Representing the Caribbean
Representing the Caribbean
Following is a review of the art exhibition Caribbean: Crossroads of the World, currently being held at three locations in New York: El Museo del Barrio, 12 June 2012 to 6 January 2013; Queens Museum of Art, 17 June 2012 to 6 January 2013; and the Studio Museum in Harlem, 14 June to 21 October 2012. See caribbeancrossroads.org.
Our conversation began with a print image of the Caribbean: a large, blue, textile tapestry, formed by a repeating golden pattern that rotated to create an illusion of chaotic variance. Rossana Martinez’s Golden Island (2000) is a visual representation of what we, two doctoral students of different disciplines and regions, were doing as we walked through these exhibits. We examined Caribbean: Crossroads of the World from different sides. With each pivot, we turned to think about the other’s methodological concerns in order to consider another angle of interpretation. It became clear that the Caribbean is not simply a global crossroads but a disciplinary crossroads as well.
We approached these exhibits as a local archival experience—an exploration of how the Caribbean is defined, thematized, and imagined. “Is scholarship shaping an image of the Caribbean that is coded in terms of colonialism, racism, or exoticism?,” Elvis Fuentes asks, “Or rather as a common experience of Atlantic culture, the sea, and the space of exchange that is the port?”1 Fuentes poses the Caribbean as a question—as an object of scholarly inquiry. How do we examine the Caribbean on its own terms without homogenizing or exoticizing it? And how do we articulate the dynamics between the Caribbean with the regions we study? What is clear is that neither of us—a student of British literature and a student of Latin American history—can get away from the Caribbean. What we study, inevitably, runs contiguously with the Caribbean. How do we confront the reality that our disciplines construct and, to be more exact, imagine a particular representation of the “Caribbean”?
It is the exhibits’ appeal to the imagination that is most valuable for academics. The heterogeneous archive of objects, texts, sounds, and images reminds us that we must re-conceptualize our analytical categories—namely, those categories of periodization and geographic space. “Effective silencing,” the late anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot contended, “does not require a conspiracy, not even a political consensus. Its roots are structural.”2 Indeed, the boundaries established by professionalization and academic tradition are part of the structures that produce silences. With Trouillot’s recent passing on our minds, we ruminated over the anthropologist’s influence on how we approached these exhibits. As students of the humanities, we have much to learn from the social sciences, and this collection allows us to be self-conscious of our roles as historical and social actors. The curated objects highlight Trouillot’s point that social processes are constitutive of historical narratives—that such processes may be obfuscated when we ignore the fact that our disciplinary habits in the humanities shape our studies.
When thinking about narratives, for a historian and for a literary scholar, we are inclined to examine and arrange content in chronological order. Crossroads offers, at least initially, a mystifying and, in some ways, estranging effect. By thematically organizing these exhibits and juxtaposing the colonial and the postcolonial, Crossroads destabilizes any impulse to impose a strict, linear narrative of history, and prompts us to consider the variegated developments within the Caribbean. By shifting between geographic places, by grouping artwork by theme rather than by century, the exhibits showcase the asymmetrical developments of the Caribbean, North America, and Western Europe. This, we might say, is attributed to the nature of colonialism and the variations in colonial policy and economic infrastructures within the Caribbean. The “evolutionary process” within the Caribbean, as Gordon K. Lewis concisely put it, was “unequal.”3 So when one sees Pepón Osorio’s Queen Isabella gown, worn by Coco Fusco in the 1990 performance of La chavela realty, one is reminded to configure the colonial contexts when analyzing the Caribbean. The plastic globes that bedeck the gown—shiny, spherical shells that symbolize conquest—beckon the viewer to consider the constructed frameworks for understanding the Caribbean.
The exhibits do not abide by any rigid chronology, and it is for this reason that narrative possibilities are omnipresent. Though disoriented by the unfamiliar organization of these exhibits, we appreciated the gesture toward different contexts and social processes that are part and parcel of Caribbean culture. The impulse to order—to narrate—is interrupted by these exhibits’ juxtaposing of objects and images that seem to be dissimilar or incongruent. This allows the viewer to think outside of traditional historical narratives and envision different frameworks for interpreting the Caribbean. By the same turn, this curatorial intervention forces one to recognize the enduring influence that old narratives continue to exert on Caribbean studies. If we are to study the silences produced and reproduced through narratives, then understanding how they operate is of prime importance. It may seem that these silences are just a byproduct of historical production and, in this regard, dismissable because “facts” cannot be grounded in the language of the conditional. However, the palpable presence of these silences suggests a reality. These silences point to the nature of historical production, the contexts for narrative representations, and the methodological challenges that we must continue to work through. There is much to be gained by carefully attending to the links between the production of history and literature—between the fictional and the real.
