PORTLAND, Maine — The Caribbean. Emerging from the doldrum days of drab winter and into the chill of early spring, just the words are enough to prompt longings for the simple, the languid, the mercifully, perpetually warm. Only the last of those is unequivocally true, whatever the travel brochures might tell you (88 degrees and sunny in the US Virgin Islands; I just checked). “Relational Undercurrents,” the clunkily titled exhibition of Caribbean contemporary art recently opened at the Portland Museum of Art, makes that much clear.
The show makes a mission of obliterating blithe misconceptions. The Caribbean archipelago, writes Rutgers professor Nelson Maldonado-Torres in the show’s 10-pound catalog, “is a structure that has come to define the organization of the ‘captive populations’ of the modern/colonial world.” Not the thought that might leap to mind as the waves trickle through your toes on the white-sand shores at one of the Sandals resorts, but maybe that’s the point.
The Caribbean was a laboratory for colonialism’s litany of sins — enslavement, displacement, exploitation of land and resources — and a small-scale dry run for the main event unfolding on the mainland a little bit to the north. Blithe beachgoers shuttling between airports and all-inclusives are encouraged to imagine the islands as a matched set of idyllic coastlines, though it could hardly be less true. Truth, of course, does little to dent perception, an idea Nguyen Smith tackles in his piece “Bundlehouse Borderlines No. 3 (Isla de Tribamartica),” which knits a cluster of Caribbean nations into a patchwork whole, mimicking the broad-brushstroke view of most mainlanders.
From our privileged North American perch, it’s easy enough to slip inside the tourist industry’s protective shell and experience the islands safe from the dark complexities of their histories. Who wants complications when the bartender is lining up coconut cocktails on the tiki bar?
Naturally, that blinkered view is a target here right up front: On the wall just outside the entry, Scherezade Garcia’s “In My Floating World, Landscape of Paradise” splays a big, friendly pattern of bright blue floaty rings, a child’s network of waterborne playtime. Yes, but. On each of the rings the artist has made important additions: Airline baggage tags, bound for New York, the rings lashed together with twine. It colors the scene from bright to bleak: Sunny from afar, the rings darken into a flotilla of escape and survival.
It’s the perfect opener, grabbing your attention and subverting your expectations in a single stroke. I wish it had a little more company. “Relational Undercurrents” is one of those group shows that doesn’t hang together other than literally; it feels like a social mixer between vaguely familiar strangers. There’s painting, sculpture, video, photography, installation, and remnants of performance pieces. It sites itself on the islands, but also draws from their broad diaspora.
The exhibition started at the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach, Calif., as a project of the Getty Foundation. I wouldn’t question its worthiness — any pushback to the longstanding monolithic notion that “contemporary art” is made exclusively for, and by, a first-world urban elite is necessary and important — though with its 80 works by 50 artists from a half-dozen countries speaking four languages, it’s as uneven and scattershot as it is ambitious. At minimum, it proves a point, if not on purpose: That each of the islands are distinct, with histories and social systems of their own, whatever their proximity. If you’re meant to leave a little confused and with a fractured sense of continuity, mission accomplished.
From its mishmash, things do emerge. The notion of the sea both as oppressor and liberator is a thread to be pulled one end to the other. Andil Gosine’s “Our Holy Waters and Mine” is a lineup of Mason jars engraved with the names of bodies of water that his Indian ancestors crossed en route to the island as indentured laborers for the British. The phrase “Kala Pani,” Hindu for “black waters,” appears on each; it’s an invocation of the Hindi taboo against crossing the sea, which the British dismissed out of hand: On the islands of Trinidad and Guyana, the ethnic Indian population is by far the majority.
In an inspired pairing, Gosine’s jars perch right beside a set of bleak, starkly beautiful photographs by Nadia Huggins, from Trinidad and Tobago. She calls the series “Circa No Future” (numbers 4, 10, 20, 22, 24 and 25 are here), the words emblazoned on the T-shirt of one of the black kids pictured — a punk-rock phrase as imagined by an ESL student, maybe. Marooned on a crag of pale stone in “No. 25,” the black ocean looming beyond them, a chilling literality emerges. The island is their prison, the sea their keeper.
Where but Haiti could that be more true? I doubt it’s coincidence that Haitian artists are so many here, with centuries of poverty, political revolution, and natural disasters scarring their history and making for fertile artistic terrain. A former slave colony, Haiti holds the distinction of being the first of the islands to declare independence from its European masters, in 1804, though it can feel like the last positive thing that happened there.
The island is an outcast among its tropical peers, the only one to have failed to develop a thriving tourist economy for all the reasons I mentioned. Edouard Duval-Carrié captures its malaise in a grand, shimmering work painted on aluminum of a black man’s dreadlocked head emerging from electric-blue waters, surrounded by shadowy jungle. He calls it “Lost at Sea,” which seems stark truth, if nothing else.
Taken together, the islands’ reputation as paradise congeals for the vast majority of its citizens less as something lost than never found. I was struck by a large multi-paneled painting by the Cuban-American artist Lilian Garcia-Roig. A dense jangle of tree roots, branches and vines, it’s the least Caribbean-looking scene you can imagine: no blue sky, not a beach in sight.
The title she’s given it, “Fluid Perceptions: Banyan as a Metaphor,” is a touch too literal for my liking. But you get the point. Her Banyan grove, painted with loose, gestural strokes, weaves and tangles into something impenetrable, something dangerous. It’s a fractured scene, disjointed, opaque, complex beyond knowing. Not a notion that would play well in the tourist trade, no; the truth can be uncomfortable that way. But for a set of islands long cast in the glow of sunshine daydreams, truth feels long overdue.
At the Portland Museum of Art, 7 Congress Square, Portland, Maine, through May 5. 207-775-6148, portlandmuseum.orgMurray Whyte can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @TheMurrayWhyte