Thoughts of the Caribbean often evoke rum, beaches and palm trees. Paradise looms for tourists, and artists, who have also been drawn by this idyllic vision. Renowned creators like André Breton, Ernest Hemingway and Hunter S Thompson formed their work and made history on Caribbean islands. However, what is known of the islanders themselves? There is a thriving art community throughout the Caribbean that is struggling to emerge beyond these postcard projections to speak of their subjective realities: issues of race and class, alienation and identity, feminism and pragmatism in a post-colonial world.
On a recent balmy long weekend, a glossy international crowd gathered at the Altos de Chavón School of Design on a hilltop in Casa de Campo, in the Dominican Republic – to take off the ersatz rose-coloured glasses. The crowd of collectors, curators, artists, journalists and cultural aficionados were here for the opening of the new artist studio facilities of the Davidoff Art Residency, the local leg of the Davidoff Art Initiative, which has been bringing critical attention to Caribbean art at Art Basel, art residencies and events worldwide. As the first art initiative of its kind, we were told that this project aims to provide greater international recognition for the cultural community in the Caribbean, and to cross-pollinate domestic art with international art. It wants us to discover, and be moved by, the real life teeming below the surfaces of exoticism.
While walking through the airy studios of the first international artists in residence, Alia Farid of Kuwait, Nuria Montiel of Mexico, Cathleen Mooses of the USA, Mathilde Rosier of France and Soledad Salamé of Chile; Aaron Cezar, the Director of the Delfina Foundation, made some interesting observations. As one of the curators of the residency, he mused about how cultural tourism has subtle powers. “Site-specific residencies have this sacred sort of purpose of bringing self-awareness to the local scenes. When local silos are penetrated from the outside by creative people appropriating local motifs, values and beliefs, they can show these back to the local people in a way that gives value to something that may be overlooked”. Alia Farid, for example, will be creating masks and garment pageantry inspired by the clash of the once Caribbean Indigenous with their Spanish colonizers during her stay in the Dominican Republic; an artwork she will stage on the Kuwaiti island of Failaka in a weaving together of tropical mythology with Eastern theatre.
Mathilde Rosier will be working with visual art and performance to illuminate Voodoo and explore the ways in which local shamanism gives meaning to life, and may also fill a need that First World spiritual poverty has created in the secular beau monde. Cathleen Mooses will be looking at borders, physical and metaphorical, while Soledad Salamé will experiment with communication from island to island via radio telescopes that may even invite contacts from outer space. Nuria Montiel will be bringing a local Indigenous musical instrument back to life to revive the ghosts of its players, the Tainos, a now extinct native people. After meeting with the artists in their Caribbean ateliers, Aesthetica sat down with cultural philosopher András Szántó, one of the consultants on this project. He told us more about how the budding international dialogue between the Caribbean and the rest of the world is coming to life.
A: Caribbean art has been considered naive by a haughty art world. How do you see that the unveiling of a deeper layer of Caribbean artists making sophisticated art, can impact the wider art world?
AS: When you have a relatively under-appreciated local art scene there’s always the danger of navigating between regionalism – the palm tree art cliché – and mindless copy of the Western agenda. Caribbean artists are surrendering to the local agenda and expressing what is true, and sometimes hard, for them. With this new injection of the foreign, they’re also finding an international language that resonates because of its authenticity.
A: It’s clear that the foreign artists will make important connections between local and global themes with their work in the Caribbean. In exchange, what distinctive quality does Caribbean art offer to international art consciousness?
AS: We live in a pot luck art world, everyone brings their own dish. What the Caribbean shows up with is an agenda that is predisposed to the current issues in the international art conversation: post-colonialism, gender, identity and global ecology. Here these issues are sentient, you’re confronted every day with questions of who you are, where you belong and how you’re affected by the fragility of life. The archipelago of islands are all different. The division is based on who your colonizer was – you can’t escape identity politics. These are questions international artists share. They can come here to feel these things and think about them deeply, and create work around them within an oeuvre that is already concerned with these issues.
A: I love it that the artists that were selected for this inaugural residency are dealing with some dark and thorny topics. Stephen Kaplan [Secretary of Altos de Chavón Cultural Center Foundation and Rector of Altos de Chavón School of Design] said this morning while we were touring the art spaces that “Good art hurts”.
AS: Yes, so true. It’s very bold for an art initiative to not seek pretty art. They’re seeking intelligent discussion. I think the artists who have ended up here fit well, they had very thoughtful proposals and are working on serious theses.
A: Could this serious outlook be a reversal of another cliché, the one about foreign artists flocking to the tropics to misbehave?
AS: That’s funny. We have thought once or twice “what if one of the artists does something very silly and pisses into the fireplace like Jackson Pollock?” But actually, this doesn’t reflect the art world of today. Artists are educated professionals. We wouldn’t be having this conversation if this was a residency for architects – we have romantic attitudes about artists. If you’ve paid $50 000 to go to art school, though, and you’ve laboured to be at this high caliber, why would you piss in the fire? For every Dash Snow there are a thousand artists sitting in a studio working very hard.
The Davidoff Art Residency is hosting its first five international artists until 5 April, to work on their own projects, interact with the local community, and travel inside the Dominican Republic. The Initiative has three international partner residency hosts for Caribbean artists to do the same, at the International Studio & Curatorial Program (ISCP) in New York, Künstlerhaus Bethanien Berlin, and Red Gate Gallery Residency in Beijing.
1. Altos de Chavo ün School of Design. Alfredo Esteban.
2. Cathleen Mooses in DR studio. Alfredo Esteban.
3. Mathilde Rosier in DR studio. Alfredo Esteban.
4. Nuria Montiel in DR studio. Alfredo Esteban.