No city is really an island, and that goes double for New York, arguably the most cosmopolitan metropolis in the world. Gotham, instead, is a port—a point of entry for goods and ideas and peoples from near and far. A center of convergence connected to millions of other hubs, the five boroughs sometimes serve as a key aerie for arriving cultures to assay their places of origin. “Caribbean: Crossroads of the World,” the summer’s big blockbuster exhibition, is one such encyclopedic appraisal. A fresh new effort at clearly seeing there from here, it also speaks volumes about present-day New Amsterdam. After all, an exhibition as big, varied, and ambitious as this rare triumph could only really have been dreamed up in the Big Mango—er, I mean the Big Apple.
That New York is the world’s biggest Caribbean city might be news to some, but likely not a surprise to NYC residents who recognize it as filled with the sounds, smells, and influences of the islands and rim nations that line the Caribbean Sea. Trinidadian roti joints, Panamanian travel agencies, Guyanese cricket matches—all of these and more make up what it means to live at this bustling intersection of otherness and normality. The Caribbean—its identity, culture, and visual art—is also an evolving condition. This partly explains why it’s so difficult to avoid identifying closely with this remarkable show. As happens sometimes in portraiture, the Caribbean’s colorful likeness appears at once shockingly different and eerily familiar.
A three-museum effort a decade in the making, “Crossroads of the World” is impressive merely in terms of its vast size. A historical compendium of more than 500 works by some 250 artists, the show’s full scope requires travel from Manhattan’s Museo del Barrio to the Studio Museum in Harlem, and across the East River to the Queens Museum, in Flushing. (Note to art lovers: Although the complete tour is highly recommended, any single museum visit offers beaucoup rewards.) This treasure trove convincingly demonstrates that museum ambition need not be tied to costly physical expansions. The institutional equivalent of the recent trend toward artists’ collectives, “Crossroads of the World” illustrates that most savvy of recession-era principles: There’s strength in numbers.
A visual history of the Caribbean as the original junction between Africa, Europe, Asia, and the Americas, “Crossroads of the World” is an exhibition that raises as many questions as it answers. What are the conceptual and geographical boundaries of the Caribbean? Is it possible to conceive of these polyglot nations as sharing a common visual heritage? When, in fact, does the history of the region even begin? The answer to this last question, according to the show’s nine curators (captained by Elvis Fuentes, curator of special projects at El Museo del Barrio), is the Haitian revolution of 1791–1804. A watershed event like the 1789 French Revolution, this successful slave uprising set in motion the complex story that these three museums visualize today. The added fact that these separately themed shows cohere without turning textbook didactic proves yet another strength in this capacious, gem-filled history-as-an-art-exhibition.
Less an exhibition of Caribbean art than a show of art about the Caribbean, “Crossroads of the World” kicks off at El Museo del Barrio with a visual exploration of the region’s racial and cultural mix as established by successive economic and political forces. A painting like Agostino Brunias’s A Planter and His Wife Attended by a Servant (1870) illustrates the genteel front behind a colonial ideology that resulted in centuries of slavery and the area’s ruinous plantation monoculture. A set of prints by Jacob Lawrence examines the Haitian slave revolt from the charged point of view of the 1930s Harlem Renaissance. Five black-and-white photographs by Leo Matiz capture the region’s vast oil wealth and its human and environmental devastation. Both complementary and divergent, the exhibition’s selections—which also include prints by Paul Gauguin, photographs by Ana Mendieta, and paintings by Camille Pissarro—reach something of a synthesis with a ravishing painting by the Colombian master Enrique Grau Araujo. Titled La Mulata Cartagenera (1940), this orange-hued portrait of interracial womanhood is rife with associations about the lush beauty engendered by this new mixed culture.
Discussions of race and the Caribbean’s multiple identities acquire a sharper edge uptown at the Studio Museum. There, a 1797 black-chalk portrait of Jean-Baptiste Belley—an African-born slave who became an elected representative to France’s National Convention—exemplifies the Haitian patriot as a swashbuckling (not to mention well-endowed) superhero. A nearby diorama from the same period fashioned in Suriname, an ex-Dutch colony, represents African slaves as merrymaking musical savages—proof that historical periods are hardly synchronous when it comes to human liberty. While a mere few feet away, a highly contemporary irony plays out that encompasses the representational history of these and other pieces. Titled Ode to CMB: Am I Not a Man and a Brother? (2006–2007), Hank Willis Thomas’s gold-and-cubic-zirconium rapper’s medallion razzes black identity in a way that would make most of his artistic predecessors squirm. (Generational confrontations regarding evolving ideas of blackness and representation, in fact, give the Studio Museum chapter of “Crossroads of the World” both its frisson and swing.)
A water motif dominates the final chapter of this fulsome exhibition. Introduced by a gorgeously simple video of artist Janine Antoni literally tightrope walking across the Caribbean’s horizon line, the Queens Museum appropriately underscores the oceanic flow of generations of tropically inspired talent. Fittingly, this last leg of “Crossroads” proves both the largest and most democratic. A Romare Bearden collage sprinkled with Matissean accents sits cheek by jowl with Sandra Ramos’s riff on Robert Delaunay’s concentric painting. Newcomer Sheena Rose’s streaming animation shares wall space with a luminous waterscape by Armando Reverón, Venezuela’s late answer to J.M.W. Turner. Surprisingly, even the museum’s famed Panorama of the History of New York gets into the act. A tourist attraction turned found canvas for Puerto Rican artist Melquiades Rosario Sastre’s installation The Fleet (1985), its model waterways serve as the perfect staging ground for the artist’s floating immigrant islands.
Arguably, “Crossroads of the World,” and the book that accompanies it, will define all other subsequent Caribbean surveys for years to come. A popular, intergenerational, and entertainingly historical show, it lets artists talk to one another across the ages. Interested viewers, most especially kindred New Yorkers, should rush to listen in.
El Museo del Barrio, 1230 Fifth Avenue, 212-831-7272, elmuseo.org; The Studio Museum in Harlem, 144 West 125th Street, 212-864-4500, studiomuseum.org; Queens Museum of Art, Flushing Meadows–Corona Park, Queens, 718-592-9700, queensmuseum.org