American University Museum spotlights Caribbean American art

As a follow up to our previous post, Art Exhibition: “Caribbean Transitions,” here’s a review by  Mark Jenkins (Washington Post) who writes, “’Caribbean Transitions’ represents a region where African, European, Asian and Indigenous populations have both clashed and melded.” [Many thanks to David Lewis for bringing this item to our attention.]

“Caribbean Transitions” is on view at the Katzen Arts Center, American University Museum (4400 Massachusetts Avenue NW, Washington, DC).

Anyone who takes the most direct path through the American University Museum to “Caribbean Transitions” will first encounter a mobile by Joiri Minaya that dangles multiple photographic cutouts in the breeze. The individual pieces are shaped like body parts, with pictures of women on one side and tropical fruit, floral patterns and maps on the other. The hanging array seems to simultaneously endorse and dispute tourist-industry images of the Caribbean, with a particular emphasis on the depiction of women of color.

The complexity, visual as well as philosophical, is characteristic of this eclectic survey of work by 20 artists rooted in the Caribbean archipelago. The show is diverse, colorful and anything but minimalist. It encompasses many modes and media — most tellingly, assemblage and collage — to represent a region where African, European, Asian and Indigenous populations have both clashed and melded.

Two of the artists were born in the U.S., although one of those — Minaya — then grew up in the Dominican Republic. Many of the others live, or have lived, in the mainland U.S. But their sensibilities are largely derived from their heritages and experiences of their birthplaces: Cuba, Curaçao, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Jamaica, Puerto Rico or Trinidad and Tobago.

One thing that mingled distinctively in the Caribbean is religion, yielding such African-European hybrids as Vodun, Santeria and Rastafari. The power of these and other sects can be seen in such works as Alejandro Guzmán’s altarlike assemblage of fabric flowers and shards of mirror glass on chicken wire, a combination that appears as solemn as it does funky.

Many other entries are similarly ritualistic. Pepón Osorio’s sculptural assemblage displays fiery and bloody religious iconography inside a model house supported by dozens of wooden crutches. Arthur Simms’s totemic 3D collage of feathers, sticks and bones is affixed to a mule-deer skull. Albert Chong’s silvery black-and-white film photograph shows a simple chair transformed into a throne with the placement of a skull and offerings of fruit. Laura Facey’s wooden pieces — red-black and carved into shapes that hint at human organs — are arranged ceremonially atop a tree stump. Edouard Duval-Carrié’s metallic collage-painting depicts a man who seems to be crawling through a jungle pool with an Asian-style mandala on his back.

There’s also a shrinelike quality to Miguel Luciano’s 3D collage, in which a child’s bicycle, outfitted with a chrome-plated machete, stands before a Puerto Rican flag whose red, white and blue have become red, black and green. (The latter colors are those of the African liberation flag.)

Among the most vibrant legacies of Euro-African religious mash-ups are the many festivals and carnivals celebrated in the Caribbean area, as exhibition curator Keith Morrison notes in his catalogue essay. These celebrations are reflected in the costumed revelers in Paul Anthony Smith’s photo-paintings — he calls them “picotages” — and Carlos Estevez’s kites, whose abstract designs suggest masks.

Not all the artworks are so fanciful or figurative. To memorialize the South Asian indentured servants brought to Trinidad and Tobago, Renluka Maharaj superimposes a photo of a woman over a British emigration pass designed for Indian women. Ada Bobonis places in color-coded frames four dozen photos of small houses built by a Puerto Rican redevelopment agency between 1936 and 1943. Nari Ward’s found-object piece, dripping with dangling shoelaces, offers a two-word testimonial to Afro-Caribbean labor: “Black sweat.”

That big country on the north side of the Caribbean basin is not altogether ignored. Scherezade Garcia’s expressionist paintings include loose renderings of children wearing Mickey Mouse-eared hats, and Luis Cruz Azaceta’s colorful Cubist-influenced canvas depicts a stunning moment from recent U.S. history: the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol. An exile from Fidel Castro’s Cuba, Azaceta has long translated human events into pictures whose themes are universal but whose style has a Caribbean lilt.

[Shown above: “Lonely Soul,” by Pepón Osorio, is part of the exhibition “Caribbean Transitions” at the American University Museum. Osorio’s sculptural assemblage is made from wooden crutches, fiberglass, wood, plastic foam, resin, pins and wheelchair wheels. (Pepón Osorio).]

For full review and additional photos of the exhibition, see

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