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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. New shows: "events;" how to support the online edition: "works."



Agostino Brunias (Italy ca. 1730--Dominica 1796). Pacification with the maroon negroes in the island of Jamaica. Oil on canvas, 22 x 24 inches. Private Collection.
What Holland Cotter of the New York Times calls “the big event of the summer season in New York” is really three events in one. Its collective title is “Caribbean: Crossroads of the World,” but it is three separate exhibitions, being held simultaneously at El Museo del Barrio (through January 6), The Studio Museum in Harlem (through October 21), and the Queens Museum of Art (through January 6). A tremendously ambitious show, nearly a decade in the making, it is dedicated to presenting the visual culture of all those many islands in, and surrounding countries of, the Western Hemisphere’s equivalent to the Mediterranean, over a span of four centuries It includes some 500 works of art by 379 artists in a wide range of media, including paintings, photographs, prints, drawings, sculpture, artifacts and videos.

This mammoth undertaking required many experts to put it all together: the team headed up by Elvis Fuentes, Curator of Special Projects for El Museo del Barrio, consists of eight scholars & curators: Edward J. Sullivan, Lowery Stokes Sims, Gerald Alexis, Yolanda Wood Pujols, Deborah Cullen, Rocio Aranda-Alvarado, Hitomi Iwasaki, and Naima J. Keith. Accompanying the show (s) is a neat little mini-catalogue, available at all three venues, plus a more substantial reference book, edited by Cullen and Fuentes, and co-published by Yale University Press.

The imposing list of lenders to the exhibition(s) includes 45 private collections, 23 galleries, and 17 museums & other institutions representing 11 different islands or countries, as well as 22 US museums & other institutions, among them such blue-chip museums as the Met, MoMA, the National Gallery in Washington, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Yale Center for British Art. That’s not even counting all the artists who lent their own work, and those private collectors who chose to remain anonymous.


To help viewers find their way through this wealth of riches, each museum display is organized into two sections, each section under a separate heading that is displayed & explained in a wall text, for a total of six separate sections. Sometimes these categories are understandable and even revealing, such as “Counterpoints,” which presents art related to economic developments in the Caribbean, from plantations to tourism. Sometimes, the wall texts tend to turn into art-historical double-talk, as with “Patriot Acts,” which is supposedly devoted to “national and regional discourses of identity” (well, I suppose that some of this is inevitable, given what is almost a plethora of scholarly supervision).

I am organizing what I saw somewhat differently. El Museo del Barrio, which I visited first, seemed to have the largest amount of historical art, from the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries (though it also has some more recent and even contemporary work). The Studio Museum, which I saw next, focuses on art by or about Caribbeans of African descent, and more specifically upon issues of slavery (including both historical & recent art). The Queens Museum, the last stop on my tour, has by far the largest amount of art on display, more than half of the total 500 items in the show, and it tends to focus more on recent and contemporary work (though it also has some art from earlier eras).


Being what one of my Facebook admirers recently tagged “old school,” I had the best time at El Museo del Barrio, though I also responded to much at the two other museums. Especially at El Museo (though also elsewhere) are many charming little scenes of Caribbean life and the landscapes where it flourished, executed in the recent past or the remote past, sometimes by artists born in the Caribbean but also frequently by immigrants or visitors.

Some visitors (especially the earlier ones, from the 18th & 19th centuries ) had learned their trade in Europe. In the centuries before photography (and before newspapers), people depended on paintings, prints & drawings to show them what the world beyond their immediate environs looked like (though the artists sometimes relied as much upon fantasy as upon fact). These early artists in the Caribbean were more chroniclers than esthetes, documenting the wonders of this strange, exotic & still relatively unexplored terrain & its inhabitants, possibly for the benefit of wealthy patrons back home.

Other visiting artists (especially those from the early 20th century) were from the US, more esthetes than chroniclers, looking for fresh subject matter to distinguish their work from that of other artists in galleries back in the States. And of course, many pictures were the handiwork of native-born artists, educated both at home & abroad.

I hardly know how to begin describing all fine work by earlier artists, there is so much of it. So I shall stick to three historical pieces that greeted me in the first gallery at El Museo, and (as far as I was concerned, anyway) set the tone for the exhibit. First are the fields, palms and a wonderfully open mountainous landscape in the “Valle del Yumuri” (ca. 1877), by Esteban Chartrand (Cuba, 1840-1844). Next we have two hand-colored lithographs from “Twelve Views of the Interior of Guiana” (1841), by Robert Hermann Schomburgk (Freyburg, Germany, 1804-1865), after paintings by the British Charles Bentley (and on loan from the Yale Center for British Art).

