Relational Undercurrents: Contemporary Art of the Caribbean Archipelago, which accompanies the exhibition curated by art historian Tatiana Flores at the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach, California, ponders the ontological “island-ness” of the transnational Caribbean. Edited by Flores and Michelle A. Stephens, a specialist in Caribbean and diasporic studies, the catalogue elaborates the heuristic model of the exhibition—the archipelago—and introduces the show’s nearly one hundred works, made by more than eighty artists and organized across four intertwining themes: “Conceptual Mappings,” “Perpetual Horizons,” “Landscape Ecologies,” and “Representational Acts.” The catalogue supports the contemporaneity of the art, most of it from the past decade, with seven supplementary essays contributed by diverse writers, which provide helpful historical and critical contextualization. The inward-outward duality of the archipelago, defined as a group of islands, serves as a through line for the artworks as well as for the catalogue, whose texts move between micro- and meta-historical frames.
Relational Undercurrents originated as part of the Getty Foundation’s Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA initiative (2017–18), which explored the nexus of Latin American and Latinx art in Los Angeles across multiple venues and programs. A beacon of Caribbean art, still perceived at times as subsidiary to the field of (Latin) American art history, Relational Undercurrents highlights the complex positionality of the region’s artists in terms of both the discipline and the “performative geography” at play in their work (26).
The catalogue opens with a pair of essays in which Flores and Stephens present their archipelagic model, the curatorial logic of which Flores proceeds to develop in a comprehensive overview of the art. Against prevailing narratives of linguistic and national heterogeneity and siloed isolation, the authors posit the Caribbean as “a geo-material and geo-historical assemblage of sea spaces and sea islands,” foregrounding the insularity—the interchanges and contiguities—of a region with a common history and ecology (15). They acknowledge the cartographic conundrum of the Caribbean, whose aqueous borders stretch to the mainland Americas, but fault the continental and oceanic biases, respectively, of prevailing hemispheric and diasporic perspectives. In advancing an archipelagic paradigm, they embrace the relational mode of analogy, recognizing “unexpected mirrorings and inevitable unities” across the Caribbean and emphasizing, as well, the intentionality behind their corrective counter-mapping (22).
Flores brings this archipelagic apparatus to bear on the exhibition, blending literary theory and sources with focused descriptions of the art, equally apportioned across four sections. The works in “Conceptual Mappings” critique the colonial legacy of maps through provocations of space and scale, visualizing migration and the troubled territoriality of the border, further hypostatized in “Perpetual Horizons,” in which the boundedness and fluidity of archipelagic space are appraised. “Landscape Ecologies” attends to environmental exploitation, both colonial and contemporary, and to the embeddedness of human and natural history. In “Representational Acts,” the self-affirmation of the human subject unfolds through images of mortality and community engagement, probing identities of race, class, gender, and sexuality. Almost one hundred pages of color plates, amply illustrating the works in the exhibition, follow Flores’s essay.
The second part of the catalogue, “The Caribbean Islands and Their Diasporas,” offers historical reflections on the art of Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and Puerto Rico, which together made up the bulk of the exhibition. In “Actes de Transformation: Mixing and Mapping of Haitian Aesthetics,” African diaspora scholar Jerry Philogene revisits national tropes, beginning with the “discovery” of Haitian art by the American painter DeWitt Peters and the paternalism of the primitivist discourse thereby established. She observes the poetics of poverty and otherness and adapts the term “aftrotrope,” citing Huey Copeland and Krista Thompson, to characterize the geo-historical construction, and interpretation, of Haitian art. Curator Rocío Aranda-Alvarado examines the inflections of race and gender in Hispaniola, as well as the island’s diasporic relationship to New York and to the legacy of Modernism, in “Among the Islands: Dominican Art at Home and Abroad.” In “A Local History in the Global Narrative: Notes on Cuban Art between Two Centuries,” artist and critic Antonio Eligio Fernández (Tonel) surveys the cultural field of contemporary Havana, describing the expanded role of the global art market and the corresponding commercial factors at play in the increasingly technical, formal expression of art today. Touchstones of this transformation include photography and performance that dwell on the body—physical and social, ostracized and neuralgic—and large-scale, new media art, in which dispassionate technology has supplanted the nostalgia of earlier times. Curator Laura Roulet celebrates the social dimension of biennials and artist-run spaces in “Aglutinación: The Collective Spirit of Puerto Rican Art,” highlighting collaborative projects, civic activism, and participatory mapmaking.
