Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 10, 1999
Veerle Poupeye Caribbean Art New York: Thames and Hudson, 1998. 204 pp.; 76 color ills.; 101 b/w ills. Paper $14.95 (0500203067)

Those familiar with Thames & Hudson’s World of Art series can predict the tone and format of this volume, which is a pioneering effort worthy of considerable attention and praise. It is certainly no easy task to codify and condense a region as complex and scattered as the Caribbean. The author, Veerle Poupeye (according to the Thames & Hudson publicity blurb) is a Jamaican-based art historian, critic, and curator, trained in Belgium. I wish I knew how much fieldwork and archival work the author accomplished, doing actual interviews rather than relying on the cited sources. This might help explain the emphasis placed on better documented art histories of Cuba and Puerto Rico as opposed to the smaller Anglophone islands.

Although the book contains considerable important information, I found the read frustrating, as Poupeye fluctuates from well-written, intellectually thoughtful sections to scattered name-dropping accompanied by shallow discussions. Poupeye divides the book into two chronologically based chapters: “Prehispanic and Colonial Art” and “Modernism and Cultural Nationalism,” followed by five chapters arranged by such topics as “Revolution, Anti-Imperialism and Race Consciousness” and “Nature in Caribbean Art.” The Introduction should become required reading for anyone interested in Caribbean culture. A quick review of the cited scholars provides a litany of those men (sigh) considered the top scholars in the field, from the early twentieth-century Cuban Fernando Ortiz to today’s most influential Black Brits, such as the Jamaican-born Stuart Hall. I would have preferred more integrated voices from such Caribbean writers as Rex Nettleford, or a mention of important feminist scholarship from or about the Caribbean, such as that by Vera Kutzinski (Sugar’s Secrets) or Carolyn Cooper (Noise in the Blood). Nonetheless, Poupeye provides a substantial review of the problems associated with nomenclature, fragmented geography, language, and political/cultural history. I agree with her stress on hyphenated cultural identities, and she gives decent intellectual currency to the role of tourism, “vernacular culture,” and the ideologically based art writing that forms the basis of so much documentation of Caribbean arts.

It is indeed unfortunate that within the broad umbrella she has placed over “the arts,” Poupeye neglects to include discussion of even one altar-assemblage produced by practitioners of Vodou or Santería, although she does mention how these and other Caribbean-based religions have affected studio artists. Because of my own training and Caribbean fieldwork I find her lack of field research and understanding of Afro-Caribbean religions and their related art to be a major shortcoming. “Art” is more than painting and sculpture. This lack of understanding extends to her discussion of contemporary artists who have achieved international recognition, such as the Cubans Ricardo Rodríguez Brey and José Bedia. Curiously, in her discussion of Bedia, the illustrated painting has virtually nothing to do with the text. I also find it unfortunate that after a sincere attempt to sort through the many conflicting cultural and historical issues that influence any attempt at writing about the Caribbean in general, Poupeye cannot seem to escape retarditaire art writing in her own choice of vocabulary. She too often buys into an old-fashioned art history and connoisseurship-based appraisals based on European-derived hierarchies with phrases like: “minor European artists,” “surprisingly modern,” “discover modernism,” or “truly significant artists.” Her writing is intellectually and conceptually mixed, fluctuating between worn-out terminology or ideology and the progressive ideas presented in the Introduction. Such static concepts as “African cultural retentions” or statements like “African traditions have been unusually well preserved” are really out of place, especially considering all the recent scholarship on hybridity that she underscores in the Introduction.

One strength of the book is the inclusion of important small case studies. Although Poupeye discusses some artists associated with the Centre d’Art in Haiti, she doesn’t leave the discussion there as many others have done. She also includes other Haitian artists of the 1950s, and more recent “schools,” such as the Saint-Soleil, or the work of individuals like Édouard Duval-Carrié and Patrick Vilaire. There is a strong section on Puerto Rican and Cuban artists’ interest in abstraction during the 1950s and the Cuban poster movement. (It is best to use the index to locate these discussions, for the same artists may appear in different chapters.)

