In the first gallery we find 18th- and 19th-century paintings, by European artists and Caribbean ones trained in European styles, of the colonized islands as an earthly Eden. Yet there is subtle evidence that we’re seeing a labor-intensive profit-making paradise, with sugar, tobacco and oil as export commodities.
It becomes increasingly clear, as idealized views of Caribbean life recede in art, that the producers of these commodities not only derived little benefit from them but also incurred direct harm. Working conditions were harsh; the drive for productivity was ruining land. In Albert Huie’s 1955 painting Crop Time, black smoke pouring from a processing-plant chimney darkens the Jamaican sky. Reality itself — social, economic, spiritual — is in a constant state of flux, and this is the theme at the Queens Museum of Art, where the dominating images are of change and interchange, embodied in the movement of water. In paintings, photographs and videos we see it sluicing among islands, washing against shorelines, penetrating interiors, carrying trading ships and battleships, fishing boats and ferries.
And, of course, where there are boats and planes, there are people coming and going. For centuries the Caribbean has received, and sent out, streams of them: Africans, Americans, Arabs, Chinese, Europeans, Sephardic Jews, South Asians, all bringing art, attitudes, cuisines, languages and religions with them. They’re all represented in the large second part of the Queens installation, built around the theme of carnival. • Caribbean: Crossroads of the World: Studio Museum in Harlem, 212-864-4500, studiomuseum.org; through Oct. 21. El Museo Del Barrio: 212-831-7272, elmuseo.org; through Jan. 6. Queens Museum of Art: 718-592-9700, queensmuseum.org; through Jan. 6.