FLOW: Economies of the Look and Creativity in Contemporary Art from the Caribbean

Curated by Elvis Fuentes with Meyken Barreto

Changes in global economy have impacted the Caribbean in the last decades. There was a shift from traditional plantation systems and exporting commodities, such as sugar, tobacco and indigo to oil and tourism industries. No less important are the economies of creativity, entertainment and connectivity, the so-called ‘orange economy,’ which finds fertile ground in the region. Sports, with baseball players as new commodities; music, from salsa to reggae to reggaeton; economies of the look, from skin toning to Dominican hairstyles to Venezuela’s beauty pageant culture; this aesthetic arsenal, more visible in the cultural landscape of cities, finds reflection in the works of contemporary artists. Attentive, critical and open to understanding the human challenges that such changes represent for the region, they also contribute to the international aesthetic dialogue which places the arts as a central tool, a sensitive engine, for the economic growth and social development of the Caribbean.

FLOW: Economies of the look and creativity in contemporary art from the Caribbean showcases works by twenty-nine artists from fifteen countries. Drawing from IDB collection, as well as private collectors, art galleries, and from the artists themselves, Flow explores the way in which creative popular expressions, often dismissed as minor arts, are employed by artists to critically comment on today’s image-driven cultures.

In the urban dictionary, “flow” refers to the rapper’s ability to rhyme in a skillful manner; it’s an aesthetic quality that denotes mastery of improvisation and creativity, which often turns into power and prestige. However, “flow” also stands for an attitude of tacit approval of what’s mainstream and widely accepted; which is why “going with the flow” is a popular motto for adapting to prevailing attitudes, offering little resistance to them. It often means yielding to peer pressure in detriment of one’s own interest; here the collective trumps the individual. Thus, in the semantic field of contemporary urban culture, “flow” comprises almost counterpointing meanings; it is as fluid a concept as the term itself.

In the context of this exhibition, the term “flow” serves to underscore one of the most important trends in contemporary visual culture in the Caribbean – the appropriation of elements of popular culture in relation to the economies of the look, which foster concepts of embellishment and image-making throughout the region and its diaspora. This includes make-up, hairstyle, nail art, aesthetic surgery, tattooing, piercing, and other body modifications, as well as fashion and the jobs of costume design, and performing arts developed in the context of the carnival; all these become an aesthetic arsenal from which artists depart in dealing with hot-button economic, and socio-political issues. Borrowing motifs, mimicking methods and caricaturing attitudes in relation to ideals of beauty, these artists unveil the often-invisible straits that connect beauty and power, and revise gender and racial stereotypes.

The exhibition is divided in three sections. Surfaces includes works dealing with the notion of appearance as cultural signifier, which plays an important role in the construction of aesthetic subjectivities in a dynamic dialogue with established canons of beauty. Interested in the expectations of femininity, Jessica Lagunas realizes an endurance performance of sorts when she exaggeratedly applies nail polish, lipstick, and eyelash tint on herself until the containers are emptied. Lagunas effectively mocks the oversaturation of makeup which Latinas are expected to display before going out on a date or even to work. In her mixed media drawings, Nicole Awai combines the technical and the capricious. A legend of commercial names of nail polishes which she employs to paint, suggests an appearance of sophistication of the banal. Details of mechanical parts and gingerbread architecture point to the typical and modular, meanwhile the double portrait stresses her interest in the complexities of human psyche.

Marlon Griffith often designs carnival costumes and parade performances of great impact in the context of art events. In this series of photographs, however, manifestations of popular aesthetics turn intimate as they permeate such a traditionally private practice as the powdering the neck. This whimsical gesture highlights the centrality of creativity in ordinary people’s lives. Likewise, Firelei Baéz lets her character’s imagination fly when she depicts a woman’s elaborate hairstyle being done by birds. Fantasy imbues this scene, which suggests a special moment of playfulness and solace. On the opposite extreme of the spectrum is Kelly Sipannah Mary. Her photograph of a woman in a provocative pose featuring overblown lips is blunt and direct as it deals with sexist cultural fixations that often translate into violence against the female body. Generically titled Vagina, her current series highlights the inherent tensions within domestic spaces, where comfort often masks forms of domestication and submission.

