An exhibition preceded by 8 years of research, in which 3 American museums collaborated, that covers over 200 years of Caribbean art and displays 550 works of art, should be expected to deliver a good result.
Why then is Caribbean: Crossroads of the World still a failed project?
It sounds cynical, but for exactly the same reasons that it could have been a good project. A significant part of the 8 years of research got lost due to internal bickering. About assumptions, principles, but also about competencies. The initiating museum, El Museo del Barrio, is simply without the means and the manpower necessary to support such a project. The Studio Museum is a good, but also stubborn and ambitious museum that knows how it should be done and will not be dictated by others. The Queens Museum is a museum without a face, with a vacillating policy and a visible lack of money. Incidentally, all three museums are located in New York.
Opting for 200 years of Caribbean art is in itself logical – the independence of Haiti in 1804 is a natural point of departure – but it is also an extensive, perhaps too extensive period. And after all, if you decide to show 550 pieces, it is unavoidable that in certain cases the quality will be somewhat under par.
From the basic principle of Crossroads it is determinable that it is a project of compromises. It endeavors to show work of Caribbean artists, living in their homeland or not. Aside from that it aims to provide a picture of the Caribbean, thus it includes also artworks of Paul Gauguin. The relationship between New York and the Caribbean should be illustrated. That explains the presence of true Americans such as Jacob Lawrence and Chris López. By considering the Caribbean as a ‘flexible’ unit, all other doubtful cases should also be entitled to have their say.
In short: everything is allowed and everything is possible in order to keep all organizers on board. That the public has no understanding whatsoever of such politically motivated assumptions, is apparently of no concern.
The same applies to the selected artists. Those among the somewhat adept, constantly wonder: why her/him and not him/her. Translated to the Surinamese artists: why for example Soeki Irodikromo and not Remy Jungerman, while they should both have been included. A comparable question arises with regards to the selections made within an oeuvre. Why a small photographic work of Patricia Kaersenhout, when she has made much better drawings. Because it could be submitted cheaper, digitally? Why that particular painting of Marcel Pinas, while he has made better paintings, drawings and installations. Because it was already part of a collection in New York? Conveniently close by? Such ‘practices’ greatly diminish the level of confidence that the viewer has in the reliability and the expertise of the curators. That distrust is further reinforced by various careless inconsistencies: in the publication Charles Eyck one page states that he was born in the Netherlands, and yet another page, Curacao; at one drawing the nametag mentions that it was made by the artist 3 years after his death etc. etc.
The largest error however, is the presentation. The choice fell on a type of ‘salon décor’. So all the works are close to, above, under and mixed up amongst each other. Nice and full. From the floor up to the ceiling. There is no obvious reason for this. It is however a clear slap in the face to the visitor. Many people are not or hardly informed about Caribbean art. This makes such exhibitions all the more important. It is therefore extremely important to create conditions which allow visitors to look at everything in relative peace, to allow them the opportunity to search for and place links, to compare eras etc. At such a presentation that is absolutely impossible. As a fellow visitor expressed in despair: “It drives you nuts”.
Who More Sci-Fi Than Us, contemporary art from the Caribbean in Kunsthal Kade in Amersfoort, the Netherlands was less ambitiously, but more intelligently, set up. In that (already ended) exhibition they opted for contemporary art from the Caribbean (that part was incidentally largely lacking in New York). In this one there was also a much greater emphasis on quality. Still, also regarding this exhibition some comments can be made. I had hoped for a more surprising selection. I already knew some of the works from other exhibitions (the Havana Biennial, exhibitions in other museums in New York, but also in Amsterdam). Another part was indeed new, in some cases made especially for the occasion, but even then from the obvious names. Why not choose for talents such as Jabu Arnell of St. Maarten? To give a random example. A safe choice is in and of itself no problem, and I occasionally enjoy seeing certain works of art a few times, but my preference goes out to a bit more risk. More confusing was the rather pretentious title of the exhibition. In it a link was suggested with science fiction and surrealism – the title is a quote from writer Junot Diaz – while in the majority of the works this relationship was sorely lacking. What is sci-fi about an animation of Sheena Rose who portrays her daily life in Barbados? What is sci-fi about the work of Renee Cox that deals with the representation of the black (American) woman? The exhibition did not need any such a slant given to it. The works speak convincingly for themselves; they did not have to speak through a concept imposed upon them by the curator.
Crossroads is a missed opportunity. That project confirms many of the prejudices that the average visitor has concerning Caribbean art. Typical qualifications such as sloppy, traditional and awkward. That lays to blame to the creators. Sci-Fi will stay with me longer. It also gave a good impression of the urgency with which Caribbean art is made and of the high quality of that art. At both exhibitions by the way, the expectation of large amounts of visitors was far from realized. Disappointing.
Who More Sci-Fi Than Us was on display from May 26th thru August 26th, 2012, at Kunsthal Kade in Amersfoort, the Netherlands.
Crossroads is still showing until October 21st, 2012, in the Studio Museum in Harlem, until the 6th of January, 2013, in El Museo del Bario in Manhattan and the Queens Museum in Queens, NY, all in the USA.
TEXT Rob Perrée, Paris, France, August 2012
TRANSLATION Cassandra Gummels-Relyveld
Digital art magazine Sranan Art Xposed appears three to four times a year. Through it SAX aims to increase awareness on Surinamese art, but also tries to keep track of, and add more depth to our dynamic art world. Because our corresponding blog is in English, important contributions will from time to time also appear in the Surinamese newspaper de Ware Tijd.
Rob Perrée is art historian, freelance writer and exhibition maker, editor of Kunstbeeld and of Sranan Art Xposed. Perrée was also a contributor to the book Marcel Pinas. Artist, more than an artist. He lives and works in Amsterdam and Brooklyn.
Some interesting websites:
Who More Sci-Fi Than Us