View of “Caribbean: Crossroads of the World,” 2012, El Museo del Barrio, New York. Photo: Jason Mandella.

View of “Caribbean: Crossroads of the World,” 2012, El Museo del Barrio, New York. Photo: Jason Mandella.

“Caribbean: Crossroads of the World”

View of “Caribbean: Crossroads of the World,” 2012, El Museo del Barrio, New York. Photo: Jason Mandella.

IN 1949, the great Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier published his novel about the Haitian Revolution, El reino de este mundo (The Kingdom of This World), describing in its preface those aspects of his hemisphere’s history that shaped its art: “The virginity of the land, our upbringing . . . the revelation constituted by its recent discovery, its fecund racial mixing.” He concluded, “After all, what is the entire history of America if not a chronicle of the marvelous real?” That query became a manifesto for a generation of South American writers. But, as one is reminded by the vast and varied visual landscape presented in “Caribbean: Crossroads of the World,” Carpentier’s concept of lo real maravilloso was indelibly tied to his home archipelago: that sea of islands where the New World epic began and whose singular cultures are the subject of this sprawling exhibition.

Organized by El Museo del Barrio, in cooperation with the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Queens Museum of Art, and involving eight curators, led by Elvis Fuentes, this is a show outsize in both scope and scale: It spans three major city museums and three centuries and incorporates the work of almost four hundred artists. But the larger ambition of “Crossroads of the World” is most evident in the historical claim embedded in its title. The Caribbean, as the site of Columbus’s first arrival to this hemisphere, is where the “global era” of human history was launched. It is where the largest forced migration in that history—the Atlantic slave trade’s shipment of ten million Africans—was centered for three centuries. And it is also where, in the wealthiest and most brutal slave colony of all, a half million Africans rose to free themselves and ask a question that still defines international politics today: How universal are “universal rights”?

That the Haitian Revolution should serve as the exhibition’s starting point, and underlying muse, makes sense. From Aimé Césaire’s poetry to Bob Marley’s reggae, the legacy of the only successful slave revolt in history haunts all Caribbean arts. Entering the main gallery at the Studio Museum, visitors are met with a wall-size photograph of a black woman garbed in an eighteenth-century military greatcoat complete with gold piping, an unsheathed sword in hand. The image certainly puts one in mind of Toussaint-Louverture, greatest of Haiti’s black Jacobins. (To jog the memory, Jacob Lawrence’s 1986 serigraph General Toussaint, based on a 1938 gouache, hangs just across the room, its subject also dressed in red martial finery; Edouard Duval Carrié’s overblown cameo portrait on the same wall, Le General Toussaint enfumé [General Toussaint Wreathed in Smoke], or Pretty in Pink, 2000, depicts him in blue.) But when one notes that Redcoat is by the contemporary New York artist Renée Cox, and that it comes from a 2004 series—“Queen Nanny of the Maroons”—whose title refers to Cox’s native island of Jamaica, other queries arise. Where exactly is “the Caribbean”? And how and why, if at all, does it make sense to speak of a shared visual culture that joins its far-flung lands and peoples—especially as that culture looks from the vantage of New York, long known as the northern capital of the Caribbean?

This exhibition does not spoon-feed answers; instead, its artwork deepens the material context of asking. The curators adopt an expansive approach to who might be found at the crossroads, including works by Central American artists and a range of historical visitors to the Indies—from Winslow Homer to Romare Bearden—whose distinct renderings of tropical idylls have constituted a key foil for more recent “native artists,” from Allora & Calzadilla to Janine Antoni, whose works bespeak growing up on complex islands that are as much ideas as places. Here, art is organized by neither geography nor chronology but themes, including “Shades of History” and “Land of the Outlaw” at the Studio Museum, “Counterpoints” and “Patriot Acts” at Museo del Barrio, and “Fluid Motions” and “Kingdoms of this World” at the Queens Museum. Wall texts are mostly perfunctory; the show’s dialogue comes from its unusual and busy arrangements.

The galleries throughout all three institutions mix mediums, styles, and periods, allowing one exhibition space to contain ca. 1889 lithographs of Martinique by Paul Gauguin; a riotous 1947 canvas by Cuba’s great Surrealist Wifredo Lam; and—in a wry assemblage of history’s charged materials—All-Stars, 1995–96, a baseball bat swaddled in white medical tape, with nails, cotton, and crusted-on sugar, by the Jamaican-born sculptor Nari Ward. Met with such caterwauling juxtapositions, one may wonder how these pieces relate to one another. Common tropes do emerge—bright colors and history’s shadows, found objects, the centrality of the sea. But the fact that those links aren’t always clear is also in keeping with the guiding style of a region whose peoples have often sought to mend—or render—history’s fractures by means of collage and “cut ’n’ mix.” That this aesthetic has expanded “past the limits of its own sea with a vengeance,” as the Caribbean theorist Antonio Benítez-Rojo wrote, has been especially plain in the New York of hip-hop and Jean-Michel Basquiat. And it only grows plainer if you make the effort, whether across the span of a day or of a month, to take in all this show’s riches by traveling among the islands of a city that was home to such an iconic artist—born, after all, to a woman from Puerto Rico and her Haitian lover, at the Caribbean crossroads of Brooklyn.

Joshua Jelly-Schapiro teaches geography and literature at the University of California, Berkeley. He is currently at work on a book, Island People: The Caribbean and the World, for Knopf.