Consider the example of Santa Prisca. This island bears all the common scars of the Caribbean history: plantation slavery, gunboat diplomacy, revolutionary unrest, and reactionary militarism. Its leaders now subsist on the proceeds from foreign-owned luxury hotels and drug money while the populace lives in grinding poverty. This story might sound familiar, but it is not technically true. Santa Prisca is the fictional home of Bane, enemy of Batman and son of a British-born anticommunist mercenary. Within this universe, Bane represents a nemesis to Bruce Wayne, a man who is everything Bane is not—wealthy, tutored, worldly, and sheltered. By contrast, the feverish seascape of the Caribbean formed Bane into a being seeking not justice but revenge against the forces of civilization. His Santa Prisca is not simply unmodern but thoroughly antimodern. The Caribbean here is a place left behind, or perhaps pushed back, by the march of progress.
What could possibly be gleaned from the study of an imaginary island? More than perhaps meets the eye, we would argue. Like the objects found in Crossroads, this narrative of the Caribbean represents decades, or even centuries, of accumulated assumptions. If we are to take seriously Trouillot’s admonition that the hardy seeds of historical narrative grow in many soils, often well outside the topiary gardens of the academy, then we ignore such narratives at our own peril.4 We agree with the curators of Crossroads that Santa Prisca matters, as do many of the exhibits we saw, as much for what it conceals, intentionally or otherwise, as for any sliver of truth it may contain. If this narrative of the Caribbean as a purgatory of modernity resonates, it is because it reinforces our inherited taxonomies of inquiry. That is to say, if Santa Prisca seems accurate, we must be mindful of the reasons why.
A few years before the birth of this imaginary island in the late 1980s, Gordon K. Lewis lamented the lack of a pragmatic conceptual approach for studying the Caribbean. The archipelago, ill-defined and categorically anomalous, stretches the coded language of the humanities to the edges of their productive capacities. And despite the profusion of powerfully destabilizing work since produced, this nagging gap between how the Caribbean is and how it might be represented endures. Three decades later, the curators of Crossroads echo this concern: “Why is it that so little scholarship has been produced on the Caribbean?”5 Their choice to address this gap through various types of visual and recorded media signals their specific intervention in Caribbean studies. At issue is the fundamental question of archives and representation. What emerges is a compelling argument for representation as archive.
As students of Caribbean history are commonly taught, the region has been defined by centuries of overlapping and interrelated global processes—colonialism, transatlantic slavery, plantation society, patronage, imperialism, and neoliberalism, among others. The fact that existing sources reinforce the dynamics of these processes—through slave purchase receipts, planting and harvest records, bills of lading, property deeds and titles, and the like—means that the archive itself, as it is presently constituted, reinforces this concept of the Caribbean only as a place (de)formed by outside forces. Yet, as the old saying goes, the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, and recent scholarship has been much more attuned to that which has not been–or, perhaps, cannot be—communicated through traditional approaches.
The essential question is how are we to develop new approaches to understanding the Caribbean in a field so dominated by the categories of economics and the social sciences? Or, as Trouillot might ask, how are we to speak to the silences of Caribbean studies? Evidence of the limits of traditional approaches abound: from binary sociological categories of race, to a concept of blackness rooted directly in slavery, to reductive frameworks of modernization and dependency. These types of approaches, while not without merit, fall short of the complexity of the Caribbean experience, and have proven more effective in representing what the Caribbean is not, rather than what it might be. It is in this context of destabilizing categorical assumptions that Crossroads is most effective. If we lack the archives to answer new questions about the Caribbean, the exhibition implicitly argues, then we will seek out new archives. In this conceptual reimagining alone, Crossroads offers a powerful challenge to anyone studying the Caribbean.
Forming new archives is not simply a process of discovering unused sources, however, but also of reassessing existing representations. Crossroads also juxtaposes new materials against very traditional examples of Caribbean representation, inviting us to rethink their contribution to Caribbean epistemologies. An impressive example of this is the scattering of various bucolic paintings of landscapes and people often associated with the nineteenth-century genre of costumbrismo. These realistic depictions of serene plantation vistas and colorful marketplaces, ordered and natural, might have been displayed in previous years, if at all, only to demonstrate the hegemonic will to superimpose planter ideology over some perceived Caribbean reality. While this interpretation remains at least partly instructive, the diffusion of these paintings among various works from different eras demands that we bring fresh eyes and minds to old paintings. Certainly, those who commissioned such works had their motives, but must we reject the product with the motives themselves? Divorced from claims to any specific strain of authenticity, might not these old works allow us to ask new questions? To push this thought, and perhaps make it more concrete, consider the fact that at least a few of these plantation paintings are on loan from the collection of the Organization of American States, an institution with a mixed reputation in the Caribbean.6 This is precisely the sort of attention to archives which might allow us to discuss current, pressing questions about power, sovereignty, and the making of history.