From a less individualist, but rather socio-economic perspective, Jairo Alfonso presents a horror vacui drawing, informed by the excess of consumerism. He depicts an accumulation of objects, devices and accessories, which flood the pictorial space. They have in common their linkage to the industries of beauty and aesthetics, underscoring beauty canon as a main concern of contemporaneity. On the other hand, Ebony Patterson exercises a cultural critique of a social space that she has been studying for years, Jamaica’s dancehall. Her installation explores the relationship between dance, music, fashion and dancehall culture imagery through an ultrabaroque language that denote excess and the blurring of boundaries between genders and identities. Interested in the troublesome imagery of the ethnographic tradition, Omar Richardson focuses on recovering the memory of symbols that links the Caribbean’s canon with African ritualistic practices. He depicts characters strengthening this trans-Atlantic continuity.

Politics is at the heart of Ana Olema’s indagation on the socialist body in her natal Cuba. She mimics the practices of body modifications by proposing to create a tattoo with an official emblem from Cuba’s hegemonic discourse in the context of the school system. This tattoo was to replace the original emblem, which students receive for free. Aware of the association of tattoo with prison and marginal cultures in Cuba, she adopted the problematic idea as an official proposition to the Ministry of Education. In Venezuela, mecca of beauty pageant culture in the Caribbean, Regina José Galindo realized a performance reflecting on the invasive procedures to which models submit their bodies in order to undergo modifications in pursue of an ideal of beauty. Cut through the line is a poignant critique of this practices. It consisted of a surgeon drawing on her body the multiple modifications she would need to undergo to perfect her own body.

Acces(ories) explore the indexicality of objects from the material culture of urban centers, and how they come to impact one’s image. From the fashionistas’ obsession with brands to the excessive nature of the bling-bling to the omnipresence of weaponry on the streets, these objects serves as codes of access to underlying realities.

Fashion informs the artistic practice of Gerard Hanson and Sheena Rose. In Gun Salute, Hanson intervenes with acrylic paint a photograph of a young black man. The man stands in a dignified pose against a wall, looking somewhere outside the picture. With a thick, orange stroke, Hanson creates a halo of sorts around his Afro hairstyle. Combating negative stereotypes of blacks in the media, he highlights the bright, colorful spots in an often black and white image. Lighthearted and playful, the video animation by Sheena Rose also combines the mechanically reproduced (video footage) and the hand-made (drawing and painting). It shows her walking around the city. She performs her quotidian actions like a self-aware consumer of banality, a celebrity in the making. Similar in tone, Winston Strick’s American Woman relates to consumerism in the context of tourist economy and the souvenir, this time around presenting the stereotype of the female consumer of goods. In both cases, humor is a key tool to tackle the issue without overexploiting it.

From the culture of celebrity also Gonzalo Fuenmayor and Miguel Luciano appropriate and resignify fruitful motifs. In his painstakingly realized drawing, Fuenmayor depicts a larger than life headdress, a cornucopia of fruits popularized by Carmen Miranda, epitome of Hollywood’s symbol of the tropics. Sunk under the weight of her headdress, she becomes merely a base for the display of wasted exuberance. Luciano, on the other hand, covers a plantain with platinum to create a sui generis sculpture of the so-called bling, the jewelry piece that rapper icons usually employ as markers of identity. The shiny, hard surface of the platinum hides a soft, rotten core. This expression of power and masculinity find an interesting correlation in Freddy Rodríguez’s golden portrait of Alex Rodríguez’s signature swing. Popular musicians and baseball players are today’s most precious exports from the Caribbean, where scouting practices resemble exploitative farm systems of the past.

