Cobalt, turquoise and aqua-colored inflatable lifesavers of various sizes, strapped together with plastic ties, dominate the entrance of the Museum of Latin American Art (MOLAA) in Long Beach. Upon close inspection, the tubes are marked by JFK airport luggage tags with a smudged image of a seemingly armless Statue of Liberty next to the bar codes. “In My Floating World: Landscape of Paradise” from the series “Theories of Freedom” (2010) by Scherezade Garcia, establishes an altered perspective of the Caribbean in Relational Undercurrents: Contemporary Art of the Caribbean Archipelago.
Curated by Tatiana Flores, this riveting exhibition focuses on the contemporary art of the Caribbean in dialogue with the Getty Foundation initiative, Pacific Standard Time: Los Angeles/Latin America or PST: LA/LA.
Relational Undercurrents takes “the Caribbean islands as its point of departure to question some of the preconceptions about geography,” said Flores on a recent visit. She explained that not being connected to continental Latin America, the islands get overlooked in the broader stories of the region. Another reason for their exclusion is that up until recently many of these islands were, and some still exist as non-sovereign territories—a reality hard to fathom in the 21st century which the artists in the exhibition confront on many levels..
The idea of the Caribbean islands as the unexplored paradise, the exotic tourist destination, with crystal blue waters and extraordinary cultural diversity is challenged throughout the four sections of the exhibition by 80 artists from 13 countries in the region and its diasporas.
One of the most startling pieces at the exhibition is Tony Capellán’s “Mar Invadido” (Invaded Sea) (2015) ; the plastic detritus of the Caribbean Sea—detergent containers, broken toilet seats, plastic buckets, bottles, toys—arranged meticulously in tonally receding shades of blue rippling across the museum floor.
The viewer is given the impression of standing on a beach staring at an ocean composed of objects washed ashore in a color-coordinated formation, from the dark navy of the deep sea up against the wall to lighter tones of blue and pale white close by.
Similarly, the artists in the Landscape Ecologies section tackle Caribbean environmental concerns, bringing to our attention these territories’ extreme vulnerability. Many of the works are a sad reminder of the recent tragedies of hurricanes devastating the region—while others deal with the islands’ landscape in relation to their current socio-economic conditions, like Allora & Calzadilla’s video, “The Bell, the Digger, and the Tropical Pharmacy” (2012), about the demolition of a pharmaceutical plant, addressing Puerto Rico’s bankrupt economy.
The exhibition’s power lies in its overall thoughtful curation and establishment of thematic continuities in the art of the Caribbean by artists with roots in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Curacao, Aruba, St. Martin, Martinique, Guadeloupe, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, The Bahamas and Barbados.
The impact of colonialism and its prolonged history in the Caribbean binds the artists together in this show. In the section Conceptual Mappings, for instance, the recreation of a fictitious island’s map with drawings of small colorful huts like a refugee camp in “Bundlehouse: Borderlines no. 3” (2017) by Nyugen Smith, is as compelling as Lisa Soto’s cosmic installation, “Relational Realities” (2017), in which she visualizes an island shaped by entangled thin metal wires lifted in the air.
Flores said that “re-envisioning the space and alternative cartographies through a kind of reaction against the colonialist map of the Caribbean, which is the first European image of the Americas,” compelled her to develop this particular section in the exhibit.
Other stand-out works, such as “Cantos” (Songs) (2017) by Charles Juhasz-Alvarado, invite participation. “Cantos” is an interactive sculpture composed of small wooden cylinders which when twisted make a distinct sound resembling a bird call. The piece is designed to impart a warning as to what awaits us in face of dangers of the disappearing ecosystems: squeaky wooden sounds, and no birds found.
Around the corner from “Cantos,” a long black table upon which lies a gold colored human skeleton installation broken into pieces draws one in. As I get closer to the work, “Anatomy Lesson: Exquisite Corpse, After Joseph Beuys” (2013) by Jorge Pineda, I realize the figure is made of chalk and viewers can make their own chalk marks on the blackboard walls surrounding the skeleton. I break off a piece and write: art is immortal. The theme in Representational Acts section deals with “how artists are using the human figure in a way to make a political statement about representation, not just as a passive translation of the world, but as an active process and as a political act of asserting identity,” said Flores.
Other artists exploring the fictitious line where the sea meets the land in the section Perpetual Horizons charm the viewer’s imagination. Perhaps the most visually disorienting piece is Christopher Cozier’s sculptural installation “New Level Heads” (2016) in this section. Comprised of silhouetted pairs of cutout cardboard heads, positioned randomly on narrow wooden beams hanging in parallel rows from the ceiling, the piece triggers a palpable dizziness as the heads and their cast shadows move laterally on the horizon line.
This is an exceptional opportunity to view a fascinating collection of work that speaks from the heart of the Caribbean contemporary art world. Relational Undercurrents: Contemporary Art of the Caribbean Archipelago at MOLAA will be on view until Feb 25, 2018. The exhibition will be on tour at: Wallach Art Gallery, Columbia University, New York City (Summer 2018); the Patricia & Phillip Frost Art Museum, Florida International University, Miami (Fall 2018); Portland Museum of Art, Portland (Spring 2019); Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington (Summer 2019).