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The international diffusion of Caribbean art

What can we say today in 2012 about the international diffusion of Caribbean art?
 Lecture of Dominique Brebion  on 15 May 2012 at the University of Havana (11th Havana Biennial)

11 Atlantide Caraibe

It is an issue that concerns us all but to try to understand it fully, it is essential to distinguish between :

  • institutional diffusion in museums and the biennials held in art capitals with the opportunity to penetrate the international market through galleries and auctions
  • the influence of prominent artists on an individual level (Lam, Kcho, Télémaque) and the diffusion of Caribbean art, which leads to the question – What is Caribbean art? Journalists and enthusiasts are fond of all-encompassing and easy formulas but, under this label, each of us probably imagines something different
  • diffusion born in the Caribbean and diffusion developed in art capitals
  • the various vectors of international diffusion: exhibitions, sales, publications, digital media

21Curating in the caribbean

How is the image of the Caribbean developed in the international circuit?

It is clear that artists like Lam, Télémaque and Kcho have been accepted in the institutional diffusion circuit as well as on international markets but if we consider what we refer to as Caribbean art, for the sake of convenience, we have, of course, recently been able to see the start of an upturn in institutional diffusion but still a great lack on the international art dealer circuit. The Caribbean is not considered as an emerging market such as India and China have become over the last few years.

In 1984, the Havana Biennial was the first, and for a long time the only one, to encourage third world art by inviting critiques and professionals from around the world to the event, which resulted in the emergence of a network and new projects. For example, Hamdi El Hattar, the initiator of the Karibische Kunst Heute Project, showcased in Kassel in 1994, was present at the Havana Biennial in 1989.

Hence the vital importance to acknowledge the fact that the Caribbean impetus was born in the archipelago itself, over fifteen years after the pioneering Havana Biennial (1984), but from the beginning of the 1990s (Gala di Arte Curacao 1990, Carib Art  Curacao 1992, Biennial of Caribbean and Central American Painting, Dominican Republic 1992). The five hundredth anniversary of the encounter of two worlds was, without a doubt, the catalyst.

14 Biennale de Liverpool

Yet, the enthusiasm of the precursors did not preclude a certain amount of trial and error.

How could the artistic production of the islands – the leader because of their history (Jamaica, Cuba, Dominican Republic) or the Latin American mainland countries (Venezuela, Colombia) be linked to and compared with that of the other islands that were still in an artistic structuring phase (Martinique, Barbados, Guadeloupe, Trinidad) and, of course, not forgetting that of the myriad of microscopic territories. Three of the largest and most populated islands are home to the oldest art schools and museums and to the most widely publicized national and international biennials and benefit from the synergy of the Latin American continent, which is more than happy to integrate these little Spanish-speaking sisters.

The diffusion of contemporary Caribbean art during the first decade of 2000 was intensely different from that of the decade of the 1990s. The Caribbean began to be more widely present in American and European museums.

Preceded shortly before by the exhibition in the Museo Extremeño e Iberoamericano de Arte Contemporáneo (MEIAC) in Badajoz and in the la Casa de America de Madrid, Caribe Insular: exclusión, fragmentación y paraíso  (1998), several other internationally-reaching events promoted the contemporary art of the Caribbean islands throughout the first decade of the twenty-first century, in famous museums (Brooklyn Museum , Tate Liverpool , Art Museum of Americas ), in art capitals (New York, Liverpool, Paris , Washington) and in established art centres in Hartford (Rockstone & Botheel) and Miami (The Global Caribbean ), in the Canary Islands and in the Caribbean (Horizons Insulaires ).

From one decade to the next, each time that we switched from a totally-national selection to a curatorial practice based on thematic and artistic criteria, the image of the Caribbean became much stronger and more coherent. This progress can also be clearly seen between the first painting biennials and the more recent Dominican Republic Triennial, between the first participations of Caribbean countries in the Sao Paulo biennials in 1994 and in 1996 and the group show during this same biennial, The Caribbean: a black and white history in 1998. The more recent events such as Infinite Island and Rockstone & Botheel highlight the works of art more than national representativeness and the artistic production of the Caribbean rather than each island of the Caribbean.