Comfort is central to Jessica Kairé’s operation to manage brute force, which she identifies not only with outlaws, but also with repressive actions of state apparatus. In this multi-part series, Kairé remakes grenades, guns, bullets as well as manoplas and batons in soft materials as a way to counter the culture of violence in urban centers. Responding to similar concerns, Límber Vilorio has developed a whole line of enhanced protective items, such as cars, tires, and motorcycle helmets entirely covered with bullet shells.

Countering this omnipresent culture of ferocity and hypermasculinity associated with urban culture, Elvis López creates a narrative of passion and perdition in Aurora’s Ecstasy. She-Devil is a fictitious character, a seductress who tramps men through her good looks and witchcraft and devours them. In López’s installation, conceived as a crime scene of sorts from which She-Devil has rushed out, viewers find evidence of her vulnerability – her glass shoe comfortably resting on a cushion reminds viewer of Cinderella story, questioning their assumption that she is evil.

Amusing as they often are, popular celebrations sometimes end in distress. Euphoric energy turns into chaos. These are topics grouped in Vanity Fair, a reflection on the paradisiac image of the Caribbean that is  propagated by tourism. Abundance of nature and visual richness coexist with awareness of mortality.

Remy Jungerman’s inspiration comes from the Maroon culture in Suriname and from Western trends of avant-garde art. His work features abstracts patterns (referring to both modernist and traditional Surinamese fabrics) juxtaposed to the photographic image of a maroon. On top of this, and centered in the pictorial space, is the silhouette of a carnival mask, the Red Devil. The palimpsest neutralizes each image, which appear convincingly silent on the picture plane. On the other hand, Edouard Duval Carrié features the miscegenation of the region by portraying the image of a Erzulie, surrounded by religious motifs from different cultures coexisting together in Caribbean imaginary.

Expressions of popular art also deal with outdoor festivities and rituals, such as Mireille Delice’s drapeau works, and Althea Bastien’s batik designs. Delice’s drapeau depicts a scene of La Reine brisée using the traditional iconography of Vodun flags. Pioneering in  Batik for decades in Trinidad, Bastien showcases five masks of caribbean carnival in imaginative shapes.

The take on the concept of Vanitas, a long-standing genre in the history of Western art, is quite peculiar in some artists in the show. Inspired by the idea of dead animal as trophy heads for hunters, Alessandra Expósito uses chicken skulls and decorates them in meticulous ways, adding horns, inlaid incrustations and fictional names to create a fetish object of sort. Meanwhile Joscelyn Gardner depicts botanical specimens that were secretly used as natural abortifacient on 18th century Caribbean plantations. They appear entangled with contemporary braided hairstyles tied to iron collars and other torture tools that were used against female slaves accused of abortion. This feeling of cultural and historical discomfort is also shared by Marta Pérez García’s colorful and baroque engravings. She uses a reduction woodcut procedure in which the matrix is lost as the work is completed. The horror vacui compositions contrast with the poignancy of the loss; and the vivid colors counter the grotesque faces of characters immersed in an environment of hostile signs.

Abundance and exoticism find expression in Keith Morrison’s watercolors, Market III and Market IV. He revisits the genre of the still life by dealing with stereotypical images of the nature and culture of the Caribbean. Colorful bowls are filled with tropical fruits and plants, animals, musical instruments, and clay figures reminiscent of aboriginal idols and African slaves. Despite this exuberance, Morrison strikes a somber tone due to the stillness of the picture. Far from static, the playful video by Donna Colon and Jonathan Harker reanimates the genre by means of performing a Tropical Zinc-phony of mangoes rolling on rooftops of zinc panels in Panama. The path of the fallen fruit, at times followed by other mangoes in a contagious movement, may be seen as a metaphor of art itself for it often one who sets in motion an entire symphony in the face of adversity.