Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 4, 2022
Lawrence Waldron Handbook of Ceramic Animal Symbols in the Ancient Lesser Antilles Florida Museum of Natural History: Ripley P. Bullen Series. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2016. 312 pp. Cloth $125.00 (9781683400011)
Lawrence Waldron Pre-Columbian Art of the Caribbean Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2019. 448 pp. Cloth $125.00 (9781683400547)

In one of the first descriptions of Indigenous arts of the Americas, in the late fifteenth century, Fray Ramón Pané recognized that sculptures in what is now Hispaniola were not like those he knew in Europe. Inspired by environmental forces of deities and ancestors—known to the Taínos as zemís (or cemís)—rulers and sculptors collaborated to embody specific identities in three-dimensional forms that were then activated in ceremonies to become vital, oracular agents in their communities. Their extraordinary, volumetric forms and complex imagery confounded Pané, especially the faces of the zemí beings. They were grimacing as if, he thought, they had been scolded. Since Pané’s struggle with the ancestral art of the Greater Antilles, art history has been, with few notable exceptions, at best slow in tackling the vast body of material from the ancestral Caribbean region and at worst negligent.

Addressing this void, visual artist, art historian, and educator Lawrence Waldron has emerged in recent years with a one-two punch of volumes that present in-depth, cogent treatments of the ancient arts of the Caribbean islands. Currently assistant professor in Latin American art at Queens College, CUNY, Waldron is a scholar whose work art historians should read and teach. In his 2019 essay “Color in the Curriculum or in Ourselves? Why I Thought I Had to Choose,” (Latin American and Latinx Visual Culture 1, no. 3: 92–95), he sets out a challenge to university art and art history departments: “the inclusion of underrepresented minorities ought to be effected in the bodies and minds of staff, faculty, and students alike so that diversity in the curriculum would be a natural development rather than a desperate triage.” His important voice adds to the chorus declaring that representation matters greatly in both departmental rosters and at the lecture podium. These two books—one focused on the plastic arts in the Lesser Antilles and the other a multi-scalar survey of art from the wider Caribbean—constitute a major contribution to the expansion of the canon and curriculum toward a global history of art (though, at $125.00 each, the prohibitive cost aggressively raises a barrier to access these volumes).

The Caribbean Sea, which had been a nexus of Indigenous American peoples for millennia, became the first truly global society after the Spanish invasion. As early as the third millennium BCE, societies resided in the Antilles archipelago and created beautiful objects, few of which survive in the archaeological record. The rich traditions of pottery in the Caribbean region have never received the scholarly attention that those in other regions of the ancient Americas have, much less so the works from earlier time periods or from the Eastern Caribbean (Lesser Antilles). Handbook of Ceramic Animal Symbols in the Ancient Lesser Antilles tackles both of these lacunae by presenting a comprehensive survey of animal symbolism in pre-Taíno pottery from the civilizations in the arc of islands between Venezuela and Puerto Rico. Waldron lays out the key humanistic questions about these peoples that he addresses through the visual analysis of ceramics in the volume: “How did they live, and what were the pressing concerns and stirring interests of their day?” (xvi). The focused approach in the Handbook allows Waldron to narrate how the cultures and histories of the early peoples of the smaller islands both prefigured and intersected with those of the later, better-known Taínos. In many ways—such as the rich modeled adornments or dynamic polychrome and incised designs on pottery—the Saladoid-era (ca. 450 BCE–650 CE) visual cultures form a crucial case study in broader art historical subjects like abstraction and naturalism. In his comparison of zoomorphic motifs, Waldron also considers the ancient material and visual cultures of northern South America, from which the initial and subsequent migrants to the islands had traveled. He also draws on ample ethnohistorical and anthropological evidence to suggest fresh alternatives to prior interpretations by scholars mostly trained as archaeologists.

