In Conversation with Yina Jiménez Suriel and Pablo Guardiola

“When Crossing the Tropics, Modernity Begins to Sweat”

The exhibition one month after being known in that island in Basel, Switzerland, co-produced by the Caribbean Art Initiative, brings together works by eleven artists who all propose different ways of inhabiting, thinking and communicating the contemporary Caribbean. The artists reveal the diversity of the region’s visual arts as well as a shared desire for emancipation, resistance and historical reconfiguration that seeks to dismantle colonial and neo-colonial narratives. C&AL spoke with exhibition curators Yina Jiménez Suriel and Pablo Guardiola.

C&AL: What is “Caribbean art”?

YJS: The category “Caribbean art” is problematic. We prefer not to define it as such but rather understand it in terms of common traits. For example, Ramón Miranda Beltrán and Madeline Jiménez Santil both participate in the exhibition. While each works with very different expressions of contemporary production, at times, they come together. Madeline says that “when crossing the tropics, modernity begins to sweat”. What she means is that it begins to disarticulate, to recognize and to rethink itself through other interrogations, different from those of the West and the North.

PG: The Caribbean is the accumulation of many things, and that includes other places.

Artists try to reconfigure our identities and change the sense of place. Miranda Beltrán includes subtle references to that in his work. Working with cement, Beltrán alludes to the markings on the stones of the original inhabitants of Puerto Rico, as well as to contemporary marks. According to official history, this type of stone was not used originally, but he contradicts this, asking: did our history not take place? I sense that many artists in the exhibition are searching for ways to reflect on and revise the official history. For example, José Morbán offers a look at recent Dominican history, and Tony Cruz has created a project that has taken many forms – installation, talk, video – and explores the references to appropriation and syncretism from the perspective of salsa, specifically from album covers.

C&AL: How do you see the role of Afro-Latinos in Caribbean art?

YJS: In a local context, and speaking from the viewpoint of my Dominican reality, most of the production comes from Afro-descendants; most of us are of African descent. And although the discourses and artworks do not exclusively refer to issues of concern to this community, efforts are being made to generate resources and create spaces for reflection in order to deepen the experience as Afro-descendants.

PG: There is also an undeniable historical factor. The Caribbean was a product of savagery, of forcibly bringing in alien populations and people, thus laying the grounds for a violent condition. For me, this is where our culture emerged from. A lot of the artists we are working with share the idea that the Caribbean consists of many types of blackness engaged in mutual exchange. In the Spanish-speaking islands, the establishment tried to whitewash the facts; in truth however, the cultural foundation for our population is black.

C&AL: How is this manifested in the exhibition?

PG: Nelson Fory Ferreira intervenes directly in the public sculpture of Spanish colonizers by adorning them with Afro wigs. In this case it is very explicit, but it is a way of saying, “let us try reversing the look.” Christopher Cozier does something similar, but in a more abstract way. He claims that his art is not “about the Caribbean”, but “about a Caribbean gaze”, and this is his point of departure in developing his research. In the Caribbean, as in other communities on the American continent, the concept of mestizaje has been used as a colonial strategy to conceal and homogenize, under the notion that nothing happened here, that there is harmony. That is a big lie; in reality there is rupture and abuse. When a system of power tries to folklorize black and Caribbean culture, it eliminates the complexity of artistic discourse. Our co-exhibitors in this event, and many others alike, support the non-folkloric view.

C&AL: Finally, to what extent does “opposition to folklore” offer a common ground (leitmotif) for the exhibition?

YJS: It is a response to cultural policies promoted by the state and the private sector. At the same time, it opposes the attempt to drain cultural production of content. Folklore has been used as a strategy to reduce the power of reflection and knowledge creation contained in everyday cultural practices, mainly those of African descent. It is a category that creates distance and promotes a discourse in which culture is denied a political space and relevance to the social changes needed in the contemporary world. Therefore, the exhibition appeals to the power of imagination from the production of meaning through contemporary art to reflect on other forms of resistance and emancipation in our different realities. The invited artists use methodologies based on subversion rather than repetition, with the aim of constructing new narratives that can evade the colonial and neocolonial symbols in the narratives of the region.

The exhibition one month after being known in that island is open at the new art space of the Kulturstiftung Basel H. Geiger in Basel, Switzerland, from 27 August to 15 November 2020.

Dominican researcher/academic and architect Yina Jiménez Suriel has worked as a curator at Centro León, in Santiago de los Caballeros, Santo Domingo, since 2018. She holds a Master’s degree in art history and visual culture from the University of Valencia, Spain, and has participated in the supporting fund Curando Caribe at the Spanish Cultural Center in Santo Domingo and Centro León. She is currently developing a research project on the relationship between, in her country, women and the architectural space in collaboration with the Polytechnic University of Valencia and the magazine Arquitexto.

Pablo Guardiola is a Puerto Rican visual artist whose artistic production involves objects, photography and writing. His particular interest is the production of varied forms of reading and narration, as well as the way these are perceived and interpreted. Guardiola has a degree in history from the University of Puerto Rico (Río Piedras) and a Master’s from the San Francisco Institute of Arts, USA. Since 2013, he has been co-director of Beta-Local, in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Camilo Jiménez Santofimio, who made the interview, is a Colombian journalist and editor. He has been the editor and manager of different media and cultural projects.

Translation from Spanish by Zarifa Mohamad Petersen