How can Caribbean art be described? Can it be defined? The art from this collection of islands has often been overlooked in the art historical cannon, and has only recently begun to emerge on an international stage.
The following women artists explore personal and societal subject matter that can provide insight into the diverse, complex, and rich creative scene existing in the region, all while challenging assumed notions and shaping a contemporary image of the Caribbean.
Born in the Dominican Republic, Firelei Baez is a visual artist living and working in New York City. Her work often grapples with themes involving identity and representation. In her solo exhibition Bloodlines, Baez explores racial politics, social movements and cultural history through varying mediums. With this show—and her work in general—Baez highlights the stories of those often dismissed to the periphery.
Can I Pass? Introducing the brown paper bag to the fan test for the month of June is a work that confronts racial and gender constructs, referencing subsisting markers for feminine beauty. For one month, Baez created a daily self portrait determined by two single parameters: a color match of her forearm and the silhouette of her hair. The result is a collection of various self portraits that aim to challenge the ways in which women (particularly in multiracial post-colonial societies) have been physically measured and valued. Skin lighter than a brown paper bag and hair loose enough to blow under the wind of a fan are actual assessments in South America and the Caribbean with which women have been evaluated.
These tests are remnants of colonial rule, where Eurocentric beauty ideals stood dominant. However, such criteria erases any semblance of originality or personhood, and Baez’s portraits expose this limiting framework. The abstracted facial features and mouthless silhouettes reflect the way these social constructs work to destroy women’s individuality and autonomy. When explaining why she put herself up for this task, Baez proclaims she subjected her own identity in order to address existing arbitrary social laws. She states: “speak it, name it, break it.”
Art historian Kobena Mercer has elaborated on this recurring theme regarding contemporary Caribbean artists:
Self-portraiture has been a key preoccupation of diaspora artists in the West not least of all because it has been a structurally impossible genre for black artists to occupy within societies which once regarded blackness as a sign of absence or lack of selfhood. Yet rather than a reactive counterdiscourse, the reclaiming of portraiture in diaspora aesthetics can be said to eschew atomized individualism for an alternative emphasis on the relational composition of the social self.
Essentially, Baez employs her own image in order to blatantly reveal cultural taboos in the aim of challenging accepted notions and create a platform for contemplation and change.
Another artist who includes subversive self-representation in her oeuvre is Tessa Mars, a Haitian artist living and working in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. She is recognized for her bold color palette (inspired by Haitian art naif painters of the 1950s) and aptitude for visual storytelling. Since 2015, a recurring personality has appeared in her paintings: an alter-ego and double of the artist known as Tessalines. This character is part mythical creature and part self portrait; she is often depicted with horns, scales, and a machete. Tessalines shares the physical characteristics of the artist, but is the protagonist of her own fictional narratives.
Anyone familiar with Haitian culture will immediately notice the significance of the name—it rhymes with the surname of Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the first ruler of independent Haiti after liberation from France. By directly linking to a figure of national pride, she places herself into the context of historical narrative, and therefore challenges us to reconsider Haiti’s traditional national identity.
Haitian historical narrative is benchmarked by its male leaders. Women are largely absent from this retelling. Haitian women have played essential roles in its domestic, economic, and cultural spheres. Yet, these contributions are generally disregarded in the grand overview of Haiti’s history. By reclaiming the name of a Haitian hero, Tessalines assumes a traditionally masculine role to ask deeper questions about women’s positions within Haitian society.
Nudity is critical to the character of Tessalines as it emphasizes feminine presence while subverting the traditional gaze placed upon women. Mars employs nudity as a tool to establish autonomy over the representation of her body and disrupt notions of the pervasive binary place upon feminine sexuality. The nudity displayed may be considered provocative, as it challenges codes of modesty in mainstream Haitian culture, but it is not inherently sexual. Depictions of the body as a subversive tool for deeper reflexion is a tendency often explored by contemporary artists from post-colonial Caribbean nations such as Haiti, where a relatively new search for national identity clashes at the intersections of race, gender, and the circumstances of contemporary life. Artists like Tessa Mars propose the body as a declaration of presence and resistance.