“The Archipelagic Caribbean,” the catalogue’s third section, returns to the conceptual origins of the exhibition, adding new perambulations and refinements. Literary theorist Nelson Maldonado-Torres considers the meaning of colonization vis-à-vis modernity in “On Metaphysical Catastrophe, Post-Continental Thought, and the Decolonial Turn.” He suggests that the colonial-decolonial dyad is magnified in the Caribbean, the “ground zero” of the New World, and manifested in the phenomenological bodies of its subjects, through which normative modes of space, time, and subjectivity are destabilized. In “There Are No Islands with the Sea Being a Compendium of Facts, Fictions, Names, Etymologies, Lyrics, and Questions, in the Form of a Broken-Up Archipelago,” poet Nicholas Laughlin presents fragmented texts that parse history and language, botany and cosmology, poetry and prose. In the volume’s final essay, “Arc’d Relations: Archive and Archipelago in the Greater Caribbean,” Stephens reappraises the archipelagic idea in terms of catachresis, problematizing its usage and exploring variations: archipelagraph (Elizabeth DeLoughrey), archipelagicity (Elaine Stratford), auto-archipelago (Craig Santos Perez), and aquapelago (Philip Hayward). Nuanced and complementary, these permutations imbricate word and image on shifting scales, from an island’s internal structure to its oceanic environs.
Intellectually ambitious and stimulating, Relational Undercurrents adds appreciably to the sparse, if growing, literature on Caribbean art. Its archipelagic model extends and updates Tumelo Mosaka’s exhibition Infinite Island: Contemporary Caribbean Art (2007, Brooklyn Museum), which also grappled with questions of topology and identity but lacked commensurably robust theoretical underpinnings. The polycentric structure of Caribbean: Crossroads of the World (2012, El Museo del Barrio, Queens Museum of Art, and Studio Museum in Harlem, New York) privileged breadth over critical reinvention. These shows aside, curatorial work has largely fallen along linguistic and national lines that have, in practice, favored the Hispanophone Caribbean and above all Cuba, which commands unrivaled market and institutional support. Two recent exceptions that stand out for their comparative dimension are Abigail Lapin Dardashti’s exhibition Bordering the Imaginary: Art from the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and their Diasporas (2018, BRIC, Brooklyn) and Circles and Circuits: Chinese Caribbean Art (2017, California African American Museum and Chinese American Museum, Los Angeles), organized by Alexandra Chang and Steven Y. Wong for Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA. The Anglophone Caribbean has found limited curatorial expression; scholarship on those islands has mostly taken the form of monographs, notably by Eddie Chambers, Roshini Kempadoo, Krista Thompson, and Leon Wainwright. The Dutch and French West Indies remain mostly at the margins in Relational Undercurrents and elsewhere.
In its compendious and imaginative reach, Relational Undercurrents augurs brightly for a new generation of scholarship on Caribbean art. To an uncommon degree, the historiography of the field has been shaped by the region’s writers and poets, from Aimé Césaire and C. L. R. James to Alejo Carpentier and V. S. Naipaul; Flores notes the particular importance of Édouard Glissant, Kamau Brathwaite, and Derek Walcott for Relational Undercurrents (72). This literary patrimony, though luminous and often lyrical, has in time become overfamiliar and formulaic in its application; but here mutatis mutandis, it finds renewed meaning in the eco-critical interpretation that Flores and Stephens set out. The potential of their archipelagic paradigm is indeed promising, even if here underdeveloped. The catalogue’s structural division between art and theory—no less Flores’s extended expository work in service of the exhibition—impedes more fully integrated and sustained argumentation. Its geographic circumscription hazards a different sort of determinism; the implications, and utility, of casting all of Caribbean art in terms archipelagic or otherwise remain unclear. Yet the model merits further consideration, perhaps in application to modern and early modern art, examples from which would lend greater credence, and removed from the strictures of an exhibition.
These qualifications notwithstanding, this catalogue should interest historians of Latin American and Caribbean art, and no less the field of American studies at large, from its revisionist cartographies of the Black Atlantic and the Global South to its ongoing ecological turn. Beautiful color illustrations grace the volume throughout, showing details and installation views that document the work, much of it little known or exhibited. A fitting, interdisciplinary counterpart to Flores’s exhibition, Relational Undercurrents posits the power and plausible archipelagicity of contemporary Caribbean art, daring to chart new conceptual and topographical terrain.