Finally, comes “A Leewards Island Carib Family Outside a Hut (1780), by Agostino Brunias ,an intriguing little picture showing two semi-nude ladies, fully decent from the waist down, but with decidedly barbarian jewelry around their heads & necks. Equally barbarian (or so it might have seemed to 18th century Europeans) is the pipe that the man in the picture is smoking.

Brunias is one of the unsung heroes of this exhibition, with work both here and in the Queens Museum. Born in Rome around 1730, he emigrated to England when he was in his late twenties, and established himself there as a muralist, with murals in many stately English homes. Evidently not satisfied with that, he moved on to the West Indies when he was about forty, and thereafter commuted between the West Indies and England, finally dying in Dominica in 1796, and being buried in its capital, Roseau. He had re-established himself with a specialty of depicting mulattos, slaves, and other freed men & women of color (including the Caribs mentioned above).


At The Studio Museum, which has the smallest display, contrasts exist between a) work produced in (or near) the Caribbean b) work inspired by the Caribbean and c) work by or depicting natives of the Caribbean who achieved fame after they left it. In the first category, I was entertained by a cheerful little diorama, with brightly-colored little paper & wood statues of slaves dancing and making music (1819); it’s the handiwork of G. C. F. (Gerrit) Schouten (Suriname, 1779-1839).

The so-called “Haitian primitives,” so popular with US collectors in the 1940s and 50s, are well represented, among them Sénéque Obin (1893-1977) and Hector Hyppolite (1894-1948). As I discovered at the other two museums in this exhibit, the “primitive” mode isn’t limited to Haiti. I saw examples of it from several other locales, but the Haitian ones were, on balance, the most imaginative.

In the category of work inspired by the Caribbean I saw here (and at El Museo) serigraphs (1986-1995) by the US artist Jacob Lawrence (New Jersey 1917-Washington 2003), based on a series of gouaches that he made in 1938 about Toussaint L’Ouverture (ca. 1743–1803), the Haitian patriot and revolutionary. I also related to a sprightly little bronze entitled “Viva Fidel Zombie” (2008), by Eugenio Merino (born in Spain, 1975).

Among natives of the Caribbean who went on to become famous elsewhere, there is a copy of a bird painting by John James Audubon (Saint Domingue 1785–New York 1851), as well as a book with reproductions of these celebrated paintings. Also on display are souvenirs of the Empress Josephine, who was born in Martinique. Her hubby, Napoleon, seems to have been brought in by virtue of being married to her. Though he was born in Corsica, and never even visited the Western Hemisphere, a handsome bronze bust of him by the all-Italian Antonio Canova, is included.


The display in Queens is so vast and comprehensive that I can’t begin to describe all its wonders. The 20th century work stands out in that section of the show devoted to “Kingdoms of the World,” and focusing upon “the variety of people, languages, art forms, and religions that co-exist in the Caribbean.” A lively centerpiece here is provided by two large, dramatic, brilliantly costumed free-standing, mixed-media human figures, the male entitled “Bobo Oulé”(2006-07) and the female,”The Cheese Ball Queen” (2003), both by Laura Anderson Barbata, born in Mexico (1958) and now a resident of New York.

Near them hangs a wall-full of more traditional paintings showing dancers by somewhat older artists, including a light, delicate and appealing watercolor by Sybil Atteck (Trinidad, 1911-1975), and a vivid, Art Deco composition by Eldzier Cortor (whose subject matter, I presume, is Caribbean, since he was born in Virginia (1916) and now also lives in New York).

In this section, also, is a second, and even more absorbing, painting by Agostino Brunias, depicting (or supposedly depicting) the peace meeting between the Maroons and red-coated soldiers representing the colonial British government in Jamaica. The Maroons were escaped slaves from those Spanish plantations that had already been in place when the British took Jamaica away from Spain in 1655 (as well as the descendants of these escaped slaves). The Maroons had fled to the mountains in order to avoid capture (the word "maroon" coming from the Spanish word for "mountaineer"), and, after trying to subdue them, the Brits were forced in 1739 to recognize them and allow them to govern themselves in peace.

