The Revolutionary Potential of a ‘Caribbean Future’

A group exhibition at Pérez Art Museum Miami challenges apocalyptic forecasts for a region on the front lines of climate change 

Lavar Munroe, Rehearsal for Reconstruction, 2019, acrylic, spray paint, fabric and human hair on unprimed canvas, 1.9 × 1.6 m. Courtesy: the artist

When Hurricane Dorian hit the northern Bahamas in September, it sat on the Abaco Islands, moving at the glacial pace of roughly two kilometres per hour. Days before, when the storm was on track to hit Puerto Rico – it did not – President Donald Trump tweeted: ‘Will it ever end?’ As if hurricanes end. ‘This is no longer unusual for Caribbean people,’ Erica Moiah James wrote in The New York Times as the storm idled. ‘As I shared video footage with friends in Puerto Rico, they remarked: “I know the sound of that wind.” Is this what it means to be intimately connected by horror? Is there a new creolized language and aesthetic we have become fluent in by default?’ The Caribbean sits on the frontlines of climate change; there, and in my home city of Miami, where a typical rain shower causes obstructive and frequent flooding, we live with its immediate effects. No magical realism – just inherited adaptability, which looks a lot like continual transformation.

Deborah Jack, Salt water requiem … and then the wind whispered, sometimes the aftermath is the storm, 2019, HD video projection with sound. Courtesy: © Deborah Jack; photograph: Madelyn Perez

María Elena Ortiz and Marsha Pearce, curators of ‘The Other Side of Now’ at Pérez Art Museum Miami, gave 14 artists a prompt: what might a Caribbean future look like? ‘One popular perception of the Caribbean pigeonholes it in catastrophic terms,’ Pearce told me, ‘a place characterized by natural disasters, crime and other crippling legacies of colonialism […] When we think about resilience, we think about springing back into shape. Resilience in the Caribbean is a generative force that gives rise to new shapes.’

At the same time as the show was opening in July, a little over 1,600 kilometres away in Puerto Rico, the islanders, or Boricuas, were in the midst of the #RickyRenuncia protests. These demonstrations were spurred by the leaked sexist and homophobic conversations between Governor Ricardo Rosselló and his administration, and a century of colonialism and state violence. My mother, a Puerto Rico native who hasn’t been back in nearly two decades, watched videos of the protests and wept. In a video by The Intercept, a woman at the protest yells into a megaphone: ‘No one will disrespect our people. They have awoken a sleeping giant.’ Here is a vision of a Caribbean future: Puerto Ricans are regenerative and undeterred.

‘The Other Side of Now: Foresight in Contemporary Caribbean Art’, 2019–20, exhibition view. Courtesy: Pérez Art Museum Miami; photograph: Oriol Tarridas

Many of the poetic possibilities proposed by ‘The Other Side of Now’ have, in fact, already occurred – some of them centuries ago. Charles Campbell’s Maroonscape 1: Cockpit Archipelago (2019) renders in black wood the ridges and hollows of Jamaica’s Trelawny and Saint Elizabeth parishes – ‘Cockpit Country’. In the late 17th century, Maroons – Africans and their descendants who’d escaped from slavery – made a home of the region, where they could hide from colonists in its hills. The Caribbean has always shaped itself in such ways, through uprisings, rebellions and self-sustaining communities. ‘I see the Caribbean as the future,’ Campbell writes in the exhibition’s catalogue. ‘We are survivors of, and party to, the schemes that dominate us, and this enables us to participate in a different imaginary.’ Deborah Anzinger’s sculptural Eye (2018) is shaped like both an eye and a tongue, with aloe plants at the top akin to lashes or teeth. In her future Caribbean, ‘new forms of equity’, she writes, are given to ‘nonhuman intelligence, especially plants […] whose labour makes all life possible’. Perhaps a ‘Caribbean future’ is an adjective – a mode of existing – as much as it is a noun.

Nyugen Smith, Bundlehouse: ... because after the fracture, came something like paradise ..., 2019, mixed-media and found-object assemblage, 152 × 229 × 25 cm. Courtesy: the artist

My mom sometimes recalls a story from her childhood in Guayama. As a girl, she wandered to the water one afternoon, where she saw a group of people dancing around a massive cauldron. The wind that day seemed louder; she is still unsure if it was a dream. I remembered this when I saw a 2016 video by Deborah Jack, with its elegantly layered soundtrack: a hazy take on Philip Bliss’s hymn ‘Let Your Lower Lights Be Burning’ (1871) plays over the Rossby whistle, which has the same frequency that emanates from the Caribbean Sea. Named for the Rossby waves – inertial, planetary oscillations – that move across the ocean, the whistle occurs when these undulations reach the Caribbean. It can be heard from space but not by the human ear – unless it’s sped up, when it sounds like a gurgling drone. I wondered briefly if this was what my mother heard, if the unusual wind was specific to this sea, then chided myself for the romance. But this is one of the show’s pleasures: the possibility of a unified, alchemical Caribbean, with the sea its connective tissue. As Jack told me: ‘The Caribbean today emerged quite successfully from the manmade trauma of slavery and continued colonial practices; a lot of my art starts out with the mindset that sites of trauma are also sites of healing. There is strength and value in our shared experiences. So, the region has to look within. We are our own nucleus.’

‘The Other Side of Now: Foresight in Contemporary Caribbean Art’ continues at Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM), USA, until 7 June 2020.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 207 with the headline ‘The Way We Live Now’.

Monica Uszerowicz is a writer and photographer based in Miami, USA.

Issue 207

First published in Issue 207

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