One consistent challenge facing Caribbean archaeology and art history is that the narratives of the different waves of migrations and art styles became subsumed under jargon such as Huecoid, Barrancoid, and Saladoid. These neologisms are legacies of the great work of Irving Rouse, but they obfuscate the more interesting scholarly questions for contemporary investigators. Waldron’s prose subverts these technical terms by talking about the peoples themselves: the canoeists, the female potters, the caciques (political leaders), and so on. He establishes here a methodological framework to analyze animal imagery and themes, such as flight or predation, recognizing that “ancient Amerindians would have organized their knowledge of animals in different ways than we do” (47). The volume’s illustrations of adornos—fragments of modeled ceramic zoomorphic images—are invaluable; some hail from regional museums or island collections that are scarcely visited or rarely displayed publicly. The chapter on reptiles and amphibians is especially compelling. Waldron makes a persuasive argument for the pervasive presence of froglike forms, linking earlier pottery motifs and recognizable zemí works of later centuries. This book eloquently proposes an understanding of the broader aesthetics of these early peoples, whose environmental philosophy remains elusive without clear written or oral records.

When I set out to research the exhibition Arte del mar: Artistic Exchange in the Caribbean (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2019–21), I was more than grateful to discover the Handbook as a thorough guide to Antillean pottery and then to learn from Waldron that the larger study was forthcoming. Published a scant three years later, Pre-Columbian Art of the Caribbean broadens out from the earlier study. In it, the author lays out the argument for studying the region as a dynamic field—from the second millennium BCE basically to the present—united by widespread visual approaches to geometry, symmetry, and figural motifs. Though sometimes bogged down by the same terminological baggage mentioned above, the author does a deft job of laying out the trajectory of the visual arts from ancient times until the Taíno florescence, even proposing some creative interpretations of the later peoples’ engagement with the imagery of their forebearers.

Waldron also effectively conveys the spiritual dimension of Caribbean art, couched in both direct observations of the Taínos and later ethnographic accounts from the Eastern Caribbean or northern South America. Although the chapters are laid out by medium and scale—ceramic, rock art and architecture, wooden and stone sculpture, and regalia—the reader is rewarded by the threads of similarities in imagery that are woven together as the book progresses. For example, the three-pointed zemí sculptures, perhaps the creations uniquely identified as works of Antillean sculptors, serve as an anchor for motifs found throughout other media for centuries. This crucial study of cross-media connections is what the field needed to emphasize the diverse communities of practice for sculptors and painters in the ancestral Antilles. Like the Handbook, this well-illustrated book achieves the objective of bringing little-known works from collections in the region and in major global museums to broader attention.

In Pre-Columbian Art of the Caribbean, Waldron proves that “the study and discussion of art is not about fuzzy subjectivities” (“Color in the Curriculum,” 93) and that rigorous art historical analysis can advance our understanding of the pre-colonization Caribbean islands. The author makes very clear throughout, and in the elegant epilogue, that these traditions are living: the Taínos still make art in the islands and in diaspora communities, as do the Kalinago in places like Dominica, St. Vincent, and Trinidad. The extensive discussions of oral histories recorded by Spanish colonizers or twentieth-century ethnographers greatly enhance the sharp visual analysis lavished on these ancient objects, many for the first time. Although the creative brilliance of artists before 1492 is the focus of the book, the reader is left wanting more from the author on the aftermath of invasion. For example, about the fascinating composite beaded zemí in the Museo delle Civiltà – Museo nazionale preistorico ed etnografico “Luigi Pigorini” in Rome (pl. 25), he notes: “It is far more likely that in the first years or even months after the Conquest, artists working on restorations of certain holy objects added particular exotic materials to those objects, even as their workshops remained outside the reach of the Spaniards who had brought those materials” (341).  Waldron paints a tragic picture of artists trying desperately to maintain their communities through art-making-as-resistance in the face of disease and violence brought by Europeans to their sacred lands of zemí.

James A. Doyle
Pennsylvania State University