Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 9, 2019
Tatiana Flores and Michelle Ann Stephens, eds. Relational Undercurrents: Contemporary Art of the Caribbean Archipelago Exh. cat. Long Beach, CA: Museum of Latin American Art in association with Fresco Books / SF Design LLC and Duke University Press, 2017. 352 pp.; 200 color ills. Paper $50.00 (9781934491584)
Museum of Latin American Art, Long Beach, CA, September 16, 2017–January 28, 2018; Wallach Art Gallery, Columbia University, New York, June 1–September 23, 2018; Sugar Hill Children's Museum of Art and Storytelling, New York, June 28–September 23, 2018; Patricia & Phillip Frost Art Museum, Miami, October 13, 2018–January 13, 2019; Portland Museum of Art, Portland, OR, February 1–May 5, 2019; Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington, June 22–September 8, 2019

Consider visual art as a unique mode of communication capable of bridging the multicultural and multilingual Caribbean islands. Relational Undercurrents: Contemporary Art of the Caribbean Archipelago, an exhibition catalogue coedited by Tatiana Flores and Michelle Ann Stephens (curator of and advisor to the exhibition, respectively), suggests precisely this. Through engaging Caribbean literature and theory, they suggest that visual artwork (here including installation art, paintings, performance, photography, sculpture, and video) can reveal not only shared concerns among the insular Caribbean—that is, its islands—but also the possibility of a “collective and definable discourse around Caribbean visual aesthetics” (29). In part because of visual art’s not-necessarily-verbal mediums, it can posit the region as a continuum rather than a heterogeneous conglomeration of disparate political systems, languages, and peoples. And certainly Flores and Stephens emphasize connections—specifically geographical, ecological, and historical—among the islands, centering not a “visual logic of difference” but one of analogy based on “strategies, themes, and mediums” (21). In so doing, they attempt to counter scholarly and popular approaches that stress the region’s fragmentation (within the arts, they mention Caribe insular: Exclusión, fragmentación y paraíso, 1998, and Caribbean: Crossroads of the World, 2012, among other exhibitions): its multifarious colonial history, heteroglossia, and diverse ensuing cultures. This approach, they say, allows readings of the Caribbean islands as primarily hermetic.

Relational Undercurrents relies on a selection of theoretical schemata and terms that are outlined in parts one and three of the ample three-part catalogue. Most prominently, following archipelagic theory by scholars including Stephens, it formulates the insular Caribbean as an archipelago, or “a geo-material and geo-historical assemblage of sea spaces and islands” (15). The editors’ concentration on the Caribbean islands stands in contrast to specifically national or colonial frameworks and more geographically expansive regional groupings such as the geopolitical or Greater Caribbean. As Flores and Stephens admirably explain in a formative essay delineating their “archipelagic model of insular Caribbean art,” their approach arose when (prompted by the Getty Foundation’s Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA initiative, of which their exhibition was a part) they began sifting through the multifarious “conceptual divisions that separate the Caribbean from ‘Latin America’” (16). In particular, if the field of Latin American art history—reliant on a continental identity—often overlooks or underrepresents artwork made within the majority of the Caribbean islands, what exclusions does the omission support? For one, they write, attention to island ecologies and cultural responses to life surrounded by sea. Moreover, they explain that in keeping with trends in Latin American historiography, discourses on Latin American art have tended to neglect the significant presence of the African diaspora within even its most limited geographic borders. What comes to the fore about art from Cuba, frequently included in Latin American surveys together with other Hispanophone Caribbean countries, when seen alongside that of Martinique, Barbados, Saint Croix, or Curaçao, and vice versa? Flores and Stephens propose that considering artworks from only and across the islands and their diasporas centers race, migration, diasporic experience, and legacies of colonialism, each of which are often paramount within insular Caribbean history, art practice, and thought.

The editors cite Caribbean writers Kamau Brathwaite, Édouard Glissant, and Derek Walcott as direct influences on their pan-Caribbean focus and “framing, selection, and interpretation of works of art” (72). In her substantial essay, “Inscribing into Consciousness the Work of Caribbean Art,” Flores elaborates upon the exhibition’s four-part, thematic, nonlinear structure, which loosely categorizes works by the eighty-plus represented artists. Throughout, she views the longue durée via not only artworks included in the exhibition sections but also literary sources. The first part of the show, “Conceptual Mappings,” looks to those probing mapping’s colonial history, reimagining cartography, and plotting (and naming) varied types of relation and possibilities. “Perpetual Horizons,” the second section, revolves around visual treatments of the horizon—a seemingly unending boundary central to islands and signifying much, including entrapment, longing, or, particularly for tourists, “paradise”—alongside textual treatments ranging from Immanuel Kant to Walcott. In the third section, “Landscape Ecologies,” readers travel from Christopher Columbus’s perceptions of the Caribbean islands to, for instance, Farmacopea (2013) by Puerto Rican artist Beatriz Santiago Muñoz, a film meditating on the fading biodiversity of Puerto Rico’s plant life and individuals’ relations to it. “Representational Acts,” a fourth section, includes artists whose practices scrutinize the politics of representational processes and, with decolonial fervor, self-representation. Throughout her text—like the catalogue, a significant contribution to the art historical field—Flores provides an impressive engagement with Caribbean theory on the one hand and contemporary art from the insular Caribbean and its diasporas on the other. However, while she demonstrates multiple nexuses of theory and visual art within a region rife with both, she largely leaves interrogating or exploring them up to the reader.

