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Caribbean Artists Critique Image-Driven Culture

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When many people think of the Caribbean, they picture all-inclusive resorts, pristine beaches and tropical beverages. A new exhibition at the Inter-American Development Bank’s Cultural Center is seeking to complicate that image.

“Flow: Economies of the Look and Creativity in Contemporary Art from the Caribbean” addresses the region’s shifting culture, critiquing archetypes of beauty, gender, race and power. Featuring 27 works by artists from more than a dozen islands and nations — Aruba, the Bahamas, Barbados, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Guadeloupe, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Jamaica, Panama, Puerto Rico, Suriname and Trinidad and Tobago — the exhibition is a commentary on today’s image-driven pop culture, particularly in an increasingly globalized Caribbean.

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Photo: Roni Mocan / Jessica Lagunas
Jessica Lagunas's video performance series features her applying lipstick, nail polish, and mascara until the containers are empty, critiquing the usage of such cosmetics.

The exhibition is broken into three categories: “Surfaces,” “Acces(sories)” and “Vanity Fair.” The first category deals primarily with themes of beauty and aesthetics, looking at the role appearance plays in society, from tattoos to fashion. The second explores the significance of brands and personal decorations: What, exactly, do they tell us about a particular reality? The latter category is concerned with the image of the Caribbean itself and juxtaposes the ideal of a beach paradise with a reality that can be the antithesis of paradise.

Though the gallery does not make explicitly clear to which category each piece belongs, this is no detriment; rather, this ambiguity allows viewers to contemplate the myriad messages each piece might convey.

For example, Jessica Lagunas’s three video performances — “The Better to Caress You With,” “The Better to Kiss You With” and “The Better to See You With” — belong to the category of “Surfaces,” yet speak to more than just the theme of idealized beauty. In the videos, Lagunas applies nail polish, lipstick and mascara, respectively, until each container is fully emptied, resulting in grotesquely over-painted nails, lips and eyelashes. This series addresses cosmetics and the ideals to which women aspire, yet it also comments on the commoditization of the beauty industry itself; as such, it treads the line between “Surfaces” and “Acces(sories),” calling into question the relationship between aesthetics and economics.

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Photo: Regina Galindo
In a piece of performance art, Regina Galindo is drawn on by a plastic surgeon who indicates what procedures she would need done in order to achieve an ideal of physical beauty.

Nail polish makes another appearance in Nicole Awai’s “Specimen from Local Ephemera: Castle Nut and Drama Queen Series,” a mixed-media piece that blends standard materials — graphite, acrylic paint — with the less traditional, such as glitter and the aforementioned nail polish. “Specimen” offsets classical portraiture and architectural precision with a legend detailing the colors of the nail polishes she has painted with — “Pool Party” blue, “Dream Queen” pink and so on. With the brands of each polish written clearly on the surface of the piece, it is ambiguous whether Awai is critiquing commodity culture or embracing it as a new medium. Regardless, her use of these unique materials creates a complex and entrancing effect.

The exhibition’s title, “Flow,” refers to “the appropriation of elements of popular culture in relation to the economies of the look,” according to the catalogue. Yet the word’s colloquial meaning — a continuous, steady stream of movement — defines the experience of the gallery, which seamlessly takes visitors from subtle commentary on these “economies of the look” to overt critiques of an image-driven society. Set off from the main room are two of the most striking pieces of such criticism: Regina Galindo’s “Cut Through the Line (Recorte por la línea)” and Kelly Sinnapah Mary’s “Vagina, Jyoti Singh Pandey.”

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Photo: Sam Fritch / Keith Morrison
Keith Morrison's "Market IV" is one of many works in an exhibit that examines the importance of appearance in today's image-driven culture.

The former is a video performance in which a plastic surgeon draws on the artist’s naked body with marker to indicate the surgeries that would be necessary to render her physically perfect. As Galindo’s body becomes covered with marker ink, the overlapping shapes and lines blur and overlap, losing their meaning while highlighting unattainable ideals of beauty. The piece was filmed in Venezuela, which has some of the highest rates of cosmetic surgery in the world and an entire industry built around beauty pageants.

Mary’s piece, on the other hand, is a chromogenic print that depicts a woman sitting in a sensual pose and holding out scissors. Written on her headdress are the words “castrate rapists.” Here, archetypes of female beauty come into conflict with sexism and gender violence. The piece’s title refers to the victim of the 2012 Delhi gang rape, a 23-year-old physiotherapy student who died after being brutally raped by six men on a bus.

“Flow” is a diverse exhibition, with no predominating style or medium. Within 20 feet, one can go from Keith Morrison’s watercolor “Market” series, featuring detailed drawings of fruit and vegetables in baskets; to Miguel Luciano’s “Pure Plantainum,” a plantain-shaped platinum pendant signifying the “bling” that rappers often wear; and Winston Strick’s “American Woman,” an abstract sculpture made of leather belts and metal. Large, richly detailed pencil drawings, such as Jairo Alfonso’s “212,” are juxtaposed with tiny, intricately decorated chicken skulls by Alessandra Exposito. And then there is Jessica Kairé’s “Comfort Set,” a set of weapons made out of plush, pastel-colored material, so as to resemble sinister children’s toys. The exhibition challenges viewers to deepen their understanding of the Caribbean, using contemporary art to do so.

A thought-provoking commentary on image-obsessed societies, “Flow” defies easy definition. These artists subvert stereotypes of the Caribbean, revealing complexities that go far beyond the paradisiacal image of the region propagated by the tourism industry. Do not be deceived by its title: The exhibition does not encourage going with the “flow” of commoditization and beautification; rather, it pushes back against that current, acting as a critical check to contemporary Caribbean culture.

Flow: Economies of the Look and Creativity in Contemporary Art from the Caribbean

through Aug. 29
Inter-American Development Bank Cultural Center
1300 New York Ave., NW
For more information please call (202) 623-1410 or visit www.iadb.org/cultural.


About the Author

Miranda Katz is an editorial assistant for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on June 27, 2014