Critical Eye: Beyond the Sea

Asad Raza: Untitled (Q.M. II), 2009, inkjet pigment print, 27⅝ by 43¼ inches. Courtesy Kathrin Jira.


“TREMBLING THINKING,” a show on view last winter at Americas Society in New York, was described by its trio of curators as an “exhibition of ideas.” Hans Ulrich Obrist, Gabriela Rangel, and Asad Raza brought together work by twenty-two artists, including Raza, that responds to or resonates with the thought of Cuban ethnographer Lydia Cabrera (1899–1991) and Martinique-born philosopher Édouard Glissant (1928–2011). The exhibition was an attempt to reflect on the expansive work of the two Caribbean intellectuals whose output often blended scholarship and literature, spanned poetry and fiction, and hewed closely to the artistic currents of their time. Regardless of the geopolitical split between the Hispanic and Francophone Caribbean, and the fact that the two writers’ intellectual paths rarely crossed in their lifetimes, Cabrera and Glissant offered complementary models for a world of mutual understanding, inspiring a legacy of postcolonial thought. The humane vision they shared is one in which people can relate to each other in spite of—or even on the basis of—an acknowledgment of profound difference.

In a collectively authored exhibition text, Obrist, Rangel, and Raza state that Cabrera and Glissant sought to “maintain an open and subjective relation to the world” by refusing to “systemize thinking.” The curators describe how the two examined “questions of representation and social thought, not exclusively in a theoretical register,” but rather in “lived experience, especially the embodied experiences represented by love and friendship, and in music and dance and landscape.”1

The issues and predilections of Cabrera and Glissant were wide and varied, defying easy summation, and the work in this exhibition seemed to grapple with their concepts rather than merely illustrate them. Some of the featured artists were direct in this regard. Algerian-born Philippe Parreno, for example, invited viewers to use their own phone to call one of two telephone numbers in order to hear Cabrera and Glissant themselves speaking. Other connections between art and idea were more abstract. Diamond Stingily’s contribution, Entryways (2018), is a door with multiple locks and an aluminum baseball bat resting against it, suggesting the barrier that exists between home and world.


GLISSANT’S INSIGHTS are inspiring in part for their poetic reach, and his unsystematic approach to literary criticism and philosophy has been a touchstone for artists and curators in a broad range of contexts. Indeed, the exhibition functioned to some extent as an homage. In 2008, three years before he died, Glissant granted Malian filmmaker Manthia Diawara permission to make a film about his ideas. An abridged version of the resulting work, Édouard Glissant: Poèmes complets (2017), formed a kind of focal point in “Trembling Thinking.” In the film, Glissant is interviewed in two places: aboard the Queen Mary 2, a transatlantic liner, and at Anse Caffard, a slave memorial in Martinique. During a conference in Paris he attended just before embarking on the journey with Glissant, Diawara, a professor at New York University, described how the philosopher warned him against taking a realist approach. Glissant had suggested a simple way to illustrate his ideas, to make them amenable to presentation in American universities: If I were you, he told Diawara, I would wait until we were in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, and point the camera at the mass of churning water. For Glissant, that would be the whole film in one shot. (The photograph by Raza included in the exhibition is precisely such a scene of oceanic turbulence.)

Édouard Glissant: Poèmes complets alternates between short takes of undulant waves with Glissant in voiceover reading his writing, and shots of him giving an unscripted exposé of his ideas to Diawara. The sea, a constant presence in the film, is also a recurrent motif in Glissant’s writing. In fact, the ocean relates to one of the first concepts he discusses in his masterwork, Poetics of Relation, first published in French in 1990. The Atlantic depicted in the film conjures the voyages of slave ships, which Glissant posits forced on the captives “the experience of the abyss,” with their identities and histories wiped out. Despite the bestial cruelty to which African people were subjected—“worn down,” Glissant writes, “in a debasement more eternal than apocalypse”—he suggests that this moment in history also provided the basis for profound discovery.2 He speculates that the ocean seemed an embodiment of the unknown to those who were forcefully taken from their homes. But since it is impossible for them to return to the time before debasement, the experience holds the promise of new, shared knowledge. Perhaps Glissant’s claim could easily be misinterpreted as trivializing the slave trade—turning the horrendous into a moment of learning and collective thinking—but he remained unwavering in his inclination to use physical human experience to illustrate how we relate to the world intellectually.

