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The Providence Journal

Caribbean Art Focuses On Dark, Political Side

November 11, 2004
Copyright © 2004 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved. 

It isn't easy living in paradise.

Just ask the 30 or so artists in "Island Nations: New Art from Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and the Diaspora," a decidedly un-sunny survey of contemporary Caribbean art at the RISD Museum.

Sure, the scenery is great. But behind the familiar travel- brochure facade lies another Caribbean -- a Caribbean where poverty, dictatorship and repression are as much a part of island life as cruise ships and cocoa butter.

Organized by Judith Tannenbaum and Rene Morales, the museum's contemporary art curator and assistant curator, respectively, "Island Nations" is also unabashedly a show of contemporary art.

In other words, don't go expecting to see a high-concept version of the annual Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. Ditto the popular made-for-export paintings that sun-addled tourists love to tote back from their tropical idylls -- the ones showing happy islanders surrounded by lush palms and quaint thatch-roofed huts.

Instead, Tannenbaum and Morales have assembled works that speak the hip, media-savvy language of contemporary art, though often with a distinctly local accent.

Thus a series of prints by Cuban artist Abel Oliva recalls the work of Pop Art pioneer Andy Warhol. Yet in place of Warhol's soup cans, Oliva depicts "luxuries" that many Cubans can only purchase on the black market -- things like CD's, pocket combs and lip balm.

Meanwhile, a photo-installation by Puerto Rico-based artists Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla takes aim at the American military. Specifically, the work which features close-ups of anti- war and anti-military slogans imprinted in sandy footprints, protests the use of the Puerto Rican island of Vieques as a naval bombing range.

Are such cutting-edge and politically charged works really representative of contemporary art from the Caribbean? Yes, say Tannenbaum and Morales, who spent more than a year working on "Island Nations," including a visit to the 2003 Havana Biennial in Cuba.

At the same time, both curators acknowledge that some viewers may be surprised by the number of non-traditional artworks, many of which would not look out of place in trend-conscious North American exhibits such as New York's Whitney Biennial or Pittsburgh's Carnegie International.

IF NOTHING ELSE, the show illustrates how porous artistic and cultural borders are becoming in today's hot-wired global village.

A good example is Garden of Forbidden Fruits: Duty Free, a sprawling multimedia installation that occupies most of the museum's lower Farago Wing gallery. Created by Charles Juhasz-Alvarado, a Phillipine-born artist now based in Puerto Rico, it takes the idea of an airport duty-free shop and puts it through a series of slyly satiric variations.

My favorite riff: a sequence of text-and-photo panels that purports to show a group of radical vegetarians as they try to sneak fresh fruits and vegetables past U.S. customs inspectors.

Yet Juhasz-Alvarado has a serious point to make. According to the show's short but informative catalog, Garden of Forbidden Fruits is intended as a critique of U.S. trade and immigration policies, which allow American tourists and businesses virtually unlimited access to Puerto Rico, while restricting Puerto Rican immigration to the United States.

Other works are equally critical of government policies, whether it's housing shortages in Cuba, urban poverty in the Dominican Republic or a lack of political and economic autonomy in Puerto Rico.

In fact, while the Caribbean's three main Spanish-speaking islands have vastly different forms of government -- a Communist dictatorship in Cuba, an upper-class oligarchy in the Dominican Republic and a U.S.-backed protectorate in Puerto Rico -- the islands' artists seem united in their opposition to whatever regime happens to be in power.

Dominican artist Tony Capellan, for example, spent months gathering old pairs of the distinctive bright blue sandals worn by the country's urban poor. He then replaced the sandals' thongs with barbed wire to symbolize the pain and hopelessness of their situation.

Meanwhile, two venerable Caribbean traditions - boxing and voodoo -- come together in T.K.O., a work by the Puerto Rican-born (and now Philadelphia-based) conceptual artist Pepon Osorio.

Here the target is political corruption, a problem Osorio playfully and symbolically "knocks out" by filling a box with knives, tourist trinkets, toy soldiers and other objects, then sealing them in with a lid decorated with a pair of bright red-and- white boxing gloves.

OTHER ARTISTS call attention to the lack of real communication between North Americans, who generally think of the Caribbean solely in terms of cruise ships and Club Meds, and Caribbeans themselves.

In this category, look for the wonderfully deadpan photographs of Puerto Rican artist Ignacio Lang (he's the guy holding the old television antennas, as though channeling the ghosts of TV past) and the two battered birdcages -- one filled with old stereo speakers, the other with toy airplanes -- contributed by Cuban artist Esterio Segura.

Given the deep Hispanic and Roman Catholic roots on all three islands, it's not surprising that several artists incorporate religious imagery in their work. Perhaps the most strking is Pilate's Chair, an eerie installation by Dominican artist Pascal Meccariello.

By contrast, Ernesto Pujol's Novice (Novicio frontal), in which the artist poses in the white robes and wimple of a novice nun, seems both derivative (wasn't Cindy Sherman doing this kind of thing in the early '80s?) and contrived.

Architectural references are also popular. They range from the earnest (Elia Alba's mixed-media homage to victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks) to the clever (Chemi Rosado Seijo's repainting of an entire Cuban village) to the poetic (Maria Elena Gonzalez's ghostly recreation of her Cuban parents' house).

Even better are the haunting camera-obscura photographs of Cuban- born (and now Boston-based) artist Abelardo Morrell. To make his photographs, Morrell turns entire rooms into cameras by sealing off doors and windows, then allowing tiny amounts of outside light to enter and expose sheets of photographic paper over several hours.

The results are striking: the interior of the room is reproduced with crystal clarity, while images from the outside world appear upside down and reversed on the room's wall and ceiling.

"Island Nations: New Art from Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and the Diaspora" runs through Jan. 30 at the RISD Museum, 224 Benefit St. in Providence. Hours: Tues.-Sun. 10-5. Admission: adults $8, seniors $5, college students with I.D. $3, youths age 5-18 $2, under 5 free. (Note: museum admission is free noon-1:30 on Fridays, 10-1 on Sundays and all day on the last Saturday of the month. Admission is also free on Gallery Nights, the third Thursday of the month.) Phone: (401) 454-6500.

In conjunction with the "Island Nations" exhibit, the RISD Museum is sponsoring a number of special events, including artist-led tours, a film series and a symposium. The symposium will be held Nov. 20 from 1 to 5 p.m. at the museum. For information on other events, call the museum or visit

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