A Massive Wave of Caribbean Art Comes to New York

A wall from the exhibit "Caribbean: Crossroads of the World." (Photo: Justin Mitchell/Fi2W)

Three New York City museums have just unveiled a massive undertaking: one huge exhibit surveying the art of the Caribbean and its diaspora from the dawn of the Haitian Revolution in 1791 to the present day.

Caribbean: Crossroads of the World is an ambitious collaboration between El Museo del Barrio in Harlem, The Studio Museum in Harlem, and the Queens Museum of Art.

The Caribbean region includes over two dozen countries where English, Spanish, Dutch, and French, plus a host of regional languages and dialects are spoken  The scale and scope of the exhibit reflects this diversity.  Some 500 paintings, sculptures, drawings, photographs, and multimedia projects by over 350 artists pack the walls and floors of all three venues.

At El Museo, the famous portrait of Alexander Hamilton by John Trumbull, the one that served as the basis of Hamilton’s image on the ten-dollar bill, hangs one room away from a swirling abstract oil painting by Aruban artist Toton Quandt (pictured below) which is next to a video of an installation in the Caribbean.

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"Sin Titulo (Untitled)" by Toton Quandt. (Photo: Justin Mitchell/Fi2W)

“Embracing it all was a huge challenge,” said Tom Finkelpearl, the Executive Director of the Queens Museum of Art.

The eclectic nature of the exhibition reflects the nature of where these works come from.  For Elvis Fuentes, the curator of special projects at El Museo and a native of Cuba, making people aware of that diversity is one of this exhibit’s central goals.

“I think it is important that we look to the Caribbean in a more complex way, not just you know ‘palm trees and rum and coconuts,’ things like that,” he said.  “So many of the political, economic and historical events throughout Europe, the Americas, even Asia, somehow impacted the region.”

Sprinkled throughout the exhibit are works by Caribbean artists from the United States, with names ranging from Winslow Homer to Jean-Michel Basquiat.  One of the inspirations for the exhibit was a collective realization by all three museums of just how many Caribbeans live in New York City, and what a large part they played in cultural events like the Harlem Renaissance and the Civil Rights Movement.

According to Census figures, there are over a million immigrants from Hispanic and non-Hispanic Caribbean countries living in New York City.  Fuentes says many other New Yorkers have economic, historic, or touristic connections to the region.

“A third of the population of New York has, somehow, a link to the Caribbean,” Fuentes said.  “We wanted to highlight that.”

To help sort the immense amount of material, the exhibit is split into six themes, with each museum hosting two of them.

El Museo hosts the themes “Counterpoints” and “Patriot Acts,” which deal with economics and the cultural identity, respectively.  At the Queens Museum of Art, “Fluid Motions” explores water and its impact on the region and “Kingdoms of This World” takes on the many subdivisions of race and religion in the Caribbean. The Studio Museum hosts “Shades of History,” an examination of race, and “Land of the Outlaw” deals with the Caribbean’s reputation as a haven for illicit activity.

“We didn’t want to have, you know, all the historical things, then the more modern and contemporary things, like that,” said Fuentes.  “So, we really decided to focus on themes that somehow were also responsive to the mission of each institution.”

Seeing so many disparate pieces of art, coming from so many different styles and aesthetics, can be jarring.  But for Fuentes, the assembly of many disparate elements is the whole point.  He told Fi2W that the Caribbean is an example of the triumph of multiculturalism.  With the wave of anti-immigrant fervor running through the United States and much of Europe, he hopes the exhibit will remind New Yorkers that Caribbeans and Americans share a common endeavor, the quest to form a diverse yet cohesive society from disparate elements.

Sculpture and photography, side by side. (Photo: Justin Mitchell/Fi2W)

“We are all on this side of the world.  We are trying a new world, because obviously what was done there, it was not totally successful, and we are trying to do things better,” Fuentes said.

The El Museo and Queens Museum exhibits are open until January 6, 2013, while the Studio Museum of Harlem exhibit closes October 21.

Fi2W is supported by the New York Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation with additional support from the Ralph E. Odgen Foundation and the Sirus Fund.

AboutJustin Mitchell
Justin Mitchell was born and raised in Fairbanks, Alaska. He graduated from the University of Northern Colorado in 2002 with a degree in theater, and worked as an ESL teacher in the Czech Republic, Cambodia, and Korea. He is now a student at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism with a focus in international journalism. Follow him on Twitter @mittinjuschell.