Friday, October 26, 2007

The *Other* Caribbean Art Shows in Brooklyn

The other Caribbean exhibits: Caribbeance and
Mas’: From Process to Procession/Caribbean Carnival as Art Practice

Such attention that the NYC art world can spare for Caribbean art is going to the Brooklyn Museum show, and the attention for other art in Brooklyn goes, as usual, to Williamsburg and Red Hook. But two other group shows focusing on contemporary Caribbean art were up recently. It would be unfair to compare these shows, given that their host institutions have very different priorities (those discussed here are community galleries) and much smaller budgets that the Brooklyn Museum. But they are worth discussing on their own:

Caribbeance was shown at the Skylight Gallery, which is both housed within and a project of the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation. As part of a community center, it was not surprising that the art was mostly straightforward and figurative. It is worth visiting community art galleries to be reminded how pleasurable well-done figurative work can be – and because they usually lack the uninviting attitude of Chelsea hotspots.

Memorable pieces include Gracie Xavier’s portrait “Joy,” a closeup of a woman’s delighted face surrounded by a black, white, and red headscarf. “Dreamers” by Stanwyck Cromwell plays with technicolor shapes, including a motif that resembles orange black-eyed peas, and has surprising energy. In David G. Wilson’s whimsical oil paintings “Caribbean Family,” “Caribbean Afrodite,” and “Ndebele,” each aspect of a person’s face and body are also a piece of a nostalgic Caribbean landscape: palm trees, boats, or brightly colored tropical fruits.

Curator Herbert Glenn Bennett - also the first artist-in-residence in the gallery - defined Caribbeance as “the quintessence of being Caribbean.” His choices focused on “natural” and “organic” daily experiences of life in the region. With that kind of directive, one would expect more stereotypical images of palm trees and dreadlocks than thankfully are on view.

In fact, while traditional painting predominated, other media presented the Caribbeance theme from different perspectives. In Richie Richardson’s evocative, almost pixilated digital print “Tobago Heritage Dance,” the figures are barely legible, and the piece thus both reveals and conceals ritual. Pamela Allen’s richly textured mixed media pieces leaned towards the abstract. And Ramona Candy’s great collages “Marigot” and “Takai” capture humanity and landscape with a fresh approach – the pieces remind you of Jacob Lawrence, but with Caribbean flair.

The BRIC Rotunda Gallery is a nonprofit space in Brooklyn Heights whose mission is in part to “bridge the gap between the art world and global culture in Brooklyn.” Mas’ curator Claire Tacons seems to have taken a “something for everyone” approach to the small gallery, and it kind of works. Actual carnival costumes shown in the gallery were created by Laura Anderson Barbata and worn in Trinidad’s 2005 festival. They appeal to the child in all of us, with bright colors, animal shapes, and streamers that you can imagine dancing along with the masqueraders. Karyn Olivier’s “Moko Limbo” is exhibited near one of Barbata’s costumes. The difference is striking; Olivier’s piece consists of one lonely, bright blue stilt (Trinidadian stilt walkers are called moko jumbies), reminding of the absence of the dancer and how quickly carnival is abandoned when the festival is over.

A similar feeling is evoked in Stefan Flake’s dreamy digital projection “Moko Jumbies: The Dancing Spirits of Trinidad.” Since carnival is usually known for its frenetic energy, it was refreshing to see other emotions portrayed in that context.

The paintings of duo Superior Concept Monsters (Alex Kahn and Sophia Michahelles) were not impressive, but the fact that they were presented as large “lanterns” in the shape of coffins carried in New Orleans funeral processions made their installation resonate emotionally, obviously referencing the city trying to resurrect itself.

To the left and the back of the gallery the artwork veered further away from the masquerade theme. Marlon Griffith’s installation doesn’t explicitly reference masquerade, but the combination of shiny hanging mylar and sad bits cut out and left discarded on the floor has an effect similar to Olivier’s piece. Nicolás Dumit Estévez’ “Sketches for Performances Yet to Be Realized” is more overtly political – and more zany – than the other work. In these self-portraits he is either naked (but with strategically placed bananas) or in a fantastical costume. The presence of bananas, maps of the Caribbean, and references to Puerto Rico play with notions of exoticization, masculinity, and colonization.

Jujustring’s visit ended, appropriately, with the dvd “Mi Curaçao,” in which video vignettes combine performed poetry and imagery. The people in Caecilia Tripp’s pieces are young and old, fair and dark, and they speak in Papiamento and English. Similarly, the images in different pieces veer from documentary carnival footage to ethereal dream-like sequences. Tripp’s work exemplifies what Mas’ exhibit as a whole demonstrates: the diversity not only of the Caribbean region, but of the artwork inspired by the region and its carnivals.

For images, see:

Word has it that two large Caribbean contemporary art exhibitions will be coming to NYC in the next few years. Do you have any information about them? Let jujustring know!