Museums

Too Many Paths Leading Every Which Way at Caribbean: Crossroads of the World

by Emily Colucci on June 14, 2012

Arnaldo Roche Rabell, "We Have to Dream in Blue" (1986), oil on canvas (via elmuseo.org)

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.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, "Untitled (Red/Green Skull)" (1982), acrylic and oilstick on paper (all photos by author unless otherwise noted)

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.

Installation View at the Queens Museum of Art (photo by author)

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.

Coco Fusco, "The Undiscovered Amerindians" (2012), drypoint etchings on paper

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.

Hubert Neal Jr, "Silent Scream" (2010) from the series "Dudu Chronicles," acrylic on canvas board

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.

Caribbean: Crossroads of the World continues at El Museo del Barrio until January 6, 2013, the Studio Museum in Harlem until October 21, 2012 and the Queens Museum of Art until January 6, 2013.

 

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  • http://www.facebook.com/donald.frazell Donald Frazell

    I am sure it is. Its art school grads who have issues understanding and Feeling art. Its been trained out of you.
    WE like variety, whats wrong with that? Until the reappearance of anemic academia around 1960 shows were usually group and often in different styles. Great, one can seek what is best in the various languages, and appreciate differences while still seeking the essence of who WE are. THATS the connection. Purpose, Purposely avoided now.
    Thats not really a concern anymore. Nor being able to understand languages outside ones own tiny village, such as in NYC.
    And if you need the party, well, duh.
    The artscene is nothing but todays society pages, and the doings of their silly, sheltered children.

  • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

    I think survey exhibitions like this really require more guides for the viewer, particularly the uninitiated. And honestly, Holland Cotter feels mostly like a cheerleader nowadys when it comes to art, he doesn’t say very much that’s critical. I think he would’ve “loved” this show even if he really didn’t. Did you read his Bushwick piece? It was more a lifestyle piece. I like him when he’s really on, but I didn’t think he was really “on” in his Caribbean review.

  • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

    I think you’re way off. But let’s agree to disagree. I tend to notice that people see what they want to see in Hyperallergic based of their biases. We love art, that’s why we write about it, so if we’re excited about something I’m not sure why people are surprised. And then when we’re critical of something people flip the script.

    • Manuel del Cuevo

      Not to drag this out but I have no ‘love’ for H.C. per se. Not sure where that came from to start with. But anyway, if one sees a show and leaves having ‘learned’ nothing, blaming the curators is lame. Sorry dude, no offense to your reviewer…..

      • http://hragv.com Hrag Vartanian

        Thats all good. I often disagree with her too. I plan to see the show myself and I’ll probably review it too. And feel free to disagree when I do. And thanks for commenting and being willing to engage in a discussion. Some commenters aren’t so open.

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