Ebony G. Patterson
Ebony G. Patterson is a Jamaican visual artist splitting her time between Chicago and Kingston (many contemporary Caribbean artists live and work between two countries, illustrating the far-reach of the Caribbean diaspora). She creates striking tapestries, collages, and installations using an abundance of material including beads, glitter, faux flowers, and plastic. She is interested in reframing dichotomies, particularly those witnessed in contemporary Jamaican life. Her series, When They Grow Up, presents images of black youth on canvases adorned with mixed-media embellishments and drapery. The opulence and fantastical visuals are meant to draw viewers closer. One work in the series reveals the word “worthy” spelled with small plastic letters across the sweatshirt of a featured adolescent. An innocence and poetic humanity is emphasized by children’s toys and appliquéd floral arrangements, in a way that intimately refuses stereotypes often cast upon black youth.
Patterson has also explored Jamaican dancehall culture in order to inquire particular societal constructions. Cultural Soliloquy (Cultural Object Revisited) is a sculpture made of a hollowed car frame covered in pink glitter standing atop a floral-patterned pedestal. She appropriates dancehall visual style—the pimped-out car and bling aesthetic—in a way that at once pays homage to the creative cultural subculture while also questioning conceptions of masculinity by presenting its analogues to the feminine.
Swag Swag Krew is another mixed-media installation using a similar aesthetics and approach, this time featuring 10 male mannequins adorned with floral patterns. The figures make reference to the hyper-masculine personalities typically present in dancehall clubs, known for their ostentatious fashion and grooming choices. The use of colors and patterns usually reserved for women highlight the tenable ambiguities of black urban masculinity.
What makes Patterson’s work so compelling is its deep nuance. She acknowledges dancehall as a significant cultural contribution created by the Jamaican working class and honors it through her elaborate ornamentation, yet simultaneously examines social performance and its underlying body politics and presentation of gender.
María Magdalena Campos-Pons
María Magdalena Campos-Pons is a Cuban-American multimedia artist of the post-revolutionary generation. Her multicultural identity has guided her creative interpretation of concepts including Cuban heritage, postcolonial issues, and corporeal exploration. Performance is a major component of her oeuvre, and she has performed for Cuba’s national pavilion at the Venice Biennale. She is heavily influenced by and incorporates West African traditions passed down from her Nigerian ancestors.
Namely, as part of Remedios: Performance Rituals as Healing, the artist performs oral narratives linking migratory stories to explorations of personal identity. She reclaims ancestral and cultural rites in order to present mechanisms for collective healing from personal and societal traumas.
The demographics of Caribbean nations are a result of the mixing of cultures over hundreds of years. Caribbean artists therefore often inhabit multiple identities and demonstrate the veritable diversity among black identity—fundamentally challenging supposed binaries. Campos-Pons is concerned with such complexities of geopolitics and has explored events such as the Trans-Atlantic Slave trade to investigate history, memory, and even spirituality.
Sugar/Bittersweet is a site-specific installation about the legacy of sugar production in Cuba. Campos-Pons was particularly compelled to confront this subject as her own ancestors were specifically forced from Africa to work on Cuban sugar plantations. She recreates “sugar fields” but replaces the normally-green sugarcane with its final product: discs of compacted sugar, stacked as sculptural stalks. She uses sugar as an analogy for race, noting how the more refined the sugar, the whiter it became. The sugar holds skin tone implications and the different shades of each sugar stalk—varying from pure white to almost-black molasses—come to represent the multiracial society that Cuba has become. The spears placed through the sugar stalks represent the African spirit and strength at the roots of the nation. However, this work does not let us forget that this diversity originated from the violence of forced labor and slavery that the country was built upon. Hence, the bittersweet contemplation of a national history.
Campos-Pons wants her work to strike an epiphany with viewers; for them to reconsider the past and envision a more progressive future.
Ultimately, there is no concise definition to encapsulate contemporary Caribbean art. However, art that challenges convention has the capability to unsettle existing systems, therefore allowing a chance to imagine new alternatives as possible. It is clear these women artists navigate specific social and cultural intersections to create work that recontextualizes history, grapples existing personal and external identities, and proposes new perspectives.
Article written by Natasha Ntone