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Edition Electronique

Vol. 8, No. 28
Du  Jan  21  au  Jan 27. 2015

Electronic Edition

Kòrdinasyon Desalin: Conférence de presse


 Vol. 7 • No. 15 • Du 23 au 29 Octobre 2013


The Aesthetic Locus of Caribbean Identity

by André Juste


Caribbean art has attracted increasing attention as evidenced by sizable museum exhibitions devoted to it in the past few years. The art’s aesthetic underpinning is the product of multiple, stratified societies that are still more or less negotiating, in diverse ways, their political and socio-cultural identities, so it’s hard to capture in a single show. Furthermore, some of the work is produced by expatriate artists who still maintain strong ties to their birthplace. Yet, “Caribbean Cream: What You See Is What You Do,” an exhibition at a new Jersey City gallery, BrutEdge, directed by Gail Granowitz and Reynald Lally, offers a satisfying take on a fundamental concern of the region’s artists.

            Curated by Lally with the assistance of Jorge Alberto Perez, who also handsomely designed the show, “Caribbean Cream” includes 14 artists from Haiti, Jamaica, Cuba, and Barbados. It’s not intended as a survey. The impetus for it, we’re told, is based on the Haitian saying sa ou fè, se li ou wè (“what you do is what you see”). The objective certitude implied in this saying points to the fact that, contextually, the locus of identity can be found in the transformative act of conceptualizing the past as it relates to the present. Yet, we are further informed that the show is an attempt simply to explore the “tensions” between a Caribbean that is empirically defined versus one that is historically complex, hybridized, and, it would seem, indeterminate.

                        Fortunately, the works presented in the show do justice to the pithy Haitian saying, superseding the would-be aesthetic and historical indeterminacy of Caribbean art. For instance, Lally, who for years ran the Bourbon-Lally Gallery in Haiti and then in Canada, doesn’t altogether set aside the raw, fantastical aspects of the types of art he has long championed in order to shoehorn the show into the hip contemporariness associated with such object-free mediums as film and video, deadpan ironic photographs, and puzzling over-the-top installations. This was, to a considerable extent, the case with the Brooklyn Museum’s exposition “Infinite Island: Contemporary Caribbean Art.

            Tellingly, BrutEdge gives prime wall space to Myrlande Constant’s “Anacaona,” a large, arrestingly colorful sequined piece replete with flowery vines, figures in grass skirts with spear or scepter in hand, and feathers in their hair. The work flaunts its (faux) primitif lineage. And unlike the three-museum survey, “Caribbean: Crossroads of the World,” the BrutEdge exhibition does not deploy its energy deep into the meandering recesses of the past only to conjure up an art that’s aesthetically diffuse and unassertive or a Caribbean that’s tethered to the all so nuanced interpretations of the forces of history. Shunning postmodern irony altogether, the works Lally has gathered posit a bracingly affirmative identity with (as well as a self-directed transformation of) the local and the regional.

            The assertion of a locus for a Caribbean identity that’s in the process of transformation and construction is foregrounded in various ways in most of the works in the show. One would expect, for instance, Mario Benjamin’s “Cannibal Flowers,” a large painting predating Haiti’s 2010 earthquake that shows an assortment of leaves seemingly stenciled in an all-over format on a neon-like chartreuse background, to be merely an evocation of lush tropical foliage or of an exotically charged paradise. Instead, the wafting, dusky leaves come across as if they had been X-rayed and, in the process, incinerated.  To complicate matters, here and there the artist messily, listlessly smears certain passages, suggesting in a couple of spots vestiges of owlish eyes. So the painting is tantamount to a vision in which Benjamin attempts to will a balancing out of the abjectness as well as the potentialities of his subject. Here, the identity of self and object together with the symbolic possibility of transforming this fusion points to the dynamics of a Caribbean identity in the making.


            A number of other artists project this transformative potential in their contribution, including Vladimir Cybil Charlier, whose elliptical works combine images, ink drawing, and beaded passages on background photographs of cracked or leveled buildings from Haiti’s earthquake.

            Ebony Patterson’s “Disciple VI,” from her “Gangstas for Life” series, transforms a skin-bleached, androgynous portrait of a presumed Jamaican hipster into an iconic saint. The artist achieves this transformation by infusing signs of social deviance or otherness in her subject: there’s the sitter’s rakishly turned, glitter-covered baseball cap, the flame-like jungle brush or mountain range behind his shoulders, the red-loud lipstick on prominent lips that contrast sharply with a ghostly, mask-like face, the stylish bandana which could have doubled as concealment for the face. Patterson then  conflates all of this with old-world tropes of salvation in the forms of a lacy, heavenly halo and a dangling cross.