The archipelagos in the Caribbean are central to his thinking in this regard. “Compared to the Mediterranean, which is an inner sea surrounded by lands,” he writes, “the Caribbean is, in contrast, a sea that explodes the scattered lands into an arc. A sea that diffracts. Without necessarily inferring any advantage whatsoever to their situation, the reality of the archipelagos in the Caribbean or the Pacific provides a natural illustration of the thought of Relation.”3 Glissant’s homeland, Martinique, is a region of France, and he spent years studying in the colonial center of Paris. His island’s relationship with France was a lifelong intellectual preoccupation, spawning interest in relations of many kinds: between political entities, between cultures, between people. Etel Adnan’s Hommage à Édouard Glissant (2014) seemed, in the context of the show, to embody this notion. The piece is an accordion-style book, each page of which is adorned with a single heavy splotch of color. Perhaps the piece is actually a homage to the Caribbean archipelago, with each page as an island, and each island both a whole unto itself and a part of something greater.

Place can also be a highly unstable category in Glissant’s work, reflecting the experience of diaspora. The late Jack Whitten poignantly addressed this theme in Study for Atopolis (2014), which comprises twelve drawings in black Sumi ink on rice paper. Composed of frenetic lines of varying thickness that sometimes completely blot out their support, the studies anticipate the complex patterns in one of the artist’s largest works: Atopolis: For Édouard Glissant (2014). “Atopolis” is a Greek word meaning “without place,” and for Whitten, who spent significant time in Greece, the concept spoke directly to the contemporary condition of black identity, which, he said, “has been linked to our not having a ‘sense of place.’ This ‘sense of place’ for us had to be created through hard work involving all of our faculties of being.”4 Whitten’s drawn lines manifest the effort of creation even as they appear unstable—they tremble. Whitten invites a meditation on place and identity in his abstract works through opaque, free-hand representations. In this way he converses with Glissant. The curators’ catalogue essay quotes Glissant’s best-known statement: “we clamor for the right to opacity for everyone.”5 For Glissant, to acknowledge a lack of understanding, to acknowledge that there are things that remain unknown when we relate to each other, is not to accept an insurmountable obstacle. Opacity is a necessary precondition for building a true relation to another. Whitten’s drawings offer abstraction as a visual corollary to Glissant’s speculative proposition.


GLISSANT OFTEN acknowledged his intellectual debt to Frantz Fanon—a fellow Martinican who, according to his biographer David Macey, “re-created and defined himself as Algerian.”6 Of that re-creation, Glissant wrote: “Sometimes by taking on the problems of the Other, it is possible to find oneself.”7 Glissant’s pithy summation of Fanon’s work could apply equally well to that of Cabrera. A white Cuban from a wealthy family, she was concerned with relations to the Other. According to Isabel Castellanos, who introduced the English edition of her most famous work, Cabrera had an encounter in June 1930 that changed the trajectory of her life. That year, Teresa Muñoz, an old seamstress in her household, who also happened to be an Orisha priestess, took Cabrera to the Cuban home of Calixta Morales, a saint in the Ocha Rite tradition of Santeria. After that meeting, Cabrera began to write stories that were part ethnography, part folklore, with a hint of what would later be described as “magical realism.” The stories were published as Les Contes nègres de Cuba in 1936. An English edition, Afro-Cuban Tales, translated by Alberto Hernández-Chiroldes and Lauren Yoder, was published only in 2005, which may account for Cabrera’s relatively low profile in the US.

The art historical hinge in “Trembling Thinking,” the visual connection between Cabrera and Glissant, was arguably work by artists Wifredo Lam and Roberto Matta. Both had a significant relationship with Glissant, providing illustrations for some of his early poems. Lam, who employed Afro-Cuban imagery in his art, also provided illustrations for some of Cabrera’s poems, selections of which appeared in “Trembling Thinking,” along with artifacts inspired by the Afro-Caribbean religious rites that Cabrera studied.

