harnessed this sacred power through the production of sculpture. The process of creating zemí figures was a collaboration between political leaders, ritual practitioners, and master artists. First, he or she perceived a connection with a tree or stone. The spirit within would then demand that the leader summon a ritual specialist, who would reveal the zemí’s identity through a ceremony in which the specialist inhaled the vegetal hallucinogen known as cohoba. Taíno artists then sculpted the tree or stone into the specific bodily form of the divine power as described by the specialist. The leaders became the caretakers of these zemí embodiments, which, in turn, became powerful agents in their communities.

Anthropomorphic stands contributed to important rituals, functioning as surfaces on which practitioners activated sacred substances like cohoba. The physical effects of Taíno ritual acts are often visible in the zemí itself: it may have widened, watering eyes; a grimacing expression; and an emaciated figure due to fasting. One of the most important surviving Taíno sculptures is a wooden ritual stand embodying a zemí that crouches as it bares its teeth and tears stream down from its eyes (1979.206.380). The figure wears a woven cap, ear ornaments, and wrappings on its limbs. The exceptionally well-preserved surface of the wood suggests that original community members revered and protected this zemí for centuries. A similar version of the stand, shaped out of rough sandstone, features a different crouching figure with hollow eyes (1979.206.1209).

Zemí sculptures known as three-pointed stones, or trigonolitos, had a symbolic connection to yuca (cassava), a staple root crop (1997.35.2). Appearing in various sizes and featuring humanlike and animallike zemí imagery, they may have served as tangible representations of the mountainous island landscape and may have held some elusive spiritual significance. Taíno artists also obtained special variegated or banded stones in raw form, reduced them to a rough shape through percussion (striking with another stone), and then polished them to create almond-shaped ceremonial axes (1982.77.2). Axes were vital tools for clearing forests for agriculture, and the blue-green color of these trade objects also referred to water and the fertility of freshly sprouting staple crops such as maize.

Artists created pendants and maskettes (known as guaízas) in the images of zemís for leaders and ritual specialists to wear in ceremonies. Though reduced in scale, the pendants feature the same zemí imagery as their larger sculptural counterparts, including figures with enlarged eyes, grimacing mouths with bared teeth, and contorted postures (2010.177). These pendants may have indicated an affiliation with a specific political group. They were also symbolic of spirituality, perhaps acting as talismans to project favorable energies from the wearer (1997.35.1). Stone heads with rounded faces were conceived of as a material extension of the inner power of leaders, and they exchanged these objects with one another to promote diplomacy (1979.206.611).

All around the Caribbean Sea people came together to build large public plazas that served as the sites for dances, musical performances, and processions that united communities. Luxury regalia worn during rituals in these spaces reinforced the political authority of powerful men and women. Indigenous leaders known as caciques competed against one another for claims over territory and subjects. They also organized trade across land and sea to obtain luxurious materials that formed part of their wealth and were fashioned into important symbols of political power, such as pendants, axes, and woven, beaded, and feathered belts and headdresses. Innovative vessels, such as a marble vase from Honduras with bat-shaped handles (1972.64), were also valuable exchange goods.

Objects with bat- or birdlike symbols convey the importance of flying creatures to the identities of leaders or ruling families. For centuries, sculptors throughout the region depicted winged creatures in various precious stones to convey the ritual importance of the power of flight. A metate (grinding stone or stool) from Costa Rica features birdlike creatures that may have symbolized a particular lineage or reinforced the political prowess of a single leader (1979.206.426). The majesty of flight was also a pervasive theme in prestigious gold and greenstone regalia, such as pendants from the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in Colombia. In such objects created by Tairona gold workers, idealized leaders wear elaborate headdresses featuring fearsome birds to project divine power (69.7.10).

Artists in what is now Costa Rica excelled at working imported jadeite—a major feat without metal tools. Avian pendants represent recurrent themes of ritual flight and sacrifice, and military might may have been equated with predation by raptors. Several figural pendants represent the taking of trophy heads, an important display of political power over conquered groups throughout the Caribbean. [. . .]

From the twentieth century to the present, Caribbean artists have often drawn upon the Caribbean landscape and ancestral traditions—both Indigenous and those that traveled during the forced mass migration of enslaved peoples—to create an enduring legacy of Afro-Indigenous forms of expression. Wifredo Lam (Cuban, Sagua La Grande 1902–1982 Paris), for example, was an artist of Afro-Chinese descent who was renowned for using art as what he later declared an “act of decolonization.” In the 1930s and 1940s he created his own visual glossary of Afro-Caribbean deities and spirits, fusing them with modes of representation that drew on European Cubism and Surrealism. He referenced West African religions such as Santeria (or Lucumi) and Vodoun (or Vodou) that incorporated Indigenous Taíno practices as they spread throughout the Antilles (2002.456.32). Just as the trees and stones of the islands spoke to the Taíno peoples several centuries prior, the natural ecology and agricultural production of Lam’s birthplace inspired his artistic practice.

Read full article and see suggestions for further reading at

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