Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 21, 2016
Nancy Hoffman, Frank Verputten, and Robbert Roos Who More Sci-Fi Than Us? Contemporary Art from the Caribbean Exh. cat. Amsterdam: KIT Publishers, 2012. 144 pp.; 76 color ills. Paper $35.00 (9789460222115)
Exhibition schedule: Kunsthal KAdE, Amersfoort, Netherlands, May 25–August 26, 2012

The eponymous catalogue to the exhibition Who More Sci-fi Than Us?: Contemporary Art from the Caribbean aims to examine the complexity of Caribbean art through the metaphor of science fiction. Curator of the exhibition and co-founding director until 2011 of the Instituto Buena Bista, Curacao Center for Contemporary Art in the Dutch Caribbean, Nancy Hoffman writes in the introduction that the logic of the Caribbean is perfectly captured in Junot Díaz’s The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (New York: Riverhead, 2007) when an apparently omniscient narrator describes Oscar’s fascination toward the genre of science fiction as a consequence of being Antillean—“who more sci-fi than us?”

What follows the introduction are four region-based essays written by different voices in the field of Caribbean art, each one dedicated to the main language clusters (and colonial enclaves) in the Antilles and each one followed by their respective plates, artists’ biographies, and short statements. Closing the book is an interview between art critic Jocelyn Valton and independent curator Simon Njami. The reader who picks up this catalogue will rightfully expect to find in its pages and see among the artworks the underlying connections and shared histories that make the Caribbean a critical space for understanding the realities of postcolonialism. Unfortunately for the reader, it is up to her or him to draw intra-islands links or sum up any artistic associations between the illustrations. “While reading these essays and looking at these artworks,” Hoffmann concedes, “I am sure you will find that they all share a common ground that is hard to grasp in a few words, but it is clearly there” (11).

Introducing each of the four essays is a double-page spread with only the Caribbean nations representing the region under discussion painted in black over a white background and arranged more or less where those countries would be were they placed on a map of the expanse. This rather abstract layout—highlighting the islands and countries under consideration, and with the glaring white background representing the absent ones—further stresses the disjointed outline of the book. Filed under the “Dutch Region,” the first chapter, titled “Spirited Gestures: Notes on Life Masquerading as Art” and written by artist Charl Landvreugd, traces the tradition of masquerading from West Africa to its diaspora in Suriname and even extends it to the Latino gay culture of Harlem. Landvreugd writes a stimulating comparison of diaspora performance histories, specifically between the Banya and Du festivities among the Afro-Surinamese and the voguing competitions known as balls that take place in Harlem, as two examples that execute “public critiques of society” (17) in seeking to disrupt normative behavior.

Representative of the “Hispanic Region” is chapter 2, written by Cuban curator Blanca Victoria López Rodríguez and titled “Prayer for a Good Friday.” Her essay proposes to see the Caribbean as a complex structure that keeps on modifying itself and being reinvented by the palimpsest of peoples that converge in it. In her book, Caribbean Art, published by Thames and Hudson in 1998, Veerle Poupeye makes mention of the Caribbean Sea as at once uniting and dividing the region. López Rodríguez reprises these sentiments relating to the Caribbean’s geography, especially the sea as a symbolic space that both conjoins the region and fragments it. But López Rodríguez fails to substantially build on Poupeye’s comments, and without specific examples, her argument hollows out its meaning, especially when declaring that the Caribbean is a place where “everything, absolutely everything, is possible” (43). Considerably better for the essay and for the field of Caribbean art would have been a study of how the artworks corroborate the syncretic nature of the countries of the region or how they encourage an examination of what lesser-known aspects of Caribbean identity might mean.

Chapter 3, written by art historian Leon Wainwright and titled “Global Change and Contemporary Art of the Caribbean: Notes on the Futurology of a Sustainable Art Community,” heads the section around the “Anglophone Region.” Perhaps the essay with the most compelling argument of all five chapters, Wainwright’s concern is with the future of Caribbean art studies in relation to the growing number of uncritical and celebratory endorsements of globalization. He seems to be suggesting that it is shortsighted to exalt a “global turn” as a thing of the present when, for the artists of the Caribbean, its reality is nothing but the result of a global spread bringing a wide range of nefarious effects. Seen through the lens of the Caribbean, processes that could be described as globalizing are mired with challenges and fractures that can threaten the existence of certain communities. Wainwright’s proposition, thus, is that in order to sustain an arts community for the Caribbean in the face of globalization it is necessary to increase the collaboration among those invested in the arts of the region and its diaspora. More concretely, the “futurology” of Caribbean art means improving “the infrastructure for exchanging knowledge and experience within and across nations” (84).

