Don’t you speak the language of our art institution?
In the end of last summer, the Brooklyn Museum in New York launched the exhibition Infinite Island: Contemporary Caribbean Art (from 31st August 2007 through 27th January 2008). In the exhibition there were 80 works by 45 artists, 35% of whom live outside the Caribbean. The entity was curated by Tumelo Mosaka, the assistant curator of the museum.
Some artists were very well received, but in many reviews the exhibition itself seemed to be regarded as provincial (at least between the lines). It was considered very old fashioned to deal with identities as a subject and installations as a means of expression. However, it was the curator’s choice to pick up fifteen installations.
I did not go to New York but I did go to the Caribbean, Barbados, from where the Manhattan art world was being sniffed with sharpened senses. Therese Hadchity, the owner of Zemicon Gallery, was pondering on the reception of the exhibition in an essay not yet published while I am writing this.
According to her, Mosaka was trying to please the New York art audience at the expense of a Caribbean one and the art professionals of the region. Ironically, the exhibition ended up coming across just as exotically odd in both Manhattan and the Caribbean! Hadchity did not think that the inclusion of artists from ‘the Caribbean Diaspora” (from outside the region) should have been subject to criticism per se. In this case however, many of these artists were unknown in the Caribbean.
“I often feel that curators are like politicians who have lost touch with their constituency”, Hadchity said. In order to find out about how her own Barbadian art community related to the Brooklyn exhibition, she laid out a questionnaire, which among many other comments was replied to in the following way:
“The term ’Caribbean art’ is exactly as meaningful or meaningless as, say, ‘American art’, collector and curator Mervyn Awon stated, referring to the multiculturalism of the area. Artist Ras Ishi Butcher found the term ’Caribbean art’ just as pejorative as ‘Rastafarian art'. In his opinion, the time has come for exhibitions to be curated by Caribbean curators who know the Caribbean, or at least be jointly curated with international curators.
Artist Joscelyn Gardner pointed out appositely: “Its weighty colonial history [that of the Caribbean] means that issues of identity remain current within daily postcolonial life.”
The Finnish art historian Lars Saari has been speaking about institutional criticism as the blind spot of art critics. According to him, the Finnish art critics don’t criticise institutions, and the institutions don’t criticise themselves in terms of their operational practices. This is exactly true of the Brooklyn case as well.
Furthermore one can wonder what kind of language art people coming from elsewhere should speak so as to be understood in the centres? The reggae icon Bob Marley had to dilute his Jamaican accent before the international breakthrough took place. The musical influence on his work was also more versatile than the mainstream notions of it. Amongst the influential musicians in the Caribbean was Jackie Opel, the Barbadian super talent who died in a car accident in 1970.
It is indeed sad that Tumelo Mosaka didn’t consult Ras Ishi Butcher on these matters. Maybe Mosaka didn’t know the language?