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To be or not to be caribbean?


19Art AbsWhat do the words “Caribbean art” suggest to today’s art-lover? A single type of exotic production confined to the Caribbean region or a few individual approaches rooted in the present and widely disseminated? Is it still relevant to group these artists together under a geographical banner? How can artists from the French West Indies increase their visibility and become a dynamic presence in the international market? How close has the Caribbean come to achieving this objective today?

Undoubtedly, the Caribbean has yet to be built. What is known as “the Caribbean” is a group of 38 territories stretching over more than 5.2 million km2, i.e. 10 times the area of metropolitan France, whereas the Caribbean islands  span about 235,000 km2, equivalent to the size of the United Kingdom. The region is geographically, linguistically and politically fragmented, but endowed with common characteristics due to the shared process of “Creolization”.[1] This family resemblance is unmistakably perceptible in Caribbean rhythms: calypso, soka, salsa, reggae and dancehall.

 After a long period of ignoring each other, attempts at cooperation gradually developed starting in the 1940s with the Anglo-American Caribbean Commission[2], Carifta[3] and Caricom[4], whereas, at the same time, the decision to create Overseas Departments in 1946[5] further isolated the three French departments in the Americas. Though the French-speaking islands of the archipelago have increasingly laid claim to their cultural roots, particularly beginning in the 1980s, their vertical relationships with the colonial authorities have continued to take precedence and trade within the archipelago has remained limited. Thus, in the mid-1980s, only two steel companies in Martinique maintained partnerships with the Caribbean. Almost 20 years later, in 1998, Martinique’s relations with its immediate environment still accounted for only 2.7 % of its trade. Indeed, there is no efficient transport system among the islands, where the standard of living is still extremely variable. There are no organized distribution networks and linguistic differences also remain a significant barrier. Nevertheless, informal exchanges continue and cooperative bodies are becoming more assertive.

From a cultural standpoint, organizations such as the Museums Association of the Caribbean (MAC), the Association of Caribbean University, Research and Institutional Libraries (Acuril) and the Southern Caribbean section of the International Association of Art Critics (AICA-CS) unite professionals in the field. The University of the West Indies (UWI) has an enrollment of 39,000 students on four campuses in Barbados, Jamaica, Trinidad, Antigua and Barbuda. The cultural integration of the Dutch Caribbean in 1992 is more recent, whereas a strong feeling of belonging to Latin America continues in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean.

In contemporary art, the Caribbean  has expanded its influence outside its borders through some ten international exhibitions: participation in three biennials in São Paulo in 1994, 1996 and 1998, Caribbean Visions: contemporary paintings & sculptures au Center of Fine Arts in Miami in 1995, Caribe insular: exclusiõn, fragmentacíon y paraíso at the Museo Extremeño e Iberoamericano in Badajoz and Madrid in 1998, Infinite Island: Contemporary Caribbean Art at the Brooklyn Museum de New York in 2008, Afro Modern: Journeys through the Black Atlantic  at the Tate Liverpool in 2010.

In France, the public had to wait until 2009 for the first major event devoted to contemporary Caribbean art – Kreyol Factory – at La Villette. And a large-scale project is currently under preparation for 2012: Caribbean: Crossroads of the World designed by three New York, the Museo del Barrio, the Queens Museum and the Studio Museum of Harlem.

A close look at the list of mixed-media artists selected for these events reveals references to nine artists in particular: Christopher Cozier (Trinidad), Anna Lee Davis (Barbados), Ernest Breleur (Martinique), Alex Burke (Martinique), Jorge Pineda (Dominican Republic), Mario Benjamin (Haiti), Joscelyn Gardner (Barbados), Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla (Puerto Rico). The art market value of the works of these already established Caribbean artists seldom appears on information websites. When it does, no more than three auction results  are shown for Burke, Pineda, Allora and Calzadilla, whereas 18 results are posted for Bruno Peinado, 20 for Valérie Jouve, 110 for Wilhem Sasnal and 527 for Andres Serrano. This clearly shows that Caribbean still has a long way to go to achieve international recognition.

While Wifredo Lam, Hervé Télémaque, Kcho and now Allora and Calzadilla have paved the way, the Caribbean is not seen as an emerging market. If regional or inter-regional markets are not yet structured, how can artists hope to be included in the international market? Even today, there is not a single gallery from the Caribbean islands present at international fairs such as the Fiac or ArtBasel, where barely four galleries from Mexico, Brazil and Colombia represent the continental Caribbean and Latin America.

Boosting the visibility of Caribbean artists will require creating professional organizations to disseminate their works that are familiar with the workings of the international market and able to generate interest among collectors in Caribbean creation, undoubtedly with the support of the diaspora. It goes without saying that the aim is to encourage the emergence of Caribbean visual artists on the international scene on the basis of their creative originality and not to promote the recognition of an overall aesthetic current labeled “Caribbean art”.

Since 1998, the cultural players in the Caribbean have been working together to widen the influence of the region’s contemporary visual artists. This special issue of Art Absolument is one of the steps in that process but it reveals only a very small part of the artistic creation that is now proliferating in the Caribbean.

Dominique Brebion


[1]   “Creolization is the mixing of arts and languages to produce the unexpected. It is a way of continually transforming without losing oneself in the process. It is a space in which being dispersed allows people to come together, in which culture shocks, disharmony, disorder and interference become creative driving forces. It is the creation of an open, inextricable culture that is shaking up the uniformity imposed by the major media and artistic centers. It is taking place in every field, in music, the plastic arts, literature, cinema and cuisine at a dizzying pace.”

Édouard Glissant – Le Monde, February 3, 2011.

[2] The Caribbean Commission, set up in 1946, was the first instrument for international cooperation aimed at economic development. It was to become the Caribbean Organization in 1961 but was dissolved in 1965.

[3] Carifta, founded in 1968, introduced measures governing commercial labeling among the member states and set up the Caribbean Development Bank.

[4] Caricom was set up in 1973 to promote the cooperation process.

Finally, since 1981, the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) has been seeking to boost the development of the poorest islands.

[5] The Departmentalization Law adopted in 1946 transformed the former French colonies of Guadeloupe, Martinique, Reunion Island and Guyana into French Overseas Departments.




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