I must commend Poupeye for including a discussion of Caribbean festival arts and in the section on Trinidad realizing the fundamental overlap between “mas designers” (why not call them artists?) and the “visual artists of Trinidad.” She includes a nice, concise discussion of Peter Minshall’s work, but her basic argument could have been amplified with a mention of Minshall’s participation as a performance artist in the Bienial de São Paulo and his production of the opening ceremonies at the Barcelona and Atlanta Olympics. Much of Chapter 2, “Modernism and Cultural Nationalism,” is devoted to Cuba and the point of view articulated in Juan Martinez’s writings. Here again, despite her own cautions to the contrary, Poupeye falls into the trap of Euro-American-influenced appraisals instead of historical comparative explications. Ideas put forth in such statements as “indigenous Haitian art was nonetheless conventional and even feeble compared to the Cuban vanguardia” (p. 65) are most unfortunate. Why bother to compare the two, since their (colonial) histories were so completely different?

Chapter 4, “Revolution, Anti-Imperialism, and Race Consciousness,” one of the more complicated and important chapters, begins in the 1950s and 1960s, contrasting “formalist modernism” with “several schools of political art.” Here Poupeye often succeeds in discussing the ties between artistic production and political ideology, though her emphasis is on Puerto Rico, Cuba, and South America. This emphasis is again apparent in the final chapter where the section on New Cuban Art is lengthy, coherent, and precisely presented. I assume this is a product of the comparative wealth of literature published outside the Caribbean on the 1980s and 1990s post-revolutionary period in Cuba. In the later part of Chapter 4, Poupeye attempts to classify artists of the “English-speaking islands,” but after one page on Jamaica and another on Trinidad, the chapter begins to fall apart. Individuals from different areas are highlighted, but the text lacks coherence, as if Poupeye thinks she must be inclusive. The result is scattered.

Sometimes Poupeye neglects art-historical discussions and instead opts for descriptions. Unfortunately she never mentions the strong ties many Caribbean artists have to such U.S.-based movements as earth art, installation art, or feminist art. In fact, I never found a mention of feminist-inspired art anywhere in the book. There are small bothersome inconsistencies throughout the book. In the section on the “Jamaican intuitives” she mentions Edward Seaga, the sociologist, politician, and former Prime Minister, but neglects to mention the enormously important role of David Boxer, former director of the National Gallery, who placed these artists in the permanent collection, and curator of major international traveling exhibitions of these artists (such as the one sponsored by SITES). In discussing the Cuban “generation of the eighties” who were put on the international map by the writings and curatorial endeavors of Gerardo Mosquera, Poupeye is inconsistent. She mentions his contribution in one chapter (p. 184), but not in another (p. 102).

Both Chapter 4 and Chapter 7, “Recent Developments,” conclude with brief discussions of Caribbean-born artists whose careers were made outside of the Caribbean. Poupeye includes the New York City artist Jean Michel Basquiat, the Cuban-born but U.S.-schooled and educated Ana Mendieta, Nari Ward, who left Jamaica early and made his reputation completely in the U.S., as well as Ronald Moody, Namba Roy, and Luis Cruz Azaceta. These discussions are too brief and bring up very complicated issues of transnational production that she cannot delve into. It seems unfortunate to end the book with this discussion, for I read an implication that more recent Caribbean artists will migrate and make their reputation in the “metropolis.” A more enlightening discussion might have been one that places Caribbean artists solidly in the center of the New Internationalism and the important current discourse centered on these issues.

I am sure other readers could make comparable suggestions that may strengthen the book; but the work’s shortcomings should not devalue the overall contribution to contemporary art scholarship that this volume represents. Thames & Hudson and Veerle Poupeye deserve congratulations.

Judith Bettelheim
San Francisco State University