A Complex Survey of the Caribbean Diaspora in Chicago Goes Beyond Geographical Boundaries

Mentioning the Caribbean may conjure images of lush landscapes and isolated leisure on a beach, of palm trees and a shared sea. Many will think of islands, big and small. But whose Caribbean is this? Perhaps we should also think of the Caribbean diaspora in Britain, Canada, France, the Netherlands, Denmark, and the United States; the Chinese and Indian immigrants who were brought to the region as indentured workers; the scattered descendants of people forced from Africa during the slave trade. The geographical boundaries by which the Caribbean is often defined belie its far-reaching culture and history.

“Forecast Form: Art in the Caribbean Diaspora, 1990s–Today” at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago conveys these complexities with rigor, beauty, and aplomb. The exhibition (curated by MCA’s Carla Acevedo-Yates) includes works by 37 artists who are from, or born or based in, the Caribbean, along with a few “provocations,” or inclusion of artists not strictly from the region, that allude to shared histories and methods of movement, dislocation, and displacement. With this, the show aims to question the notion of the regional exhibition by responding to the history of Caribbean exhibitions, from the 1990s to the present, that have been characterized by multiculturalism and globalization. The show’s title nods to weather as a metaphor for changing forms in artistic practice, and to the Caribbean as a bellwether of our times.

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The exhibition deftly claims space by incorporating every bit of it available. Organized by interconnected themes such as territories, formal rhythms, exchanges, and traces, the show provides enough points of reference while also letting the viewer free-associate and consider what Acevedo-Yates calls the “mechanics of diaspora,” with some of the works emphasizing formal and geographical movement as metaphor for transformation.

View of an installation consisting of Yoruba spears, African and Chinese stools, and disks of sugar in various states of production.
María Magdalena Campos-Pons, Sugar/Bittersweet, 2010, installation view, at MCA Chicago

Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s “Untitled” (1995), a black-and-white photograph of a lone bird flying in a cloudy sky, is featured right outside the exhibition’s galleries, as well as in various sites across Chicago. From the MCA’s own loading dock to several stations along the city’s elevated rail system, the piece entices viewers to imagine themselves as the bird: perhaps free, alone, or migrating. Similarly exhibited as a prelude to the show in a space unto itself is a masterful seven-channel video installation by Deborah Jack titled the fecund, the lush and the salted land waits for a harvest…her people…ripe with promise, wait until the next blowing season (2022). The immersive installation features colorful shots filmed around Jack’s mother’s home in St. Maarten overlapping black-and-white segments from a 1948 Dutch documentary about the island. The videos show colonial archival footage of salt-mining along with the personal archive of the sky, pomegranate trees, sea foam, and the ocean along the shoreline. The images highlight the shore as a place of identity-formation and a signifier of in-betweenness for people who exist within the diasporas. To someone from an island, the shore can be a place of connection as well as a boundary, and the dichotomy is echoed by the emphasis on salt-mining as an extractive economy symbolic of both corrosion and preservation.

The shore is also a protagonist in one of the most evocative symbolic images in the exhibition, of Cuban artist Zilia Sánchez performing by the north shore of Puerto Rico, repeatedly throwing her painting Soy isla (I Am an Island) into the Atlantic Ocean. The resulting video, encuentrismo – ofrenda o retorno (encounter –offering or return) is displayed alongside the warped painting at the beginning of the exhibition, and the artist’s action evokes the ritual offerings to Yemayá, the Yoruba goddess of the sea. The shore is where Sánchez finds herself.

A woman throws a painting with a raised point (resembling a breast) into the ocean. The video still shows the time and date stamp.
Zilia Sánchez, encuentrismo—ofrenda o retorno (encounter—offering or return), 2000, from the series “Soy Isla: Compréndelo y retírate” (I Am an Island: Understand and Retreat), video, 39 minutes, 45 seconds.