For 2012, two prestigious exhibitions are planned: Who are more Sy-Fy than us at the Kade Kunsthal in Amersfoort in the Netherlands and Caribbean Crossroad of the World in three museums in New York.

A new Caribbean impetus began to develop from the end of the first decade of 2000. It is also worth mentioning the projects initiates in the region: Atlantide Caraïbe (2008), Vous êtes ici (2010) , Caribe expandido (2011) , Wrestling with the image (2011) regardless whether they were presented in the region or elsewhere. The Caribbean impetus, promoting the exposure of artists of the area has pursued its development: For example, the Caribbean Pavilion at the Liverpool Biennial in 2009  coordinated by the International Curators’ Forum. The positive developments following the seminar at the Fondation Clément and at the AICA Southern Caribbean in 2008: during the seminar, several international institutions and experts as well as various representatives of contemporary art networks were present. Following the exchanges made during this seminar, the HKW (Haus der Kulturen der Welt)of Berlin will receive the artist Bertrand Grosol in 2012, The Fondation Clément has created Trois par Trois, three individual exhibitions of artists from Martinique to Paris in partnership with the Galerie Robert, the Galerie Les filles du Calvaire, the Galerie Anne de Villepoix as well as the OMA Project as part of the Overseas Year. The presence of the Caribbean Crossroads of the World curatorial team at the 2008 seminar also helped integrate artists from Martinique in the exhibition.

2Caribe insular

Publishing houses and digital media also participate in expanding the reach of current-day Caribbean art.

Along with Small Axe, published by the Duke University Press since 1997 (37 issues), new reviews have been created: Arte Sur , Arte por excellencias , ARC , but the language barrier frequently hinders the circulation of ideas:

Which linguistic group has potentially the biggest readership ?

  • 25,068,273 Spanish speakers in the Caribbean in addition to the 365,000,000 inhabitants of the Latin American continent
  • 8,670,419 English speakers, who may capture the interest of some British and American readers
  • 1,037,723 French speakers, if we do not count the 9,923,243 Haitians who, as a result of economic, political and climatic difficulties have lost the impetus that existed when Lam and Césaire visited Port au Prince to take part in seminars or when Breton and Malraux participated in the international acknowledgement of Haitian naive art.
  • There are less Dutch speakers (around 8,000).

Special issues of European reviews have been dedicated to Caribbean art: Art Absolument in November 2011, Papeles de cultura contemporanea No.14 in December 2011.

Works such as Curating in the Caribbean presented at the Wifredo Lam Centre during the 11th Havana Biennial have also been published.

But, we must also and above all take into account the e-magazines: Arte America a digital online review published by the Casa de Las Americas since 2001 (27 issues), and more recently the excellent Artcronica published online recently, Draconian Switch whose co-editors are Christopher Cozier and Richard Rawlins: sixteen issues have been published since 2010, and also the most recent Uprising Art In addition to reviews, e-catalogues greatly enhance the exchange of news and information about exhibitions and artists.

Blogs and websites play a key role in this field: two of which I shall mention – Arte sur, homonym of the Cuban review that summarizes everything to do with Latin American art: artists, events, curators, exhibitions, critiques. And secondly, the AICA Southern Caribbean website.

As Annie Paul (The Global Caribbean Catalogue) and Christopher Cozier (Wrestling with the Image) have already emphasized, the development of digital media has modified the way artists work and the way they are diffused. As such, aficionados are able to follow Sheena Rose’s artistic creation and exhibition preparation step-by-step on her blog: sroseart.tumblr.com. And even without travelling, you can watch a performance by Ebony Patterson – Cheap and Clean on Facebook, live and direct on the screen, and at the same time visit Fresh Milk (St. Georges, Barbados), at the Bermuda National Gallery (Hamilton, Bermuda), and at Alice Yard (Port-of-Spain, Trinidad), at the Popop Studios (Nassau, The Bahamas) and at the Kentucky Museum of Art (Lexington, Kentucky).

The priority today is to consolidate and strengthen a Caribbean network so that we may optimize our visibility.

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