With Who More Sci-Fi Than Us? Contemporary art from the Caribbean the first retrospective exhibition in the Netherlands with Caribbean contemporary art took place in Kunsthal KAdE in Amersfoort last summer. The title is a reference to the quote of the Dominican-American Junot Diaz, in his book The brief but wondrous life of Oscar Wao: “It might have been a consequence of being Antillean. Who more sci-fi than us? “. With this title curator Nancy Hoffmann chose a not particularly catchy, but striking exhibition title. She put the exhibition together with artists from Aruba, Barbados, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Curacao, the Dominican Republic, Guadeloupe, Guyana, Haiti, Jamaica, Martinique, Panama, Puerto Rico, St. Vincent, Suriname and Trinidad. It would also have been interesting to know just why from such a large region, the choice had fallen on the ultimately presented artists. That a big name from the region as that of Marcel Pinas is not lacking was logical, young talent like Sheena Rose from Barbados was recently at the Havana Biennale, so that was also an interesting choice, but unfortunately at the exhibition it never really became clear why this group of artists was chosen. Sometimes ripe and green seem to alternate and sometimes it was just a bit predictable.
Science-fiction implies a glimpse into the future, however this does not seem to be the case with the majority of the works, they are more about the past or present. The futuristic work Principios basicos para destruir (2008) with a city made out of sugar cubes and eaten by ants from the Cuban Carlos Garaicoa appeared to visualize this. With the use of sugar Garaicoa appeared to stand in a tradition in which more Cuban artists used sugar (cane) as a symbol of their Cuban identity. Violence, destruction and beauty of the modern metropolis come together in this work. In an exhibition that was meant to let the Dutch public get acquainted with artists who are relatively unknown here, such an original and conceptual title might perhaps have been chosen badly.
It is striking that apparently the question is not asked anymore whether Suriname can be seen as Caribbean or not. In the catalog of contemporary Surinamese art, Paramaribo SPAN (2010), the Trinidadian artist-curator Christopher Cozier wrote that he, like many other people, wonders “where the Caribbean actually is located.” He starts from the idea that the area can better be interpreted as a space in which people with a shared background live, than that it is seen as a geographically defined whole. This space is not static, but changes according to the perception where Caribbean people are “… located or where people imagine the Caribbean “. It is also important that some influential Surinamese artists in the eighties and the late nineties went to study in Jamaica for a period of time, which strengthened the direct Caribbean influence, and that they subsequently lectured at the Nola Hatterman Institute and thus influenced new generations of artists. An important factor is perhaps also that the relationships with the Caribbean are easy, because the majority is English speaking or is well able to speak English in everyday life. The Latin American hinterland with its Spanish-Portuguese language may have a greater threshold.
It seems that Suriname by these factors in the art world nowadays indeed can be rated to the Caribbean.
Among artists from the Caribbean region themes like the (de)colonial history, the diaspora, the socio-political situation and the search for a (national) identity, are common themes, and indeed these were not missing in the exhibition. The aim of the exhibition was to create a new view of the Caribbean. Artists sometimes tried to achieve this by playing with the existing stereotypes of paradise islands, where it turns out the sun does not shine everyday either. However, the presentation of all works was not always optimal, sometimes certain works hardly seem to relate to each other or they got too little space, which made it not come into its own.
In Returning a Sound (2004) by Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla there is a graceful referral to the demilitarization of an island of Puerto Rico. The present U.S. military base (1941-2003) was lifted after many years of protest by citizens. The artists call attention to this process by extending the outlet of a moped with a trumpet and driving around the island on it, in the background you can hear American jazz music. It is triumph, a cry for attention and a warning at the same time; the island is the people’s again, now they must rebuild it. But not only in Puerto Rico the presence of the Western powers was a daily reality until recently. Martinique, still French overseas territory, demonstratively received its own embassy from Jean-Francois Boclé to protest against this European ‘domination’ in the post colonial 21st century. This strange situation is not so much “sci-fi” but rather surreal. ‘Science-Fiction’ was made the central word of the exhibition, maybe it should have been ‘surrealism’. The feeling evoked by the freely translated phrase “By God and in Suriname, everything is possible”, may in daily life also be applicable to several Caribbean societies. Many people who are closely involved in the Caribbean and South American region will recognize this sometimes surreal feeling. Although refreshing, it carries perhaps too far to use this perception when reading Diaz’ ‘sci-fi’, as a guide for an exhibition.
On a large exhibition like this, it is not surprising that it was chosen to show some more famous works of Surinamese artists such as Marcel Pinas and Remy Jungerman. On the other hand, it is a pity that not more recent work was shown. Pinas’ oil drum with bones, San E Psa (2010), was a little lost in the large room filled with murals and large works, including Pinas’ beautiful triptych Pangi kibi Man (2005). Jungerman’s classic Bakru (2007) was also exhibited, as well as Promise III (2012) which he made especially for the exhibition. Recently in Suriname his Promise II could be seen. Completely new work made for this occasion was the black and white sculpture Movt nr. 5: La virginité de l’Europe (2012) from Charl Landvreugd, which by the way was very well presented centrally. With confusing texts that seemed to have been derived from science fiction movies Landvreugd and his work appeared to fit well in with the theme of the exhibition.
In KAdE many and diverse Caribbean work was displayed, accompanied by quite some text and explanation. All this made it for the average visitor an exhibition that could not always be ‘digested’ easily. For the exhibition one needed more prior knowledge of the Caribbean context than you would expect at a ‘first acquaintance exhibition’ like this one, or one had to look at the accompanying texts too much. For many, the art will not always have spoken for itself.
For large ‘retrospectives’ it is of course difficult to make choices, the audience should get an impression. It was an act of courage to make the exhibition as it was, but it was too demanding for the general public and the space given to the works sometimes left somewhat to be desired. Several individual works were interesting, especially when they entered into mutual dialogue, but as a whole the exhibition was not always clear and too many topics were broached. This unique exhibition wanted too much and consequently perhaps overshot its mark.
TEXT Dan Dickhof
Dan Dickhof writes historical art publications about old, modern and contemporary art for various media – amongst which 8WEEKLY, worked in the auction business and helps with putting together exhibitions. He studies at the art academy The Hague and also works as a young artist.
A catalog was published to accompany the exhibition.
Who More Sci-Fi Than Us. Contemporary Art from the Caribbean was edited by Nancy Hoffmann and published with KIT Publishers, Amsterdam, 2012. ISBN 9789460222115
The catalogue is divided into four sections, each prefaced by a general introduction by an author from the relevant language area: Leon Wainwright (UK), Giscard Bouchotte (FR/Haiti), Charl Landvreugd (NL/SME), Blanca Victoria López Rodríguez (Cuba) and Giscard Bouchotte (FR/Haiti). The catalogue also features an interview with Simon Njami (FR) by Jocelyn Valton (Guadeloupe). The introduction was written by Nancy Hoffman.
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