NEW YORK -- In size, cultural scope and freshness of material, the three-museum exhibition Caribbean: Crossroads of the World is the big art event of the summer season in New York, itself one of the largest Caribbean cities.
To take in the entire thing requires traveling between the Studio Museum in Harlem and El Museo del Barrio, both in Manhattan, and to the Queens Museum of Art in Flushing. Any single segment is dense and vivid enough to give you the flavor of the whole. But if you can see all three, absolutely do.
Each tells a hugely complex story from a different thematic angle.The story is woven as much from questions as from answers, from intangibles as from facts. Is the Caribbean a place? If so, what are its boundaries? Are Florida and Colombia as much part of it as Cuba? Is there a Caribbean culture, and how do you define it, given the mix of African, Asian, European and indigenous elements that blendon some three dozen islands in the region?
And even if the Caribbean is defined, loosely and poetically, as a state of mind, a mood, how do you capture that in an exhibition, when so much of that mood has, traditionally, been expressed more in music and performance than in static visual forms? Historically the picture starts at the Studio Museum, late in the 18th century. By this time indigenous peoples throughout the Caribbean had been suppressed; masses of captive Africans had been imported; a white population, largely mercantile, had settled in. From a European perspective the region had become the subject of myths — pleasurable, fearful, often centered on race.
For decades emigre painters to the Caribbean, many working for colonial estate holders, had depicted life there as a sequence of serene multicultural picnics set in parklike gardens. All imagined idylls were decisively shattered, however, with the 1791 slave rebellion in Haiti that led to that country’s independence from France.
Racial difference, as an alien and threatening reality, formed the fundamental view of the Caribbean in the eyes of much of the rest of the world.
A second gallery at the Studio Museum, labeled “Land of the Outlaw,” is filled with European images of the Antilles as a nightmare of ravenous beasts, hostile natives and monstrous phantoms associated with indigenous religions.
But monstrous is in the eye of the image maker. Race, or the perception of it, can function as a social unifier; it can also be approached as an unstable and alterable condition. The exhibition includes an amazing sculpture, pieced together almost entirely from matchsticks by the contemporary Jamaican artist Dudley Irons, of Marcus Garvey’s fabled Black Star Liner, conceived as a slave ship in reverse, bringing former slaves back to Africa from America. A knockout collage portrait by Ebony G. Patterson portrays a young black man with a masklike white face. The image refers to the often-against-the-law world of Jamaican dance-hall culture and specifically to its fashion for skin-bleaching as a cosmetic means of both attracting attention and — dating back to slavery and forward to Michael Jackson — determining social status based on skin color.
Patterson’s glitter-encrusted portrait, part monument, part mug shot, suggests the double-edged potential of radical identity transformation. Applied to other, broader subjects, this is also the theme of the section of the show installed at El Museo del Barrio.
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.