Compelling essays in the third part of the catalogue weave in and out of and expand upon the archipelago. Nelson Maldonado-Torres centers Caribbean intellectuals Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon, and Sylvia Wynter (and her read of the archipelago) in a treatment of (de)colonial thought and aesthetics, smoothly grounding Western epistemologies and aesthetics in the European Renaissance and, to a certain extent, decolonial struggles in the Haitian Revolution. Nicholas Laughlin embraces the form of the archipelago in his poetic contribution, a transhistorical assemblage of texts, while the final essay in the catalogue, by Stephens, further studies the archipelago as a theoretical structure, indeed expanding its reach beyond the insular Caribbean by postulating South, Central, and North America as part of a chain of territories.

If a goal of Relational Undercurrents is to decenter national borders in favor of other modes of mapping, perhaps the catalogue’s second part, which comprises four essays that zoom in on art practices and markets in four Caribbean nations/territories (indeed three Hispanophone ones) and their diasporas, productively troubles the editors’ archipelagic focus. And the incongruences between their theoretical framework (centering regional continuity) and the second part of the catalogue (centering national and diasporic narratives) underscore a fundamental tension in their effort. Nonetheless, the essays offer insight into each varied scene as informed by black Atlantic and global political and capital currents, while contributing to more-localized arts discourses, especially Jerry Philogene’s acute text on Haitian aesthetics. Her essay critiques the patrilineal, racialized history of discourses on “what is known as ‘Haitian art’” (if not art history more broadly); scrutinizes tropes of otherness, deviance, and poverty projected onto Haiti; and posits a means to reconsider visual and textual forces shaping Haiti, art made on the island and abroad, and, crucially, its historiography (191). Meanwhile Rocío Aranda-Alvarado’s text on Dominican art “at home and abroad” spotlights artworks such as All Tied Up/Amarre (2006) by Charo Oquet, which confronts the fraught relationship between the Dominican Republic and Haiti (which share an island); colorism (and its intersections with gender), anti-black, and anti-Haitian sentiments; and the uses of “modernity” within Dominican history. In a third essay, Antonio Eligio Fernández (Tonel) interrogates the economics of art production within Cuba since the 1980s—marked by a transition from Communism to “something else” (Martin Jay’s phrasing)—and the shifting relations of its art economy to the “global” art market (220). Closing the section, Laura Roulet surveys artist-run initiatives, collaborative art, and social practice resurging in Puerto Rico in the 2000s, sensitively underscoring links to previous Puerto Rican and Nuyorican efforts that more recent practices build upon.

Of course, the archipelago does comprise nations, territories, overseas departments, and so on that are also roots of diasporas. While the editors frame visual art as a way to cross barriers, especially linguistic ones, the structure of the catalogue suggests these political demarcations cannot be set aside even within a project clinging to a geo-material continuum. “Relation” is another term Flores and Stephens employ in an attempt to transcend such delineations; it permeates their essays and, it seems clear from the catalogue’s title, the associative organization of the project itself. However, perhaps in keeping with the amorphous nature of the term (popularized in Caribbean theory by Glissant, who is referenced generously throughout), they neither directly define their use nor explicitly engage Glissant’s treatment of the term. His premise that “evolving cultures infer Relation, the overstepping that grounds their unity-diversity” stresses the futility of nonporous borders (Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation, University of Michigan Press, 2010, 1). And indeed, Relational Undercurrents centers the insular Caribbean not as a series of politically split and culturally isolated islands but as an archipelago connected by “relational patterns” (26). Aptly, Stephens’s concluding essay muses on Walcott’s description of the Antilles as “reflecting ‘Fragments of Epic Memory’”—in other words, as not only geological entities but also spaces packed with stories that are (not only) transnational to the core (281). The project as a whole helps to unpack connections between regional and international divides, and moreover between diaspora and island, land and sea, art and theory, histories and ground. It is an effort that will surely ripple, and that carries with it the potential to rupture and reconfigure modes of thinking of and through the insular Caribbean, its art, and its histories—told and untold.

Adrienne Rooney
PhD Candidate, Art History, Rice University