            If Patterson integrates the ostensibly fraught composite aspects of her subject into a new model of (Jamaican) blackness, Olivia McGilchrist takes a somewhat different tack. As stated on a wall label, she is a white-complexioned, Jamaican-born artist who grew up and was educated in France and England but now resides in her birthplace since her “sudden return” there. She insists on presenting the personas in her small video stills as unambiguously racialized. In “Bay,” from her Whitey series, we see a white-masked female standing on the stern of a boat that’s anchored to a beach. She looms as if she were a bugbear in her viewers’ imagination. So race is something that’s performed, McGilchrist suggests. It’s a category that’s imposed. Among her other six exquisite film stills (from her Native Girl series), we get the reverse of “Whitey.” Here, the artist confronts us with the theatrically staged presence of a primordially masked female in presumably African garb who, from mostly pitch-black surroundings, seems to insist on the viewer seeing and accepting her as an alluring powerful other.

            It would seem that the locus of Caribbean identity thus far is to be found somewhere in the vicinity of the racialized (as well as gendered) poles established at least since colonial slavery days, although it’s not specifically determined or mapped out. This is born out by other works in the show, including those of Dionne Simpson and  Florine Démosthène. It’s especially evident in the crisply delineated lithographs of Jocelyne Gardner, who is known for her depictions of meticulously coiffed black heads of hair seen from the back. But in a sense, her prints are not about heads of hair at all. With their schematic artificiality, the braids and strands of hair are tantamount to metaphorical encodings that Gardner gropes through so as to fathom the topography of colonial oppression and racism.  Like the stills of McGilchrist, Gardner’s headless hair styles, along with the instruments of restraint and torture that complements them, are woven tales — tropes that cry with burning desire to reconcile disquieting, painful feelings and memories with the neocolonial present.

            Though shorn of the politics of colonial memory, the works of two other artists in the exhibition, Carlos Estevez and Pavel Acosta, are quite pertinent here. They suggest that the aesthetic means of reconciliation itself—that is, the conceptual exploration of the tension between the present and the past, mind and memory, or what is versus what we think exists — is at the root of Caribbean identity. With their backgrounds prettily dabbed with warm washes of paint, Estevez’s two paintings come across as fluffy as well as quirky and quaint in that they smack of some familiar dada pieces by Francis Picabia or of the cartoony visions of Paul Klee. Yet, somewhat like the technical rigamarole or aesthetic rituals of Dionne Simpson, Estevez introduces into his paintings countless obsessively interconnected details worthy of a maniacal outsider artist. Such details project symbolically the rational mechanics of the sexual attraction and transaction unfolding between the male-female couple in his two paintings. Through the act of elucidating the heterosexual pull between his figures, Estevez exemplifies the identity of his rational approach to his memory or subjective visions. The past is thus subsumed into the act of painting—which stands for the present.

            Ultimately, that Caribbean identity is not so indeterminate and freighted by the sheer multiplicity of past historical truths and possibilities that are in turn compounded by present memory is succinctly exemplified in the contribution of Pavel Acosta. His approach perfectly suits and affirms the notion of a definite locus for Caribbean identity. The artist uses in his art a “recycled paint” technique, wherein he cuts up discrete layers of paint and then collages them like bits and strips of paper onto canvas, to create his patchy representational images.

            If his technique in “Marina” seems a bit flat-footed, it’s perhaps partly because Acosta is suggesting in the work that, like his horizontally split sailing ship whose two halves simultaneously occupy the upper and bottom edges of the picture, he is trying to constrict the span of time into the spatial dimension of his canvas. And if the artist transforms time into space, of course he can no longer return to or revisit the past. So just as his technique makes his works look as if he applies his paint clippings strictly from the picture plane outward, Acosta draws the past into the present and ultimately toward the viewer or himself.

            This is exceedingly clear in his solidly implemented “Target.” Here, Acosta’s deceptively banal, pop art-like image of a man aiming a rifle across the field of the canvas is metaphorically an exercise in self-identification, not so much marksmanship or violence. For the barrel of the shotgun, given the piecemeal technique, is  misaligned, and the target that the shooter is aiming at is not objectified. Nevertheless, the image’s heavy shadow intimates that the shooter’s target might be himself—his own identity. Indeed, the gun’s muzzle rests on the picture’s right edge, suggesting that its discharge would hit the shooter himself in his upper right arm, which, cleverly, Acosta conspicuously extends beyond the picture’s left edge. All in all, through his pictures’ symbolic space, the artist dispenses with the dimension of time by transposing the present and the past into himself—an act that parallels the self-object fusion and potential transformation that Benjamin attains in his “Cannibal Flowers.

            So if it’s not exactly demarcated, the locus of Caribbean identity is not to be found solely in the historical past or even in memory. It’s also an aesthetic and conceptual identity reached through the transformative acts that the region’s scattered artists elicit from themselves in a definite present.

Caribbean Cream
September 29th- November 23rd , 2013
BrutEdge Gallery, Space # 574
Mana Contemporary
888 Newark Ave., Jersey City, NJ 07306
Tel: 646 233-1260

Vol. 7 • No. 15 • Du 23 au 29 Octobre 2013

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