Then, in 1795, a new governor of Jamaica tried to subdue the Maroons again, and again, after 5 months of fighting, was forced once more to offer the Maroons a peace agreement. This is the scene shown in the painting, executed the year before the artist's death, and showing the Maroons laying down their arms. (The sad part of the story is that the Brits welshed on their agreement, arrested the unarmed Maroons, and shipped them off to Nova Scotia -- from whence they eventually ended up back in Africa, in Sierre Leone.)

The second section of the show, titled “Fluid Motions” and dealing with the way that Caribbean is made of up islands and coastal areas, connected & separated by bodies of water, has much to offer, too. There is, for example, a whole row of dark abstractions & semi-abstractions that epitomize the fluid aspects of painting. The star of this series is “Made at Maclise” (1982), a spatter-painted brown and cream picture with highlights of green & blue by Frank Bowling (who, as most readers of this publication are already aware, was born in 1936 in what is now Guyana, and at present divides his time between London and New York).

There are more goodies upstairs, on the all-too- easily-bypassed second floor, including a marvelous, huge 1913 oil by Jonas Lie (Norway 1880-New York 1940), depicting the Panama Canal in the act of being dug. It’s lent by the Met, where I’ve never seen it displayed. Also hidden away on the second floor are 14 truly memorable exhibition prints made from glass plates by Carlos Endara Andrada (Ecuador 1867-Panama 1954). I’d never heard of him before, but he appears to have been a precursor to James Van Der Zee of New York. Endara studied photography in Paris, then settled in Panama in 1904, and made a living taking portrait photographs of individuals and groups. I was particularly enthralled by his shot of the “Intrepid Cricket Club” (ca. 1900) and his group of Red Cross nurses (1917).


In this multicultural context, I even found myself enjoying some kinds of work that normally irks me when I see it in Chelsea. I mean especially two videos, both on medium-sized screens and neither occupying more than a few minutes of my valuable time. The first, at El Museo, shows an elaborate, light and airy, 18th century ballroom that looks like an escapee from Versailles. It has a series of arched doorways in the walls, leading to adjacent spaces in which one can just catch glimpses of a dancing figure while a waltz plays on the soundtrack. This was titled “Three Steps of Story” (2009), and had been created by Jeanette Ehlers (born in Denmark,1973). I could have done without being pursued by the waltz when I was looking at the other work in that part of the museum, but I’m not interested in plugging myself into ear phones, either (that being a solution sometimes attempted by video artists).

The other video I liked is in the Queens Museum. It’s a very restful video of water scenes, with houses rising on stilts above the water, and men poling in little boats on the water. The artist is Oscar Leone Moyano (born in Colombia in 1972), and is called “Dentroadentro: Tercer movimiento” (“Ininside: Third Movement”). Dated 2005, 2006 and 2008, it’s said to be video documentation of a performance. Well, yes, if I looked closely I could see some long pieces of arty fabric ornamenting the boats or the men or something, but I didn’t trouble my pretty little head about any Higher Meaning this performance might have. I just enjoyed the cooling vista of houses & boats on the water (more than ordinarily welcome as it was 91 degrees outside).

Other well-known artists are scattered throughout the three venues of this exhibition, though not always represented by outstanding examples of their work, include Pissarro (born in Saint Thomas), Gauguin (a visitor to Martinique), Wilfredo Lam (born in Cuba), and Girodet (portraying a Haitian former slave who had been elected to the revolutionary National Convention in Paris).

And, besides Endrada of Panama, there’s much more excellent photography among the three venues, including work by Wilfredo Garcia Domenech (Spain 1935-Dominican Republic 1988), Héctor Méndez Caratini (born Puerto Rico 1949), Sandra Eleta (born Panama 1942), Pablo Delano (born Panama 1954, now living in Connecticut), and Jean Chaffanjon (France 1854-Indonesia 1913).

One other celebrity I ought to mention is Alexander Hamilton, one of the US’s Founding Fathers, but born in Nevis, then part of the British West Indies, in 1755. At El Museo is a handsome portrait of him, done after 1804, by the US painter, John Trumbull.

But really, besides all the work I’ve mentioned, there’s so much else that I urge my readers to try and get to one or more of these three museums, some of which may be unfamiliar to them. They will find an exceptionally wide range of possibilities to choose from, and, though I can’t promise that everything they see will be equally good, on balance a high level of quality has been maintained.
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