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The New York Times

Images Of Tropical Lands, Issues Of Caribbean Identity


December 21, 2003
Copyright ©2003
New York Times Company. All rights reserved.

Newark -- THIS is not an ordinary vending machine,'' says a sign next to Miguel Luciano's installation at the Newark Museum. ''It's a work of art that will make you think.''

And sure enough it does. The work is a vending machine in the form of a chicken coop containing a life-sized hen that lays colored plastic eggs filled with figurines, stickers, temporary tattoos and other prizes dealing with the Latino experience in the United States. Themes canvassed include drugs, violence and machismo.

Mr. Luciano developed the installation as part of a public art project in Newark. Last spring, the artist conducted workshops in community centers and a high school here. Participants were asked what sort of issues concerned their communities, and these ideas were used to design vending machine prizes. Two machines, with the prizes, were then installed around the city. This is the first time one has been shown in a museum.

The title of the installation is ''Cuando las gallinas mean,'' an abbreviation of a Caribbean colloquialism often applied to children about the suppression of thoughts and emotions. The saying relates to the way that the prizes, which cost a quarter, deal with issues that are either repressed or not talked about by Latinos. For example, one prize, a sticker, says, ''Stop selling drugs in front of my house.'' A temporary tattoo collected from another egg reads, ''Real men cry.''

The installation is part of ''The Caribbean Abroad: Contemporary Artists and Latino Migration.'' Organized by E. Carmen Ramos, the museum's curator for cultural engagement, the exhibition explores different facets of migration and diasporic identity in the work of four artists of Caribbean descent. These artists are Nicolas Dumit Estevez, Scherezade Garcia, Juana Valdes, and Mr. Luciano. All live and work in New York City.

Mr. Luciano is this little exhibition's star, or at least its showiest entrant. In another work, ''Coqui Kiddie Ride'' (2002), Mr. Luciano directs his creative fierceness and honesty at expatriate memories of his native Puerto Rico. The work consists of a mechanical ride shaped like a coqui, a Puerto Rican frog, set against a circular wall mural of a tropical island paradise. Hop onto the ride, put in a quarter and the machine lurches into life accompanied by rhythmical frog noises.

The coqui, now endangered in Puerto Rico, is used to symbolize the idea of Puerto Rico as a lost natural paradise. (A legend is that the frog is the embodiment of a native Caribbean Indian chief.) This idea is re-enforced by the mural, made to look old by the artist so as to heighten the sense of nostalgia and sentimentality. But it is a false nostalgia, for the reality of contemporary Puerto Rico is far from an unblemished fantasy world. Sweatshops and urban decay might be more apt.

So how did I get all this from a goofy-looking carnival ride? Well, I checked out the work for a bit, read the wall label and then talked to the curator. Not everyone can talk to the curator, I know, but most viewers would be able to figure this work out on their own with a little bit of patience and a strong desire to learn. Reading contemporary artworks is all about stopping, looking and thinking about what you see. Mostly, visitors to museums these days are in too much of a hurry.

Patient viewing also helps decode other artworks here. ''Souvenir (boxes from paradise)'' (2003), by Scherezade Garcia, consists of pink boxes filled with piles of paper, some of which show drawings of boats and waves, the others dyed blue to resemble the ocean. Scattered about the gallery floor, the boxes evoke the migratory experience and ideas of traveling across water to a new world. Cute drawings on the side of the boxes -- angels, Virgin Mary-like figures, boats, and airplanes -- are easily overlooked.

A welcome flicker of humor enters the exhibition courtesy of Nicolas Dumit Estevez's instructional video about the plantain, a starchy fruit similar to bananas popular throughout the Caribbean, Central and South America. (There is nothing like squashed and fried plantains for breakfast). The video's style and format follow 19th-century colonial ethnographic studies of native flora and fauna, making for some satirical moments. But overall, its progress is mechanical.

Given the growing numbers of Latinos in Newark, and throughout New Jersey, this show should strike a local chord. At any rate, it is terrific to see the Newark Museum diversifying its program. The museum is here for everyone, wherever they come from.

''The Caribbean Abroad: Contemporary Artists and Latino Migration'' is at the Newark Museum, 49 Washington Street, Newark, through Feb. 15. Information: (973)596-6550.

Photos: On display at the Newark Museum's show: installations by Miguel Luciano, left, and Scherezade Garcia, above. Top, a detail from Juana Valdes's ''The Deepest Blue,'' a group of porcelain tiles.

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