Spending all day being party-bused between the three museums — El Museo del Barrio, the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Queens Museum of Art — who are hosting the self-proclaimed landmark exhibition Caribbean: Crossroads of the World, I was repeatedly told by the museum directors, curators and artists just how significant and groundbreaking the exhibition is. However, I left the final museum feeling confused by the jumbled mix of artistic styles and periods shoved together.
Organized thematically with two themes per museum from “Fluid Motions” at the Queens Museum, focusing on the importance of water and coastal areas on the Caribbean’s art and culture, to “Shades of History” at the Studio Museum, studying the impact of race and race relations, the exhibition seemed to fall into the same trap many identity or location-based exhibitions do — by attempting to show every single work that could fit into the exhibition space without a thought to how they might translate to the viewer.
By trying to stick to a strict thematic structure without explanation of individual works of art, I came out of the day long viewing not knowing anything more about Caribbean art, which is unfortunate since my knowledge of the topic is sparse. The museums are also joining together to create a 500-page catalogue, which would reputedly be the first major survey publication on Caribbean art yet, but the book was not available for the opening of the exhibition and there was little to offer insight into the art on display.
Beginning at the El Museo del Barrio, exhibition focused on the effect of the economic development in the Caribbean from the sugar, fruit and tobacco trade and the impact of Creole culture. In both of these thematic rooms, the curators placed historic images next to contemporary art that reflects on the state of the Caribbean today.
While the importance of Caribbean art and its diaspora in art history from Impressionism with Camille Pissarro, who was born in the Caribbean, to Jean-Michel Basquiat, who was of Haitian descent, cannot be denied, I’m not sure that there is a real reason for both these artists to be placed next to each other in an exhibition.
Similarly at the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Queens Museum of Art, their thematic rooms were overhung, organized salon-style in both museums, making it near impossible to view visually and contextually. The only explanations given were the small wall texts presenting each thematic portion of the exhibition, each individual work remained unexplained. This lack of clear explanation for the general viewer leaves Caribbean: Crossroads of the World best suited for school groups, educational tours and other groups that may have a concise lesson plan related to the show or a tour guide.
Even though I found the exhibitions organization overwhelming, I still found many works that illuminated the state of Caribbean culture and identity today without any need for explanation. I particularly liked Coco Fusco and Paula Heredia’s hysterical film “The Couple in the Cage: Guatinaui Odyssey” (video, 1993) and Fusco’s related etchings The Undiscovered Amerindians (2012). Dressed up as unidentifiable natives in cages placed in art galleries and other locations, Fusco and Heredia played on viewer’s interactions and cultural assumptions of them as savage natives. The etchings show some of the more notable reactions that are documented in the film, including the fact that a viewer offered to pay $10 to feed the artists a banana at the Whitney Museum.
Leaving the press party-bus, which was by the way not much of a party, I felt frustrated that the exhibition revealed little. The curators and directors are clearly proud of bringing together this many works but they forgot to create a clear, understandable way for outsiders to access the presentations. Rather than attempting to create the biggest exhibition on Caribbean art in history, I wish that the curators at all three museums had focused on making an exhibition that could be understood and appreciated by a general audience.