For many Miamians, the artists and even some works in the Caribbean art exhibition now on display in New York are familiar. But Caribbean: Crossroads of the World’s setting offers context that makes them feel fresh.
The exhibition engulfs three New York City museums— El Museo del Barrio, the Studio Museum of Harlem and the Queens Museum of Art — as it ambitiously attempts to present a 200-year history of the region through its art.
“One of the main purposes of the exhibition was to look for connections between the Caribbean and the United States,” explains Elvis Fuentes, associate curator for special projects at the Museo del Barrio and project director for the exhibition, which was organized by the Museo del Barrio in collaboration with the Studio and Queens museums. “The history of the Caribbean has often been overlooked, sometimes ignored. If people paid attention, they would see more connections between the two regions.”
Some scholars have resisted treating Florida as part of the Caribbean, he says — a narrow focus he has tried to counteract with a broad geographic sweep that includes all the countries along the Gulf of Mexico as well as the islands within it.
Fuentes points out what South Floridians know well from daily experience: Miami is a Caribbean hub for more than changing airplanes. As a center for commerce and immigration and the U.S. home to huge communities of Cubans and Haitians, among others, Miami and its rich collections of art were the source for many of the exhibition’s works.
In addition to contributions by Miami-based artists, works were loaned by South Florida institutions — the Wolfsonian-FIU, Fontanals-Cisneros Collection and Bacardi Collection — along with galleries and individuals that spanned the Americas Collection, Pan American Art Projects, David Wallack and Ramon and Nercys Cernuda. The Cernudas are also among the exhibition’s sponsors.
The show is not organized geographically or chronologically but topically, exploring broad themes such as race and water. Fuentes and the show’s curatorial team are quick to point out that Caribbean Crossroads is not an exhibition of Caribbean art, but a survey through art of the Caribbean since the Haitian Revolution.
It actually might be more accurate not to call Caribbean Crossroads an exhibition at all, but rather an experience. At all three museums, more than 500 works — paintings, sculptures, prints, photographs, videos — are presented, sometimes stacked two and three high on the walls, with scant explanatory labeling. The goal, Fuentes says, is to create an immersion into the sights and sounds of the Caribbean, and it that succeeds. But it also challenges visitors who might want a more traditional fact-based presentation of its art and history.
El Museo del Barrio is exhibiting two of the six thematic sections. Counterpoints explores the region’s economic development, focusing on the shift from the plantation system, with its focus on crops, to oil and tourism. Patriot Acts explores Creole culture and national and regional identity.
At the Studio Museum in Harlem, Shades of History explores the role of race; Land of the Outlaw brings together works that address perceptions of the region as a nexus for both pleasure and illicit activity.