Islands of Art

By Hank Burchard

Friday, September 5, 1997; Page N55
The Washington Post

WHETHER OR NOT you've ever visited the Caribbean, there's an art exhibit at the Smithsonian's Center for African American History and Culture that shows something of what you missed. The images range from charming to alarming, and reveal a depth and breadth of island cultures that tourists seldom see.

Focusing on the past half-century of Caribbean painting and sculpture, the exhibit at the Arts & Industries Building includes 73 works by 56 artists. Guest curator Samella Lewis says she has tried "to avoid stereotypical generalizations and to explore the very essence of the Caribbean people."

That's a pretty tall order, considering the tangled skein of West Indian history, but the show certainly pulses with the energy and diversity of cultures that have been compounded by force, greed, geography, love, hate and happenstance from virtually every ethnic group on the planet.

The exhibition, the largest ever to travel outside the Caribbean, can almost be said to have grown out of a remark made in the 1970s by the late Romare Bearden; the painter, who traveled to the Caribbean annually, complained that he could never find anything in print about the island artists. This stimulated art scholars and island boosters to work together until what amounts to a "Caribbean consciousness" has developed. Which is not to imply sameness: The only commonalities among these paintings are vibrant colors and bold imagery. Among the sculptures, which range from realistic to nonobjective, the unifying element is superb craftsmanship.

A number of these artists have left their islands for the United States. Cuban expatriate Lia Galletti, now living in Washington, mixes both media and styles in "Smell the Roses" (1993), a portrait that seems to evoke the memory of a memory of home.

Haiti-born Andre Juste, now living in Peekskill, N.Y., presents an exercise in ambiguity in "Early Hangings" (1989), a latex-on-plywood sculpture that can be seen as a pantheon of martyrs or elders, or simply as an abstract exercise in color and texture. Claude Fiddler, born and raised in St. Sincent, now lives in Los Angeles. His "Jack-'o-Lantern" (1994) is equally evocative of the islands and of impressionism.

The ancient African genius for woodcarving obviously invigorates Caribbean sculpture. The human figures in "The Tree of Life" (1984-85) by Jamaican Christopher Gonzalez seem not so much to have been chiseled from a massive mahogany block as to have grown from it.

Perhaps nowhere in the show is ethnic interpenetration more clear than in Edna Manley's "The Diggers" (1936), a mahogany low relief in a fluid but forceful style that might be called Afro Deco, a seamless blend of her heritage from a Jamaican mother and an English father.

Afro-Asian sensibilities are combined in Jamaica-born Albert Chong's "Codfish Throne With Joshua Tree Spines" (1991), a chair whose back and legs are covered in codfish skin and whose seat is a thicket of sharp spines. Chong, who now lives in Boulder, Colo., explains that salt cod is a mainstay of the Jamaican diet and that the chair is "a throne dedicated to ancestral and other spirit forces." An official sign in front of the chair orders us not to sit on it, as though anybody would.

Jamaicans outnumber all others in the exhibition, earning dominance through the power and finesse of their works. Keith Morrison, born on the island but now living in San Francisco, tends toward the pure-power end of the artistic spectrum. His "Tombstones" (1991) combines imagery of guns, dope, voodoo, murder and . . . sneakers.

One of the most riveting images in the show is the absolutely charming and utterly ambiguous "Danse de la Mort (Dance of Death)" (1993) by Edouard Duval Carrie, a Haitian now living in Miami. While clearly schooled in Haiti's Characteristic naive-surrealist style, Duval Carrie's cavorting corpse -- or zombie -- has an endearing antic sensibility that retains the mystery of voodoo without the dread. The painting actually is about the dance of life, which of course we all do on the dead run.

CARIBBEAN VISIONS: Contemporary Painting and Sculpture -- Through Oct. 4 at the Center for African American History and Culture (in the Arts & Industries Building), 900 Jefferson Dr. SW (Metro: Smithsonian). Open 10 to 5:30 daily. 202/357-2700 (TDD: 202/357-1729).


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