Some of the most accomplished works in the exhibition are newly commissioned pieces by Alia Farid, Marton Robinson, and Sandra Brewster that take full advantage of the barrel vault architecture of MCA Chicago’s halls, which seem to enshrine the pieces. In Blur – Wilson Harris (2022), Brewster presents a blurred portrait of the Guyana-born writer that was rubbed into the museum’s walls, suggesting connections between Harris’s own nonlinear writing as a vehicle for unknowability and Édouard Glissant’s “right to opacity.” Meanwhile, Farid’s Mezquitas de Puerto Rico (2022) is a depiction of an imagined landscape of mosques and Islamic centers in Puerto Rico, as interpreted by textile artists from Iran in the form of a gigantic prayer rug. This work shares space with Christopher Cozier’s Gas Men (2014), a video installation featuring two men in business suits who perform cowboy-like poses and tricks by spinning gas nozzles above their heads or pointing menacingly at each other in a B-movie version of corporate masculinity. These works accentuate underrepresented realities of the Caribbean: while Kuwait-born Farid’s points out that the area is home to a significant number of Arab peoples, Trinidad-born Cozier centers his country’s oil production at the intersection of global industry, as yet another example of an extractive economy that permeates post-independence life.

A site-specific artwork showing a blurred black-and-white photo of Wilson Harris.
Sandra Brewster, Blur – Wilson Harris, 2022, installation view, at MCA Chicago.

The earliest piece in the exhibition is David Medalla’s Cloud Canyons (1963–2014), consisting of plastic tubes that emit soap bubbles in ways that constantly change the work’s form and offer a hypnotizing break in the middle of the show. The Philippines-born artist’s ever-changing diasporic identity, which encompasses his multiple experiences of migration, resonates with the kinetic quality of the sculpture.

Cosmo Whyte’s beaded curtain piece Beyond the Boundary (2022) recreates an archival image of a man holding a sign that reads “Black Wash”—a play on the cricket term “white wash”—in a celebratory audience scene from a historic win streak of the West Indies’s team over the English in 1984. This piece invites viewers to enter the second half of the exhibition, beginning with a gallery of works that reflect on the archive, including Robinson’s La Coronación de La Negrita (2022). The mostly black-and-white mural critiques representations of Blackness and racial violence in Costa Rica, both historical and contemporary, by mixing religious imagery from Catholic and African traditions in a reinterpretation of the cover of Carlos Meléndez and Quince Duncan’s history book El negro en Costa Rica.

A large-scale textile based work that is mostly abstract and made of vintage saris, fabric, and ghungroo bells.
Suchitra Mattai, An Ocean Cradle, 2022, vintage saris, fabric, and ghungroo bells, 10 feet by 15 feet.

Another notable work is Suchitra Mattai’s An Ocean Cradle, a large-scale textile piece made of vintage saris given to the artist and bells that reflect on her Indo-Caribbean heritage, migration, and matrilineal knowledge. Though not strictly archivistic, the collecting nature of the work builds an interwoven archive of the histories of women in Mattai’s life. This oceanic landscape connects them in multiple ways by bringing people together across oceans, reminiscent of the migration of Indian populations to the Caribbean during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Toward the end of the exhibition, in Teresita Fernández’s 2020 work Rising (Lynched Land), a monumental sculpture of a palm tree hovers over the gallery floor and confronting viewers with conflicting ideas that merge in this plant. As a sign of tropical leisure and a metaphor for colonial exploitation, the palm tree symbolizes the oppressed bodies of Caribbean peoples in the wake of violent histories and environmental disasters. Its roots, covered in burlap and rope, seem ready to be replanted.

After that, an unforgettable ending to “Forecast Form” is provided by María Magdalena Campos-Pons’s Sugar/Bittersweet (2010), an installation consisting of Yoruba spears, African and Chinese stools, and disks of sugar in various states of production, from dark molasses to refined white sugar, as metaphors of racial categories. The work evokes the violent landscape of the plantation or people assembled in a rigid grid of power—the latter, one hopes, with weapons that will be picked up to fight back.

Source: artnews.com

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