If finding a friend in a large crowd can be seen as daunting, then identifying international arenas of ideas and goods exchanged must be incredibly exhausting. Yet that is the grand undertaking it took to create the new exhibition, Caribbean: Crossroads of the World, organized by the El Museo del Barrio in New York City in collaboration with the Queens Museum of Art and the Studio Museum in Harlem, NY. Global scholars and artists have been working with the three institutions since 2006 to plan several initiatives, including the multi-venue event which features transnational paintings, sculptures, prints, books, photography, film, video, and historic artifacts about the Caribbean. Undoubtedly, it is an effort to link the region to other countries, and break new ground in an otherwise overlooked area of scholarship.

The more than 500 seldom-seen works, stretching from the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804) to the present, specifically explore the dynamic and complex relationships between the Caribbean and much of the Western Hemisphere.

“For the first time ever, this project [examines] the impact of Africa, South Asia, and Europe on the visual culture of the Caribbean, including painters that were part of the Impressionists and Surrealists in France to homegrown schools recovering popular traditions and developing original styles,” Elvis Fuentes, project director and curator of special projects for El Museo del Barrio, stated.

Viewers of the exhibit will find themselves confronted with multiple messages whilst examining the artwork such as that of the African rituals which initiated some of the Caribbean’s strongest traditions, with several of the participating artists perceiving the region as a paradise, among other fascinating discoveries. It all comes together to demonstrate a startling kinesis — an appropriate flow of diverse people, objects, images, and ideas through the many Caribbean waterways (and within the region’s real and conceptual borders). Artists show off their mixed views and perceptions with captivating works, revealing the thematic exhibit (and also the Caribbean) to be a synergistic, cultural melting pot.

The artistic ingredients include international visuals on the Caribbean’s various plantation systems and industries, and diverse interpretations of its nations’ identities, islands, coastal areas, and waterways. There are also pictures speaking to the various cultural, racial, class, and illicit ideals about the region.

Those ideal-driven works connect the Caribbean to Africa, Europe, Asia, and the Americas in some fathomable way or form.

The diversity of industry

Talked about in great detail at the El Museo del Barrio is the prevailing theme, Counterpoints, which explores the changes and contrasts of the region’s various plantation systems and the modern energy and tourism industries. Known for quite some time as the epicenters of wealth and conflict, the sugar and tobacco industries were considered to be the major income sources for much of the Caribbean (fueled by the French, Spanish, Dutch, and European colonization). In fact, sugar had long since been a global export, supported by a plantation system and free laborers, like indentured servants and slaves. (In recent centuries, many East and South Asians, including Indians, were taken to be indentured servants after slavery’s end led to a labor demand on sugarcane plantations).

On the other hand, the locally developed tobacco industry employed highly trained technical workers. However, it was eventually replaced by sugar, due to the West Indian tobacco’s gradually declining prices, and a rising demand for sugar in Europe in the mid-1600s.

As an attempt to relive history and give insight into these shifting times, a section of the pieces depict the laborious production process in eye-opening ways, starting with one of Jamaican artist Albert Huie’s best-known paintings, Crop Time.

Crop Time convincingly captures the slave mentality that drove the crop industry, as well as those aforementioned, at the expense of human lives. The oil on canvas work accurately portrays those days of working the fields as a harrowing reality for its inhabitants (the non-existent faces of the hardworking masses in the image can be taken as an assertion of the fact that at the time, slaves were without real identities, reduced to being just property). Huie, who passed away at age 89 in 2010 in his residential home of Baltimore, Maryland, used an ascending pattern in the work by first showcasing working field slaves, followed closely by animals and cattle, then trees and grass, and finally by houses, as one’s eyes reach the piece’s top. Perhaps, the piece stands to imply that slaves were at the bottom of the heap, forced to cultivate sugar in places like Cuba and Guyana to support European and U.S. commerce; so much so, that if a slave revolted, they would be quickly and brutally decimated.

The artist’s homeland of Jamaica was known to have severe slave uprisings and conflicts — something that undoubtedly caused slavery’s abolishment (a process that was slow to catch on). This, along with the pressures of free trade and declining technological innovation, caused the eminent overthrow of both industries.

What appears now in its place are oil and tourism businesses, which were sizeable topics of the exhibit (oil has replaced sugar as an important economy sector due to agricultural decline and the effects from World War II, while tourism has become very big in places like the Bahamas and Antiqua, with lots of U.S. citizens visiting the area in recent decades). However, what stood out more profoundly were the works showcasing human beings and their imaginative creations, as opposed to those focused on commodity based industries.

Speaking to that end is Olga de Amaral’s (Colombia, 1932) Tapestry, which features the woven together assemblage of hundreds of thousands of gold-leaf squares; an image that can only be described as fancifully arresting. Looking like a gilded quilt, it appears in a red background — and judging by the sheer volume of squares, it must have been quite time-consuming and meticulous to make. Encased in a rich beauty, like that of the stunning tapestries first seen in European castles in the 14th and 15th centuries, it brings a European influence and royal feel to the Counterpoints section, despite the prevalent feeling of it having been misplaced amongst the surrounding works.

Multi-cultural interpretations of identity and the islands

Yet a deeper voyage into this exhibition, can give way to a dissolve of expectations, and perhaps, an appearance of a surprise or two; the serendipity of locating the mixed identity messages is quite exciting in Patriot Acts, another theme from the El Museo del Barrio.

The idea behind this next section, which works hand in hand with its economically based predecessor, is that there are several identity ideals that are concentrated on the region’s nations (the Caribbean traditional aesthetics face off with the region’s native African past). In shaping public talks on identity, the creole people and their culture as well as their ideas of hybridity, all play a major role. Showcasing this phenomenon is the 2010 painting The Girl with the Pearl Earring by Patricia Kaersenhout (Netherlands, 1966); the work feels like an exploration of the contention between creating an identity that conforms to patriotic ideals, while pulling in the direction of recognizing it also as a result of internationalism and diversity.

There is a pleasant demeanor found in the honey-colored face of Kaersenhout’s jeweled woman that stares sideways and softly out into the distance. The work’s description directs your eyes to find the solitary pearl earring in the left ear, which adds a delicate, refined touch to the piece (a solid example of what can happen when you add a new, international flair to an old style, or in this case — an old Dutch painting). A surrounding peace quiets your world as you draw in the intricacies of the dark-skinned woman, even if just for a few seconds, moments, or hours, depending on how enthusiastic you are about what you are seeing (and despite the noticeable presence of security guards, who sometimes beckon you to move forward with their tired stare).

But, what you are being confronted with here subject wise, and in the other venues, may startle you in some cases. If you don’t believe that, then just look at Arnaldo Roche Rabell’s (Puerto Rico, 1955) work, We Have to Dream in Blue, an oil on canvas painting featuring a piercing stare. It comes from a jungle wild man of sorts, with blue eyes peering out from a face of grassy matter.

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