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Cruising Past Stereotypes

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IDB Exhibit Offers Breadth of Visionary Caribbean Art

The small and serene gallery at the Inter-American Development Bank Cultural Center is hosting a sort of tapas exhibit—a sampling of Caribbean art where you can drop by for a brief taste or linger for a complete feast.

The 39 pieces—created between 1928 and 1991 and on loan from the art museum of the Organization of American States—offer works by artists from the Spanish-, English-, French- and Dutch-speaking Caribbean. Because the display includes a representative array of styles and themes rendered as woodcuts, paintings, drawings, sculpture and photos, it provides a quick introduction to 20th-century Caribbean art. It also offers several striking pleasures for those who need no introduction.

Need more reasons to drop by? This instructively eye-opening collection of art includes a major surrealist piece by one of the most important Caribbean and Latin American artists, the influential Cuban-Chilean Mario Carreño. A number of the pieces also echo earlier 20th-century realist and modernist modes, such as a 1940s work referencing Pablo Picasso’s 1920s classicist art. So some of the pleasures are as intellectual as they are aesthetic, with lessons about social history and the rich cultural complexities of the region.

“Visionary” is the term preferred by IDB Cultural Center Director and exhibit curator Félix Angel in describing these works. Three such visionary pieces by Jamaican father-son duo “Brother” Everald Brown and son Clinton Brown are lively and bright-colored showstoppers, with Everald’s “Victory Dance” dominating one gallery. Hidden throughout the painting, as curator Angel pointed out, are Rastafarian religious references, including the letters “R,” “M,” “U,” and “G” painted into the village buildings as architectural elements.

A more fluid folk painting by Clinton Brown, titled “A Son Is Born,” uses the elder’s color palette. The gnarled and undulated sculpture titled “Totem,” meanwhile, by the senior Brown combines African and Caribbean imagery and themes.

In another gallery are 10 folk art woodcut prints that came out of Haiti’s Centre d’Art, a school and artistic gathering place in the 1940s. Beautifully matted and framed by the gallery, the strong, simple images in black and cream are a quiet testimony to the breadth of Caribbean visionary art. The prints are particularly important, Angel said, because they break through common misconceptions of Caribbean folk art and include work by several well-known members of the Centre school.

Dominating the exhibit entrance is a large oil on canvas by Mario Carreño titled “Sonata of Stone and Flesh.” The Cuban-born Carreño moved to Chile in 1957 and this piece, created there, is a key example of his surrealist work. Showing what Angel described as “poetic pessimism,” the artist’s images of stone and bone “refer to what a nuclear catastrophe might create.” Carreño himself said the work offered an “immense holocaust of precious stones.”

Opposite the entrance—and very opposite to Carreño’s creation—is an initially unimpressive traditional piece, one of the earliest in the show, by Celeste Woss y Gil. The daughter of a former president of the Dominican Republic, her 1938 oil on canvas titled “Tobacco Vendor” is less conservative than it appears, according to Angel. Not only is it a 1930s painting done by a woman, but that woman was an upper-class artist who chose subject matter that typically focused on working people. In fact, Woss y Gil was an art-education pioneer in her country, opening an art academy. In this particular painting, there’s a somewhat unsettling struggle between a realist style and her deliberate incorporation of folk elements, but the piece remains important in its cultural context.

The exhibit was designed, in part, to reward thoughtful inspection, Angel explained, and he hopes it can counter stereotypes along the way. The region and its art are “much more complex than people think” and are not well served by popular “Caribbean cruise” images, he said, adding that most people don’t realize the richness of the multicultural influences in the region, which include many native influences, as well as British, French, Dutch, Spanish and African contributions. Also underappreciated, he noted, is the distinctiveness of each country’s culture and even some of its regions.

A striking visitor benefit comes in the form of what is described as a free exhibit “brochure,” but is really a de-facto catalogue, with images of all 39 pieces, including numbered thumbnails and full-page reproductions of the art, along with extensive curator commentary in both English and Spanish and other information. It’s the perfect “doggie bag” so that you can take a little of the Caribbean flavor home with you.

Highlights From the Collection of the Art Museum of the Americas of the Organization of American States through Oct. 26 Inter-American Development Cultural Center 1300 New York Ave., NW For more information, please call (202) 623-3774 or visit www.iadb.org/cultural.

About the Author

Carolyn Cosmos is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999