The exhibition "Caribbean: Crossroads of the World" makes a compelling argument for its subject's place at the table. The 579 works, assembled by a nine-member curatorial team and spread across three venues, demonstrate both the impressive range of Caribbean artists and the region's function as muse and mediator since the dawn of colonization. The show has served as an introduction to the history as well as the art of the Caribbean, and to the area's significance as the meeting place of Europe, Africa, the Americas and Asia.
Project director (and El Museo associate curator) Elvis Fuentes has pointed out that "Crossroads" is a show of art about the Caribbean rather than a show of Caribbean art. Curators cast a wide net to include all countries that touch the Caribbean basin. Thus, there are many works from Ecuador, Nicaragua, Colombia, Guatemala and Panama, none of which are usually called "Caribbean" countries. Among the islands, those that remain colonial territories are well represented. With more than 40 pieces from Aruba and Curaçao, for example, "Crossroads" boasts the largest exhibition of work of the Dutch Antilles ever. By comparison, very few pieces are featured from the politically independent, English-speaking islands of the Eastern Caribbean. Fitting its longstanding global cultural influence, however, Jamaica's presence is strong.
"Crossroads" is organized into six themes, a pair per venue. The resulting experience is uneven. At the Queens Museum, blue seas and boats abound in the geography-focused "Fluid Motions" section. Colombian Nereo López Meza's 1950s black-and-white photograph Cattle Crossing the Magdalena River is hung above Barbadian Golde White's gentle linocut The Flood (undated), which also shows a herd of cattle, providing a striking demonstration of ecological continuity across the territories. This section has a somber feel in contrast to the neighboring splashy "Kingdoms of this World," which looks at the religions and rituals of the region, including Carnival. Some decisions, like the incorporation of just a minor costume accessory by the celebrated designer Peter Minshall, seem questionable, but there are also major works, for instance, Jamaican Everald Brown's sculpture, Instrument for Four Persons (1986), which occupies the center of a room. A combined harp, guitar, drum and marimba, gorgeously decorated with bright patterns and paintings of Rastafarian symbols of peace, Instrument is a stunning display of the creative potential of cultural hybridity.
El Museo's presentation is easily the most coherent, and is very effective in drawing attention to individual works as well as providing continuity throughout the space. "Counterpoints" takes a journey through the industrial trades that dominated the development of the Caribbean, while "Patriot Acts" makes transparent the exhibition's goal to "prove itself" with works organized in relationship to dominant Euro-American movements, to revelatory ends.
The same cannot be said about the display at the Studio Museum in Harlem, which feels crowded. Despite opening with Renée Cox's formidable 176-by-44-inch digital inkjet print Redcoat (2004), in which the artist is costumed in red regalia and wields a machete, the exhibition falls flat. The "Land of the Outlaw" selection is tame, despite its focus on notions of deviance—especially sexual deviance—that have come to be associated with the Caribbean region.
Indeed, "Crossroads" is a safe show. It's full of engaging and important work, and some lovely surprises, but the choices mainly conform to normative, Euro-centered notions of "fine art." That's not especially objectionable, given the show's ambitions, but some absences are striking. After visiting the Queens leg of "Crossroads," I skipped over to the Kitchrie festival, an annual arts night put together by New York's Indo-Caribbean community. Indo-Caribbean people have had a large presence across the region since the mid-19th century, including majority populations in Trinidad and Guyana. New art practices have emerged from the combination of Indian and creole cultures, but at "Crossroads" the only visible trace is in an anonymous 19th-century photograph, Hindu Coolie Woman of Trinidad. In her opening remarks, Kitchrie's curator Pritha Singh described her long struggle for recognition of the artistic practices of this long economically marginalized group. "It's important we have this night," she said, "to recognize the art we have made."
[The exhibition closed at the Studio Museum in October, but remains on view at El Museo and in Queens through Jan. 6, 2013.]
Photos: Left, view of “Caribbean: Crossroads of the World,” 2012, at the Queens Museum of Art. Right, view of the exhibition at El Museo del Barrio.