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Curated by Carla Acevedo-Yates with Iris Colburn, Isabel Casso, and Nolan Jimbo, Forecast Form: Art in the Caribbean Diaspora, 1990s–Today at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago presents the Caribbean diaspora not as a given, but as a framework for critiquing the homogenizing consequences of categories imposed upon its makers and their visual practices. As Acevedo-Yates declares in her catalog essay, Forecast Form seeks to “challenge the very legibility of so-called Caribbean art itself—what it is, how it looks, and who makes it” (24). Commencing its reframing of the Caribbean, the exhibition starts in the fourth-floor lobby with two large-scale installations, previously conceived as public artworks for outdoor display: a variation of Félix González-Torres’s untitled billboard, exhibited at Andrea Rosen Gallery and throughout New York City in 1995, and Tavares Strachan’s In Broad Daylight (2018), a neon sculpture commissioned by the Baltimore Museum of Art, where it was installed above the building’s neoclassical entrance.
The proximity of these two artworks builds a visual contrast between the vast gray sky populated by a silhouetted bird in flight in González-Torres’s billboard and the buzzingly bright orange cursive script of Strachan’s neon. This interplay between shadow and light follows through the exhibition and is a clear curatorial strategy of Acevedo-Yates. The phrase “in broad daylight” may mirror the rhetoric of racist news coverage of crime in Chicago, but its object label intervenes and prompts museum visitors to instead recognize that violence is always disproportionately inflicted upon Black, Brown, and Indigenous bodies—including victims of police brutality. Recontextualized within the exhibition, González-Torres’s billboard summons the oft-cited (and problematically naturalized) bird metaphor for migrants’ journeys. While Strachan’s neon references the lived realities of diasporic communities, their oppression, surveillance, and criminalization, González-Torres’s billboard presents a fantastical symbol of freedom.
The introduction to the complexities of diasporic identities and experiences by Strachan and González-Torres primes the exhibition viewer for a range of lyrical, defiant, contemplative, and vibrant artworks. Two small rooms constructed from unvarnished plywood-clad lumber mark the entrance and exit to Forecast Form’s main galleries. Respectively part of the “Territories” and “Traces” sections of the exhibition, the scale and ambiance of these rooms set a ruminative tone. Light-colored fabric extends across the low ceilings of the rooms creating a feeling of enclosure and placelessness compared to the high, barrel-vaulted ceilings in the main galleries of the exhibition. Narrow gaps between these structures and the museum walls leave the construction and its support mechanisms visible, emphasizing their temporary status. These rooms have been expertly designed by Sketch, a Panama-based architecture studio. The impact of their installation on the experience of the exhibition is significant, leading me to wonder how these custom-made rooms will be adapted in the second iteration of Forecast Form at the ICA Boston later this year.
According to Sketch, the two bookending rooms allude to the modest materials of Caribbean vernacular architecture as well as the crates used to securely move artworks. While these reference points are somewhat easy to discern, the art objects exhibited in Forecast Form invite us to consider the crate with greater criticality, namely as a complex symbol of empire and global capitalism. Situated in a dimly lit gallery, Keith Piper’s multimedia installation Trade Winds (1992), which debuted at Merseyside Maritime Museum (now the International Slavery Museum), guides us toward such interpretations that might otherwise be missed. Museum visitors must look down into Piper’s crates to view the four television monitors playing video collages. These montages intermix the artist’s own body with moving images of currency, globes, and archival documents and samples from Burning Spear’s “Columbus” and the documentary Africa: A Voyage of Discovery (1984). Reviewing the crate-rooms with Piper’s Trade Winds in mind brings to the fore the trading of enslaved Africans, their legal classification as “cargo,” and the violent production and extraction of nonhuman commodities, such as sugar and oil, from the Caribbean.
Establishing the beginning and end of Forecast Form, the compact crate-rooms mark a leaving and returning to a familiar yet shifting setting. This looping loosely evokes a diasporic relationship to homelands (if one can return to them at all). This theme is poetically and corporeally rendered in Donald Rodney’s chromogenic print In the House of My Father (1996–97), displayed in the “Territories” section. In the photograph made with Andra Nelki, Rodney holds a miniature two-story house in his palm, constructed by pinning together pieces of his skin that had been removed during an operation to treat sickle cell anemia, a genetic disease that predominantly affects people of African descent. This room also serves as a porous sound barrier and installation surface for one of the two single-channel videos of Gas Men (2014) filmed by Christopher Cozier on the shores of Lake Michigan and made in collaboration with musician Caroline Mair-Toby and sitarist Sharda Patasar. The live-recorded soundtrack of vocals, sitar, and ambulance siren are choreographed with the images of swinging of gas pump nozzles; these sounds radiate through the larger galleries of Forecast Form.
