The organizers of ‘Caribbean: Crossroads of the World’, which took place at three New York museums – El Museo del Barrio, the Queens Museum of Art and The Studio Museum in Harlem – should first be applauded for their enormous effort to jointly put together this exhibition of more than 500 art works surveying five centuries of artistic practices from the Caribbean. It was the result of more than ten years of cross-institutional research led by Elvis Fuentes at El Museo del Barrio. The exhibition focused, not surprisingly, on examinations of national, cultural and ethnic identity. But beyond the necessary focus on identity politics, it explored subjects including religion and spirituality, labour, history, the slave trade, economics and, beyond these, into more abstract ideas of belonging, migration and place.
The many themes were explored in six subsections. At the Studio Museum, ‘Shades of History’ looked at the major role race has played in the history and the visual culture of the Caribbean. This section was probably the best place to start one’s exploration of the exhibition. The works revolved around slavery, abolition and class- and race-based conflicts. ‘Land ofthe Outlaw’ connected characters such as the pirate and the slave trader with the idea of the Caribbean as a utopian place of pleasure and freedom.
At El Museo del Barrio we found ‘Counterpoints’, looking primarily at the plantation system, commodity production and economic development in the Caribbean, from the tobacco industry to tourism. ‘Patriot Acts’ focused on identity and examined in particular indigenous and African heritages as well the concepts of creolism and Caribbeanness.
At the Queens Museum of Art, ‘Fluid Motions’ considered the importance of water in relation not only to transportation, commercial routes and migration patterns, but also to natural disasters and political interventions. ‘Kingdoms of this World’ explored the coexistence of cultures, languages and ethnicities in the Caribbean, looking in particular at the carnival as a moment of transformation, transgression and camouflage.
Racial difference was the main subject negotiated here, and it was done in an almost celebratory manner. Rarely have I seen galleries so packed with work of all periods and in all styles by artists who are unknown, or barely known, outside their home countries. What made navigating the show difficult was that most subthemes were illustrated by very similar work. This certainly helped connect the different sections, but it led to areas in the exhibition that seem interchangeable, or occasionally arbitrary. We saw many tropical landscapes, my favourite being Darío Suro’s Paisaje de Iluvia (Rainy Landscape, 1940), a medium-size painting depicting palm trees in a tropical storm. We saw plenty of boats and ships, one remarkable example being Dudley Irons’s 1995 Black Star Liner, a model made of matchsticks of one of the famous Back-to-Africa ships set up by Marcus Garvey; its destination, written on the front of the boat, simply read ‘Fate’. Another standout work was Untitled Species 1 (2010–11) by Jamaican and US-based artist Ebony G. Patterson. The work is a portrait of a man captured somewhere between whiteness and blackness, between disco dancer and slave, between Michael Jackson and Martin Delany.
What made a visit to ‘Caribbean: Crossroads of the World’ so rewarding were the historical works showing encounters between native and foreign cultures, maps of the islands, plantations, slave auctions and more. In juxtaposition with the contemporary pieces these did much to close the gap between the history and current realities of the islands. Wonderfully integrated into all of this were works by non-Caribbeans, including Paul Gauguin, Walker Evans and Jacob Lawrence.
The exhibition was accompanied by a large schedule of related events and programmes, including a significant educational component and an enormous source book and catalogue edited by Fuentes and Deborah Cullen. What the publication and the exhibition both did well was to introduce a wide and eclectic range of Afro-Caribbean cultural and political movements, from Rastafarianism and the Universal Negro Improvement Association all the way to Négritude and the Harlem Renaissance. The exhibition did not provide many answers to the questions of what, who and where the Caribbean is, nor was it an overview exhibition of art from this region. Rather, it was an open survey that attempted to demystify for North Americans the vast and, to most, largely unknown area between Florida and Colombia. An exploration of the relationship between the US and the Caribbean was certainly one of the key aspects of the show, and ‘Caribbean: Crossroads of the World’ managed to show some surprising similarities in the experience of life in different parts of the Americas – specifically that almost everywhere one finds a culture of hybridity, a mash-up of European, African and indigenous elements. The Caribbean is a place with tropical beaches, high crime rates and obscure native religions – most of us know this already. But what is less understood is the diversity and cultural richness of this region and its history, and the fact that it is still exerting effects on the development of humanity on a global scale. Indeed, it was appropriate to see this show in New York, a city that is itself, probably more than any other place, a true crossroads of the world.