The last of the essays dedicated to different regions, this one focused on the “Francophone region” and titled “Creativity as a Horizon: A World to be Shared?” written by art critic Giscard Bouchotte, follows the same unsentimental tone and rather practical approach presented by Wainwright. In his essay, Bouchotte cautions against a symbolic interpretation of the Caribbean archipelago that lacks any relation to the social conditions of its inhabitants, particularly that of artists. By specifically naming a series of exhibitions about Caribbean art, along with some of the best-known twentieth-century artists from Haiti and creative spaces and digital platforms dedicated to the promotion and study of the arts from this region, Bouchotte contends that it is through practical means that the arts of the Caribbean will continue to advance. With his examples, Bouchotte raises a set of difficult questions about the lack of available resources that are needed; however, his pragmatism ends up conceding to the use of relatively empty concepts such as creativity as the motor that will drive Haitian art forward.

The conversation between Valton and Njami—“Art in the Caribbean: A Way to Defy History”—closes the book, but it is by no means a satisfactory conclusion. Set around the context of a series of exhibitions titled 3×3 sponsored by the Fondation Clément in Martinique in 2008 and held at three commercial art galleries in Paris, Valton’s interview with Njami (who had been the shows’ curator) was more of an opportunity to talk about the place of Caribbean art in a field that needs to be validated by the West and what that means for the sustainability of the arts from the Antilles. The gist of the conversation oscillates between the real restrictions faced by Caribbean artists, born of the region’s tortured histories and assigned peripheral status, and how to advance their unique position and voices despite the legacies of economic constrainment that exist in large measure as a consequence of these histories. Ironically, it is this tendency to theorize the conditions of the Caribbean almost wholly vis-à-vis its former colonial powers that keeps wider perceptions of Caribbean people in an eddy of generalizations. At no point during this interview were the artists who participated in the triptych exhibition 3×3 mentioned. (As a point of information, Bruno Pédurand, Ernest Breleur, and David Damoison were the artists who had the solo shows in Paris.)

Just as this last chapter fails the artists it intends to support, the book neglects the artists in the Who More Sci-fi Than Us? exhibition by not creating a space for critical discussions around them. None of the essays analyze the works illustrated in the catalogue or discuss concrete examples. This is a missed opportunity to explore why the works were chosen for the exhibition, how the works relate to each other, how they represent the region with which they have been classified (besides the fact that the artists were born or spent time there), and more importantly, why they are considered an expression of Caribbean sci-fi culture. With such an inspiring title spearheading the catalogue, it would have been a great opportunity for a study of, say, the use of recyclables in the works of a number of artists in the exhibition, such as Tirzo Martha, Hew Locke, and Allora & Calzadilla. After all, the Caribbean is one of several regions of the world in which matters such as recycling, or re-use, have a very real application in the lives of people from developing nations. Regrettably, these potential considerations go unexplored. Moreover, it leaves it up to the artists to provide a small statement about their own works, which are not consistent in either length or content. While some are longer and more substantial (e.g., Marcos Lora Read), others are insufficient (e.g., David Bade) and at times filled with excruciating typos.

As the terms of modernity have proven unsuccessful and neoliberalism has sunk the Caribbean into a deeper vortex of uncertainty, many people of the region, including artists, have turned to science fiction for a creative outlet that can make sense of the racial and social dystopia of the region as a whole. The Who More Sci-fi Than Us? catalogue sets out to explore how artists achieve this and to what end. Yet its readers are left somewhat empty handed. How can artists explore the possibility of a sci-fi Caribbean if its scholars cannot meet the challenge of analyzing their works according to these terms?

Marcela Guerrero
Curatorial Fellow, Hammer Museum