Art Review: ‘Caribbean Transitions’ at the American University Art Museum
Complexity, both visual and philosophical, is characteristic of this eclectic journey through the work of 20 artists rooted in the Caribbean archipelago. The show is varied, colorful and anything but minimalist. It encompasses many modes and media – most tellingly, assemblage and collage – to depict a region where African, European, Asian and indigenous populations have both clashed and fused together.
Two of the artists were born in the United States, although one of them – Minaya – later grew up in the Dominican Republic. Many others live or have lived on the American continent. But their sensibilities are largely derived from their heritages and the experiences of their birthplaces: Cuba, Curaçao, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Jamaica, Puerto Rico or Trinidad and Tobago.
One thing that has intermingled distinctly in the Caribbean is religion, producing Afro-European hybrids such as Vodun, Santeria and Rastafari. The power of these sects and others can be seen in works such as Alejandro Guzmán’s altar-like assemblage of fabric flowers and shards of mirrored glass on chicken wire, a combination that seems equally solemn. how awesome.
Many other entries are similarly ritualistic. Pepón Osorio’s sculptural assemblage features fiery and bloody religious iconography inside a model house supported by dozens of wooden crutches. Arthur Simms totemic 3D collage of feathers, sticks and bones is affixed to a mule deer skull. Silver black and white photography by Albert Chong shows a simple chair transformed into a throne with the placement of a skull and offerings of fruit. Laura Facey’s wooden pieces – red-black and carved into shapes that evoke human organs – are ceremonially placed atop a tree stump. Edouard Duval-Carrié’s metallic painting-collage depicts a man who appears to be crawling in a jungle pool with an Asian-style mandala on his back.
There is also a sanctuary quality to Miguel Luciano’s 3D collage, in which a child’s bicycle, fitted with a chrome machete, stands in front of a Puerto Rican flag whose red, white and blue have turned red, black and green. (The latter colors are those of the African liberation flag.)
Among the most vibrant legacies of Euro-African religious mixing are the many festivals and carnivals celebrated in the Caribbean region, as exhibit curator Keith Morrison notes in his catalog essay. These celebrations are reflected in the costumed revelers in Paul Anthony Smith’s photo-paintings – he calls them “picotages” – and Carlos Estevez’s kites, whose abstract designs suggest masks.
Not all works are equally whimsical or figurative. To commemorate indentured servants from South Asia brought to Trinidad and Tobago, Renluka Maharaj superimposes a picture of a woman on a British emigration pass designed for Indian women. Ada Bobonis places in color-coded frames four dozen photos of small homes built by a Puerto Rican redevelopment agency between 1936 and 1943. Nari Ward’s found object, dripping with dangling shoelaces, offers a two-word testimony to the work Afro-Caribbean: “Black sweat.”
This large country in the northern Caribbean basin is not totally ignored. Expressionist paintings by Scherezade Garcia include loose depictions of children wearing Mickey Mouse winged hats, and Luis Cruz Azaceta’s colorful Cubist-influenced canvas depicts a stunning moment in recent US history: the January 6 assault on the Capitol. Exiled from Fidel Castro’s Cuba, Azaceta has long translated human events into images with universal themes but a Caribbean flair.
American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center, 4400 Massachusetts Ave. NW. 202-885-1300. american.edu/cas/museum.