Joiri Minaya’s installation, “Labadee,” makes you feel like you’re entering a wormhole wrapped in the type of patterned spandex that you might see while on vacation; brightly-colored patterns made up of flowers and lush fronds that are as commonly worn on bathing suits as they are seen decking hotel walls. Raised in the Dominican Republic, Minaya refers to her use of this tropical spandex as an act of appropriation — not only of the patterns themselves, but an appropriation of the viewer’s mental connections to the patterns. She relies on the viewer’s associations with the prints to transform the patterned spandex into something subversive; she responded to my questions about her choice of material with one of her own, “How do you represent an expectation of performativity?” Theorist Kobena Mercer has identified this manipulation of Western symbols as a quintessential diasporic strategy that “critically appropriates elements from the master codes of the dominant culture and ‘creolizes’ them, disarticulating given signs and re-articulating their symbolic meaning otherwise.”
After entering the tropical portal, viewers are invited to sit down on plastic beach chairs and watch Minaya’s eponymous video work about the titular private beach in Haiti. The video begins on a cruise ship as excerpts of Christopher Columbus’s diary entries appear onscreen as ocean waves roll by just beyond the ship’s windows. Columbus’s words, Minaya told me, are a reminder of the ways imperialist histories are often glorified as part of cruise ship marketing, “Cruise ships will frame it as if you’re retracing the steps of the explorers.”
As Minaya explained this to me, I considered the ways that such ships, as they move between Caribbean islands and dock at beaches, must also be partially retracing the routes of trans-Atlantic slave ships. Minaya continued, telling me that though military ships no longer run the cruise ship circuit, some company lines began through the chartering of ships that were originally used for imperialist operations, military invasions, and war. At tropical tourist destinations, particularly within the Caribbean, resorts are often built on the sites of former plantations or are, themselves, plantations that have since been converted.
Minaya’s work considers the Western construction of tropicality and the West’s caricatured expectations of “tropical” people — Filipinos, Hawaiians, Guamanians, Puerto Ricans, Jamaicans, Haitians, Cubans, Dominicans — people with rich and wildly different histories who are nonetheless flattened and clustered under the same umbrella of othered identity. For all the differences between these places, a unifying theme among them is their shared histories of Western colonization.
Through her practice, Minaya taps into the West’s idea of itself — modern and evolving against the backdrop of a Black and brown world that is static and regressive. From this perspective, it’s logical (rather than horrifying) that much of the tropical tourism industry is built to cater to this gaze, continuing to appeal to Westernized ideas of leisure via plantations and colonial ship routes. The spandex patterns employed in much of Minaya’s work are in fact reminiscent of hotel wallpapers that were popularized during the height of U.S. imperialist interventions throughout the Caribbean, Pacific Asias, and Latin America.
For Miami Art Week, Minaya recently wrapped two statues of Ponce de Leon and Christopher Columbus in printed spandex of her own design. Her designs feature what she calls “plants of resistance,” appropriating the aesthetic that early colonizers created through exoticizing botanical catalogue illustrations. In unifying contemporary tropical realities with histories of colonization, Minaya demonstrates how imperialist attitudes survive in the discourse and commodification culture surrounding tropical tourism. The effect of Minaya’s work achieves a decolonial practice described by Jamaican-born sociologist, Stuart Hall:
What’s so striking is the confidence with which, in the decolonizing moment, these ‘children of empire’ confronted and engaged the mother country on the home territory of the colonizers themselves. They came not to beg, or to be grateful or to be informed, but to look it in the face and, if possible, to overcome it!… Projects such as these required extraordinary intellectual boldness—indeed sheer, deliberate, bloody-minded effrontery.
Fittingly, Minaya calls her work an act of “sabotaging from within” and “looking back at The Gaze.” She challenges the West’s perception of its centrality and universality by exposing what their tropes and caricatures say, looking not at the people shaped and mis-shaped by the confines of these stereotypes, but at what these tropes can tell the West about itself. As Stuart Hall asserts, by perverting these paradigms, children of the empire lay claim to a Black futurity.
Editor’s note: (12/30/19, 11:50 AM) A previous version of this article misstated the number of statues Minaya wrapped. The correct number is two, not three.
Joiri Minaya: Labadee was on view at the Blanton Museum of Art in Austin, Texas from September 14 through December 8, 2019. The exhibition was organized by Claire Howard. The public art installations “The Cloaking of the statues of Ponce de Leon and at the Torch of Friendship and Christopher Columbus behind the Bayfront Park Amphitheater” will remain on view in Miami through January 18, 2020. The installations were commissioned by Fringe Projects Miami.