The Tropical Is Political

A review by Sebastián Meltz-Collazo for Hyperallergic.

Presented at the Americas Society, Tropical Is Political: Caribbean Art Under the Visitor Economy Regime investigates ideas of paradise as imagined and undertaken by those who engage with lands foreign to them. The exhibition approaches the Caribbean region as a product of the visitor economy regime, subject to a set of particular structural circumstances. Founded on three main focal points — the body, territory, and finance — the variety of paintings, photographs, sculptures, videos, and installations show how these dynamics have evolved from the roots of plantation slavery to service industries, and continue to shape the identities of those who live in the region.

In “Manos invisibles (Invisible Hands)” (2014), Donna Conlon and Jonathan Harker employ video to analyze the symbolic character of money and related power structures within a corrupt system using Panama’s Balboa, a currency coined only once in 2011, intended to be equal in value to the US dollar. A pair of hands performs magic tricks, making the coins appear and disappear, while another set of hands claps. Balboas are washed (or laundered), accounted and signed for, while the hands’ gestures convey the borrowing and pocketing of money. The currency proves to be a spectacle fabricated for the approval and intentions of outsiders’ eyes — the eyes of those in power, hidden in obscurity as they play their game in search of fiscal paradise at the expense of natives’ livelihood. 

When we consider the idealized images propagated by the tourism industry (think quintessential postcard of a pristine beach), and the dark intentions of capital at work behind the scenes, these forces submit the Caribbean body into a position of servitude in its own land. In Joiri Minaya’s video work, “Labadee” (2017), the artist narrates parts of her cruise trip as she visits the (officially named) Royal Caribbean Labadee Beach in Haiti. She walks us across the swimming tourists, past the gift shops, and arrives at a fence closing off the beach. On the other side of this division, we see the realities of hardship and misery suffered, as a result of these power dynamics, by those trying to offer entertainment to the island’s guests. Within Western capitalist society, paradise is considered a luxury to free oneself from the burden of work, dictating that such places can only be enjoyed for a limited time and experienced at a distance. Just like the walls surrounding hotel compounds, this fence protects and legitimizes the ownership of this idealized paradise, for the enjoyment of those who can afford it.

Joiri Minaya, “Labadee” (2017), HD video, installation, 7:10 mins, dimensions variable (courtesy the artist)

In turn, this legitimization of settler colonialism puts into contention the relationship Caribbean citizens experience with their territories. In “Las playas son nuestras (The Beaches Are Ours)” (1989) by Viveca Vázquez, a group of women is summoned by the sea in Vieques, an island which is part of the Puerto Rican archipelago and was occupied by the US Navy from 1941 to 2003. Throughout the performance recorded on tape, bodies float and thrash about in the water before being dragged on the shore, alluding to the violence and disputation of land brought on by years of bombing practice made possible by colonial occupation. 

Through the issues of offshore banking economy, real estate and access to land, and the resignification of post-military spaces, we see how the visitor economy permeates aspects of daily life, creating a calculated reality and a personal identity shaped by service and the submission of bodies. With these works, the artists invite viewers to reconsider their own gaze and acknowledge their different degrees of privilege at work when interacting with the region, and to think of a decolonized Caribbean today.

Donna Conlon and Jonathan Harker, “Manos invisibles (Invisible Hands)” (2014), video, color, sound, 8:56 minutes (courtesy the artists and Diablo Rosso, Panama)
Allora & Calzadilla, “Contract (SWMU 6-2)” (2015), silkscreen on linen, 96 x 72 inches (courtesy the artists and kurimanzutto, Mexico City, New York)
Darién Montañez, “Dark Side of the Moon (Sides 1 and 2)” (2015), video installation, 1 minute on loop (courtesy the artist)
Yiyo Tirado, “Caribe Hostil” (2020), blue glass neon, dimensions variable (courtesy the artist and Km 0.2)

Tropical Is Political: Caribbean Art Under the Visitor Economy Regime continues at the Americas Society/Council of the Americas680 Park Avenue, New York) through December 17, 2022. The exhibition is curated by Marina Reyes Franco and presented in collaboration with Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Puerto Rico, San Juan, where it will be on view in spring 2023.

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