The “Territories” and “Traces” rooms both include artworks by María Magdalena Campos-Pons, color photographs by Ana Mendieta, and video works—in the first, Zilia Sánchez’s encuentrismo—ofrenda o retorno (encounter—offering or return) from the series I Am an Island: Understanding and Retreat (2000) and, in the other, Jeanette Ehler’s single-channel projection Black Bullets (2012). The latter of Campos-Pons’s artworks, the installation Sugar/Bittersweet (2010), is comprised of discs of molasses, brown sugar, and white sugar pierced by Yoruba spears and stacked upon African and Chinese stools. Campos-Pons demonstrates the historical entanglement of these objects which reference enslaved Africans and indentured Chinese workers on Cuban sugar plantations. Seeing sugar in its various stages of refinement underscores the contradiction between the violence that brought these commodities into being and their aesthetic allure and sensorial appeal. Standing inside the “Traces” crate-room with Sugar/Bittersweet, I was again reminded of how the global production and transportation of goods have been, and continue to be, prioritized over the lives of exploited laborers whose existence is conveniently erased.
Halfway through Forecast Form, museum-goers cross an undulating threshold suspended from an archway—a curtain by Cosmo Whyte wrought from nickel-plated steel ball chains. Referencing bamboo curtains common in Jamaican homes, Whyte’s Beyond the Boundary (2022) repurposes a 1984 photograph of a West Indies cricket supporter holding a banner that reads “Black Wash,” a play on the term “whitewash,” which emerged during the 5–0 series victory by the West Indies over England. In installation photographs, Beyond the Boundary appears deceptively still and opaque; but, in person, it ripples and waves, responding to everyone who passes through it, whether hurriedly or cautiously. Through this repeated activation, we are asked to reassess the photograph not as a static image of the past but as a conduit for examining how history continues to impact the present.
On view across the exhibition are a chorus of five framed photographs from Mendieta’s Silueta Works in Mexico, 1973–1977. In the first, Mendieta has filled a human-shaped indentation with red flowers along a shoreline bearing little resemblance to the touristic images that dominate visual representations of the Caribbean. In the fifth, a silhouette stamped in blood on a white sheet unfurls, reliclike, from the top of an architectural niche. Foliage curls at the base of the silhouette, approximating the crescent moon under the feet of La Virgen de Guadalupe. Among the artists in Forecast Form, Mendieta’s personal and collective connection to diaspora, specifically Operación Pedro Pan, is perhaps most widely known. Notably, Mendieta’s visits to Mexico, beginning in 1971, predate her returns to Cuba between 1980 and 1983. Given the (omni)presence of Silueta Works in Mexico and the minimal information provided in the object labels, it is worth asking what the series contributes to the primary goals of the exhibition. Mendieta’s Silueta Works in Mexico, in dialogue with the other artworks, not only challenge presumptions about where Caribbean art is made, but also dismantle the regional and geographic boundaries colonially and externally imposed upon the Caribbean and Latin America.
As I photographed one of Mendieta’s framed Siluetas, the glass caught a reflection of an exit sign above a door, superimposing red letters over puffed clouds. Normally, this glare would be a nuisance, but within this space it sparked something generative: a consideration of “exit” as it pertains to diaspora and the importance of language—exodus, exile, displacement, uprootedness, among other terms—in disrupting the supposed coherence of diaspora in any singular sense. While visitors will likely leave Forecast Form with a revised and more expansive understanding of the Caribbean, it is equally critical for us to examine any fixed notions of its other keyword—diaspora. To quote a succinct question posed by Tobias Wofford in the title of his 2016 Art Journal essay, we must continually ask: “Whose Diaspora?” In doing so, we can begin to better appreciate the historical and contemporary conditions that crucially differentiate the plurality of diasporic identities, experiences, and communities in and beyond the Caribbean.
Postdoctoral Research Associate, Inter-University Program for Latino Research/University of Illinois Chicago Mellon Program