“Caribbean: Crossroads of the World” – Part 2: The Studio Museum in Harlem

A Columbia student’s museum experience most typically takes place south of Morningside; we easily forget that the northern half of this fabulous island has just as much to offer.  This week, I paid a visit to the Studio Museum in Harlem on 125th and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard to check out its new installation.  In the second of three posts, we’ll take a look at part two of the city-wide exhibit “Caribbean:  Crossroads of the World” on display there.

The works on display are small number, but substantial in content.  The Studio Museum’s exhibit offers two themed sections:  Shades of History and Land of the OutlawShades of History is an exploration into how artists across history have perceived race’s role in the development of Caribbean social, cultural, and political life.  This translates into a gallery with a diverse array of works, spanning centuries and styles.  This is the kind of art which is designed to provoke discourse and reflection.

“Autopsy” by Alexis Esquivel

A centerpiece of this section is Cuban artist Alexis Esquivel’s installation entitled “Autopsy“. It presents a poignant look into the racial tensions of the sports world.  The work features a makeshift basketball hoop.  On the backboard is a faint black and white photograph of working-class Cuban men.  Painted over this photograph are the backboard’s boundary lines, as well as a centrally-placed “Nike” logo.  The effect created by this is subtle, but chilling, as the workers almost appear to be jailed by the backboard itself.  The artist seems to be suggesting that behind every corporation or manufacturer are forgotten workers, enslaved by their own jobs.  The Caribbean’s history of race enslavement continues, only in a different way.  Furthermore, in place of the net is a piece of cloth, tied off at the bottom and keeping the ball from returning to its owner.  This hoop isn’t for basketball, but for a different kind of game:  a cruel one in which the player doesn’t get a return on what he puts into it.

“Redcoat” by Renée Cox

The works featured in the second section of the exhibit, Land of the Outlaw, attempt to tackle issues surrounding the outside world’s perception of the Caribbean and its people.  These pieces examine the dualistic notions of the Caribbean both as a utopian paradise and as a region with an rebellious streak.  The entrance to this section of the exhibit is marked boldly with a life-sized photograph entitled “Redcoat“.  Taken by photographer Renée Cox, it features a stern looking Caribbean native woman standing with her arms crossed, but she wears a redcoat uniform and is wielding a machete.  The photograph is imposing, embodying a real sense of power.  It could easily be viewed in this way, as an image promoting female or black empowerment, but the opposite is also true.  That she is wearing a redcoat uniform and holding a weapon is significant – though she might be empowered by the weapon, the uniform suggests that she is ultimately held back by the colonizing European forces who originally settled in the Caribbean.  This could suggest subordination or rebellion.

If you’ve got a taste for art that’s socially and culturally aware, then this part of the citywide exhibit “Caribbean:  Crossroads of the World” at the Studio Museum in Harlem is for you.  Get there quickly though, as it’s only on display until October 21st!  Admission is free with a valid student CUID through the Arts Initiative’s Passport to NY program.

Berkley Todd, TC ’13

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