Visiting the Caribbean in New York City
Edouard Duval-Carrié. Le General Toussaint Enfumé (General Toussaint Wreathed in Smoke), 2003. Collection of Mireille Chancey Gonzalez
It may be a debilitatingly hot, humid summer in New York City, but one exhibit has continued to bloom with color, contradiction, and infectious energy. Partially funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, Caribbean: Crossroads of the World takes a visually philosophical look into the Caribbean---its history, its realities, and what it means to construct a single regional identity out of 7,000 different islands. With more than 500 paintings, the exhibit is a collaboration between El Museo del Barrio, the Queens Museum of Art, and the Studio Museum in Harlem. Each museum focuses on particular themes, such as the diversity of the region's populations, the complexity of race, and the fallacy of a mythical, pristine paradise. We spoke via e-mail with Thelma Golden, director and chief curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem, and Margarita Aguilar, director of El Museo del Barrio, about this groundbreaking exhibit, which runs through January 6, 2013.
Rafaél Tufiño (Brooklyn/Puerto Rico, 1922-2008). Untitled (Study for Mural for Pan American Building), 1966. Oil on Masonite. 16 1/2 x 52 in. (42 x 132 cm). Private collection
NEA: Why was the decision made to show this exhibit across three museums? What have the challenges and benefits of this collaboration been?
THELMA GOLDEN: The Caribbean: Crossroads project was initiated by El Museo del Barrio, whose team invited the Studio Museum and the Queens Museum to have the honor to participate in this expansive project. It was a great joy to be part of this groundbreaking project and to work with a passionate and committed team, including my fellow directors Margarita Aguilar and Tom Finkelpearl.
MARGARITA AGUILAR: The decision was made for many reasons, such as the large scope and amount of works we wanted to show. We also saw great potential in the themes that could be explored at each institution. All three museums serve vibrant and diverse Caribbean communities in New York City, and so the partnership made total sense.
NEA: Many people call New York “the largest Caribbean City.” How can this backdrop enhance, or at least inform, the exhibit?
GOLDEN: New York City provides an inspiring and energizing location for this exhibition. The rich Caribbean culture in the city places this project in a unique context and opens up wonderful opportunities for dialogue.
AGUILAR: The whole “region” of the Caribbean is represented in New York. With Caribbean: Crossroads of the World it was our intent show that rich history and reflect the region’s vitality and culture through a larger artistic perspective.
Leslie Lounsbury (Barbados, active mid-20th century). Cane Fire, 1946. Oil and watercolor on canvas board. 20 x 24 in. (45.5. x 58 cm). Barbados Museum and Historical Society
NEA: As is noted in the exhibit, the Caribbean has always been a place of shifting cultures, empires, power-holders, even waters. How have these transient elements impacted the region’s ability to form an enduring artistic canon?
GOLDEN: The brilliance of this exhibition is the thematic construction created by project director Elvis Fuentes along with the curatorial team of Edward J. Sullivan, Lowery Stokes Sims, Gerald Alexis, Yolanda Wood Pujols, Deborah Cullen, Rocio Aranda-Alvarado, Hitomi lwasaki, and Naima J. Keith. Instead of attempting to impose an overarching narrative, these thematics foreground the artists and artisans whose work is influenced by and at the very heart of the many diverse cultural traditions in the Caribbean.
AGUILAR: The Caribbean landscape has shaped ideas about nationhood and art in the region. Out of so many remarkable events and the mixing of many groups of people an intrinsically “Caribbean” culture was born that is diverse, rich, and complex. These influences and cultures have contributed to nation-building and notions of identity, nationalism and national art schools, which is part of what this exhibition explores.
Enrique Grau Araujo (Cartagena, Colombia, 1920-2004). Mulata cartagenera (Mulatta from Cartagena), 1940. Oil on canvas. 28 x 24 in. (71 x 61 cm). Museo Nacional, Bogotá, Colombia
NEA: What misconception of Caribbean art, or the Caribbean itself, do you hope this exhibit will help dispel?
GOLDEN: I think the major misconception around Caribbean art, and the Caribbean itself, is the portrayal of a fantasized, projected image as a reality. This exhibition features images that capture the breadth, depth, and complexity of many aspects of the region.
AGUILAR: That there is only one particular view---that the entire region can be seen through one lens.
NEA: What is your personal favorite piece or aspect of the exhibit?
GOLDEN: In an exhibition with this many amazing works I am not sure I can pick a favorite! However, two aspects of Caribbean: Crossroads are particularly thrilling to me. I love seeing work by young artists for the first time, and Caribbean: Crossroads has introduced me to some exciting new voices, including Sheena Rose from Barbados, whose video is on view at the Queens Museum. At the same time, I love that Caribbean: Crossroads offers the opportunity to view iconic artists in new light. In particular, we have over the past year been part of the celebration of the centennial of Romare Bearden’s work, and it is wonderful to see Bearden’s work in this exhibition and delve more deeply into the work he created during and inspired by his many years in St. Maarten.
AGUILAR: I love that we have so many works in the exhibition. Each institution has gems, and many works in the exhibition have rarely been shown in public.
Charles Eyck (Curaçao 1897-1983). Verrpontje (Ferry), 1952. Oil on wood. 26 x 26 in. (67 x 67 cm). Private Collection, Curaçao
NEA: Why did you decide to join Blue Star Museums this year?
GOLDEN: The Studio Museum is tremendously lucky to serve a broad and diverse community locally, nationally and internationally. The Blue Star program is an opportunity to honor and recognize the incredible contributions our service members make to our community.
AGUILAR: El Museo del Barrio is more than a museum---it is a cultural institution with a strong connection to the local community. We have participated in Blue Star Museums since 2010, and are thrilled to continue to welcome active duty military personnel and their families to El Museo!
NEA: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
GOLDEN: Caribbean: Crossroads is such a wonderful addition to our summer exhibition season and provides a great counterpoint to our other exhibitions, Primary Sources: Artists in Residence 2011-12 and Illuminations: Expanding the Walls 2012.
AGUILAR: Don’t miss the opportunity to see this remarkable show! The publication that accompanies the exhibition, titled Caribbean: Art at the Crossroads of the World and published in conjunction with Yale University Press, will be an important component not to be missed. It will be available shortly at all three museums and will become a critical resource for any serious scholar, or really anyone interested in the Caribbean.