Turn of the tide | Panorama

A new exhibition of contemporary artists explores the “submarine” links among the islands of the Caribbean archipelago. A portfolio of artworks from Relational Undercurrents, now on view in New York City

  • Still from Water and Dreams (2014, digital video, 06:14), by David Gumbs. Courtesy Of The Artist
  • Antillas (2013; concrete, steel, acrylic, enamel, and endemic native plants, 36 1/4 × 9 7/8 x 6 inches each), by Engel Leonardo. Photo courtesy Of The Artist and Kadist, Paris and San Francisco
  • El Mundo desde abajo/Under View of the World (2015–16, cyanotype panel, 30 x 40 x 2 inches), by Juana Valdes. Photo courtesy Of The Artist
  • From the series Circa No Future (2014, digital photograph, 22 1/2 x 30 inches), by Nadia Huggins. Photo courtesy Of The Artist
  • The Waters of Kiskeya/Quisqueya (2017, nine panels, mixed media on vellum, 72 x 108 inches), by Jean-Ulrick Désert. Collection of the artist, courtesy of Éspace d’Art Contemporain 14°N 61°W, Fort-de-France, Martinique
  • Detail of The Waters of Kiskeya/Quisqueya, by Jean-Ulrick Désert. Collection of the artist, courtesy of Éspace d’Art Contemporain 14°N 61°W, Fort-de-France, Martinique
  • Detail of The Waters of Kiskeya/Quisqueya, by Jean-Ulrick Désert. Collection of the artist, courtesy of Éspace d’Art Contemporain 14°N 61°W, Fort-de-France, Martinique
  • Detail of The Waters of Kiskeya/Quisqueya, by Jean-Ulrick Désert. Collection of the artist, courtesy of Éspace d’Art Contemporain 14°N 61°W, Fort-de-France, Martinique
  • From The Fold series (2016, mixed media installation), by Adler Guerrier, from the exhibition Relational Undercurrents. Photo courtesy Of The Artist and David Castillo Gallery, Miami

“The unity is submarine,” writes the Barbadian poet Kamau Brathwaite of the Caribbean archipelago — referring not to underwater topography but to the currents of history, language, culture, and memory that connect our far-flung arc of islands. It’s the defining concept behind Relational Undercurrents, a major exhibition of contemporary Caribbean artists, currently on view in New York City. As the curators write, unlike other recent shows which emphasise “the linguistic divisions, imperial histories, and contemporary conditions that separate the different areas in the Caribbean from each other,” Relational Undercurrents argues “that the visual arts are uniquely equipped to bridge the region’s language and cultural divides.” In other words, the focus is on what these artists from the breadth of the Caribbean have in common, while not ignoring or eliding what makes them different. It is, as the curators say, a decidedly “archipelagic approach” to a region of the world that is “notoriously hard to categorise.”

Unsurprisingly, given the title of the show, one recurring element in many of these works is the sea, which serves by turns and sometimes simultaneously as subject, source of imagery, theme, and even medium. “The sea itself has been known by many names,” the curators remind us, “including the North Sea, Sea of the Antilles, Sea of Venezuela, West Indian Sea, Great Western Ocean, Gulf of New Spain, and Gulf of Mexico” — a continuous body of water that changes with every shift of perspective, like Relational Undercurrents itself. The titles of the show’s four sections suggest certain preoccupations: “Conceptual Mappings”, “Perpetual Horizons”, “Landscape Ecologies”, “Representational Acts”. Charting our physical and imaginative worlds, seeking and exceeding our limits, learning to live sustainably in our small island places, asserting our presence and our right to be ourselves: whatever else divides us, these imperatives connect us, relate us, through tides that run deep in our past, our present, and the unknown future.


Curated by Tatiana Flores, Relational Undercurrents: Contemporary Art of the Caribbean Archipelago ran at the Museum of Latin American Art in Los Angeles from September 2017 to March 2018. Including works by eighty artists with roots in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Curaçao, Aruba, Sint Maarten, St Martin, Martinique, Guadeloupe, Trinidad, Jamaica, the Bahamas, Barbados, and St Vincent, the exhibition was part of the Getty Foundation’s Pacific Standard Time initiative. In June 2018, Relational Undercurrents moved to the Wallach Art Gallery at Columbia University in New York City, where it remains on view until
23 September. The catalogue, co-edited by Flores and scholar Michelle A. Stephens, is published by Duke University Press.