Cabrera’s brother-in-law was the noted ethnographer Fernando Ortiz, and he contributed an introduction to the first Spanish edition of Afro-Cuban Tales. He asserts that Cabrera’s thinking was shaped both by his scholarly mentorship and her close companionship with Muñoz and Morales. “She began studying Afro-Cuban folklore with me years ago,” he writes. “Simple curiosity first led Lydia Cabrera to delve into the forests of Havana’s black legends, and she found them truly delightful. She began transcribing and collecting those stories, and has gathered a large number.”8

Cabrera translated African languages, passed down primarily through oral tradition, into written form. But this was a mere starting point. Decades after her collection was published, she explained that her conceit for the book was not simply, as Ortiz and many others assumed, transcriptions of oral traditions. As Obrist, Raza, and Rangel write, “the stories were not mere testimonies provided by her informants but parts of a fictional machine created to represent the vast and complex Afro-Cuban legacy, which had been repressed, erased, or blatantly ignored by the white or mestizo elites.”9 One story in Afro-Cuban Tales, for example, deals explicitly with racial origins. “Papa Turtle and Papa Tiger” recounts how the first black man climbed up to heaven on a ray of light. The sun warned him against coming closer. He disobeyed, got too close, and turned black from head to toe. On the other hand, the first white man went up by similar means, but this time the moon was out. The moon is cold, and cold is white. The second man became the father of all white people. The story is, indeed, a fictional machine: an apparatus whose function, in this case, is both to elaborate on myth and to speculate on the origins of racial difference, all the while keeping porous the border between good and evil.

In Cabrera’s ethnography all stories are fiction, subject to the unreliability of memory or the embellishments of narrators. She seems to have shared with Glissant an understanding that narrative fiction can approximate the truth of what is unknown. As a storyteller and scholar who avoided the academy throughout her life, Cabrera may have perceived that her access to and investigation of Afro-Cuban culture and religion could never be total—no matter how vast the network of her informants. To borrow a term from the title of the curatorial essay, writing fiction enabled her to practice “the ethnography of the unknowable.” And yet she threw herself into the work despite its inherent opacity. One piece in the exhibition spoke to the sense of risk and vulnerability in taking a leap and seeking identification across cultural lines: Destierro (1998), a documentation of a performance by Tania Bruguera. The artist adorned herself in the guise of a Nkisi Nkonde talisman used by Cubans who practice the Congo religion, and walked through Havana, staging a public act of solidarity with a marginal and discredited culture.

Most of Cabrera’s work is still unavailable in English, including El Monte, considered by some to be one of the most important books in Afro-Cuban literature. As a result, it is difficult for English readers to ascertain the range of her deep investment in traversing the limits of ethnography. Although she moved to Miami after the Revolution, Cabrera maintained close ties with her contacts throughout her life and wrote studies of Lucumí and Congo religions that could pass as guides for practitioners.


GLISSANT’S AND CABRERA’S works express deep faith in knowledge that can be gained outside official channels. They sometimes wrote in a high theoretical register, but never lost touch with the productive fission of everyday encounters: the practical ways of navigating an interconnected world.

In a conversation with Obrist in 2005, Glissant told a poignant story of his own about a conversation with a taxi driver that encapsulates this spirit.10 He had just returned to Martinique from Quebec and described the harsh winter, intolerable even to the Québécois. The taxi driver became dreamy, Glissant recalled. “How I’d like to have felt that,” the man said, “the snow falling on my skin.”

Glissant remained fascinated by the taxi driver’s air at the steering wheel, and this simple quotidian chat became a kind of parable for him. He understood that the taxi driver did not have the same privilege to travel around the world as he did, but that the driver still desired some experience of the totality of the world, even if it were restricted to the imagination. As translator Betsy Wing summarizes, the imaginary, for Glissant, represents “all the ways a culture has of perceiving and conceiving of the world.”11 For the artists in “Trembling Thinking,” a show that could aptly be called an exhibition of the imaginary, these multifarious connections are expressed through their work. Next to this, Glissant would value equally the desire of one Martinican taxi driver for Québécois snow.