To take this further, in addition to the idea of fictional locales, how do our categories of time project—and thus imagine—a particular world? Imagine, for instance, a return to a pastoral scene—a scene depicting a familiar Romantic trope of retreating from an industrialized setting into a sublime, natural landscape. Such a scene can be found among William Blake’s illustrated plates for his Songs of Innocence (1789). Aside from demonstrating the complex interplay between text and image within a single frame like a comic book, these plates also mirror Romantic ideals about the natural world. From this collection of poems and plates, Blake’s “Little Black Boy” can be viewed at El Museo del Barrio’s segment of Crossroads, in an exhibit titled Counterpoints. This exhibit that focuses on the economic development of the Caribbean invites viewers not only to reconsider the idea of literary canons but also to destabilize the rigid boundaries of periodization. “Little Black Boy” does not just imagine another place; it imagines another time—a return to childhood. Blake’s plate, a place and time abstracted from the material realities of Britain’s expanding empire, is integral to conceptualizing a Caribbean archive. What happens, then, when this imagined space of the past reappears next to gold-plated objects, a tobacco box, and images of modern-day tourism—art pieces that illustrate the various economies of the Caribbean? Or, when wandering in Counterpoints, consider the kinds of relationships that are forged when one studies “Little Black Boy” juxtaposed with the sounds of a man cutting sugarcane in a looping video. While dwelling on Blake’s still, idyllic scene, accompanied by quiet text, how do we address the rhythmic hewing of sugarcane that fills Blake’s landscape? The noise provides a trance—a meditative, temporal continuity that would allow us to dwell on the familiar. Yet the pauses between machete and sugarcane remind us of the silences that are inherent in any narrative. While Blake’s plate may not neatly or coherently connect with the cutting of sugarcane, the looping video illuminates a dynamic of simultaneous continuity and discontinuity; it draws attention to the historical continuities and discontinuities between the Western world and the Caribbean.
In both temporal and spatial realms, fiction lurks. As Trouillot reminds us, “pastness” is merely a position—the meaning of the past, and its relationship to the present, is neither fixed nor stable. And the present is no more coherent than the past. As one enters El Museo del Barrio, the opening images establish a parade of pieces that are produced inside and outside of the Caribbean. In particular, there is a series of works that are created by Caribbean-born artists who emigrated to other cities of the world. It is as if to remind us that we, too, are products of urban locales and that we should be aware of the fact that we are examining the Caribbean at a privileged geographic location—within the boroughs of New York City. Our urban experience provides its own rubric and context for analysis. One may find, for example, Tam Joseph’s Spirit of the Carnival (1982), which resides at the Queens Museum, resonate with our own encounters with the local mobilization of Occupy Wall Street.
We should be careful, though, to think of these exhibits as “celebrating” the Caribbean. Perhaps the term illuminating is more accurate. Trouillot cautions us: “Celebrations straddle the two sides of historicity. They impose a silence upon the events that they ignore, and they fill the silences with narratives of power about the event they celebrate.”7 Thus, these exhibits should not be the only time that we stumble onto, or “cross” paths, with the Caribbean. It is clear, after visiting these exhibits, that careful attention to the very means by which we construct and communicate narratives will necessarily grow as a guiding principle in the humanities. It is in this spirit that Caribbean: Crossroads of the World is curated.
Kristina Huang is a doctoral student studying English literature at the City University of New York Graduate Center and an instructor of literature at City College. Her academic interests include Atlantic studies, masculinity studies, and seventeenth- and eighteenth-century British literature. She is currently examining the intersection between religious thought and Atlantic historiography. She has contributed to the online blog of Social Text Journal.
Jonathan Hill is a doctoral student of Latin American history at the City University of New York Graduate Center, and an instructor of history at Lehman College. His studies relate to geography, sovereignty, and race in US relations with Central America and the Caribbean. He has worked on the editorial staff of the Associated Press national desk and News from the Republic of Letters literary journal.
1 Elvis Fuentes, “Crossroads, Crossings, and the Cross,” in Deborah Cullens and Elvis Fuentes, eds., Caribbean: Art at the Crossroads of the World (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, with El Museo del Barrio, 2012), 19.
2 Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon, 1995), 106.
3 Gordon K. Lewis, Main Currents in Caribbean Thought: The Historical Evolution of Caribbean Society in Its Ideological Aspects, 1492–1900 (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983), 10.
4 Trouillot, Silencing the Past, 22.
5 Fuentes, “Crossroads, Crossings, and the Cross,” 19.
6 The Organization of American States (OAS) is an international organization founded in Washington DC in the mid-twentieth century primarily to prevent the spread of communism in Latin America and the Caribbean. Although labeled an imperialist tool of the neoliberal policies of the United States by critics, nearly every nation in the Caribbean and Latin America remains in the group, including Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua.
7 Trouillot, Silencing the Past, 118.