The US public got its first taste of bananas at the 1876 United States Centennial Exhibition. The Philadelphia event’s many displays included the new typewriter, Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone, the Statue of Liberty’s still-unattached right arm, and an exotic banana tree. The plant was so popular that it required its own security guard, and curious visitors could buy and try its phallic fruit for just 10 cents. At the time, bananas were largely unknown outside of their native locations, but they quickly became common household foods in Europe and North America.
Today, bananas are the most consumed fruit in the world, with an industry that generates 12 billion dollars per year. Developed countries account for 80% of the fruit’s consumers, though 75% of global exports come from Latin America and the Caribbean, where bananas are the most grown fruit. The crop’s dominance and ubiquity has had serious and far-reaching implications for the region, engendering exploitative labor systems, climate change, and migration.
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La Fiebre del Banano / Banana Craze is the first major study to examine the banana’s role in shaping culture, nature, and politics in the areas where it’s grown. The digital exhibition and research project is co-curated by Dr. Blanca Serrano, the project director at the Institute for Studies on Latin American Art, in New York, and Dr. Juanita Solano, an assistant professor of art history at the Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá, Colombia. Together, Serrano and Solano have gathered nearly 100 banana-related artworks by artists dating from 1960 to today. The database is divided into three themes — identities, ecosystems, and violences — but the online interface also allows viewers to search and encounter works alphabetically, chronologically, and geographically. The site is available in both English and Spanish, and will continue to be updated into the future.
La Fiebre del Banano / Banana Craze emerged from a 2017 exhibition that Serrano and Solano co-curated at Cuchifritos Gallery + Project Space in New York. “It was a small show, but it showed us that we could tell a very complicated history through just one fruit,” the curators explained to Hyperallergic in a recent email. “We saw that we could tell the sociopolitical history of Latin America in the early 20th century through the banana.”
Standouts from the online display include Claudia Claremi’s installation La memoria de las frutas (Puerto Rico) (The Memory of Fruits [Puerto Rico]) (2015-16), which users can experience through installation images and a linked video. The piece records residents of San Juan, Puerto Rico, as they describe the island’s native fruits. Shot in black and white on 35 mm and 16 mm film, the photos and videos show speakers’ hand gestures as they reminisce about these fruits, which have largely been pushed out to make way for more marketable crops like bananas. With its soft camera focus and spoken recollections about physical and sensory loss, Claremi’s piece poignantly conveys the intimate connections between memories, experiences, and the land.
Another work, the series Fotografías de las antiguas instalaciones de los campamentos de la UFCO (Photographs of the Old Camp Installations of the UFCO) (2014), by Elkin Calderón, captures the abandoned buildings of the United Fruit Company in Magdalena, Colombia, where the company massacred protesting banana workers in 1928. Calderón’s pictures radiate a haunting stillness, showing the camp’s current state of decay and hinting at its tragic past. This and other works are accompanied by detailed texts that offer deeper context. La Fiebre del Banano / Banana Craze uses its dynamic, extensively researched online interface to its advantage, encouraging viewers to explore and discover at their own pace. The project shows us that the banana is much more than just a fruit.
La Fiebre del Banano / Banana Craze is online and co-curated by Dr. Blanca Serrano and Dr. Juanita Solano.