Museum of Contemporary Art 220 East Chicago Avenue, Chicago, IL November 19, 2022–April 23, 2023 ICA Boston 25 Harbor Shore Drive Boston, MA 02210 October 5, 2023–February 24, 2024
In the latest iteration of the Caribbean group exhibition, Forecast Form: Art in the Caribbean Diaspora, 1990s-Today, the eminence of the geographic recedes in order for the region to instead emerge through sense and affect. The exhibition takes up the work of rereading the Caribbean, a project Antonio Benítez Rojo proposed in his machinelike, densely hyper-generative The Repeating Island.1 After a first reading allowed for the consolidation and narrativization of national histories—ones we might elaborate as socialism in Cuba or colonialism in Puerto Rico—subsequent readings have the potential to cast lines of continuity across the archipelago. Given the Caribbean’s multiplicity and simultaneity of linguistic contexts, late capitalisms, living colonialisms, and actually existing socialisms, this a staggering endeavor; it is also one that scholars have elaborated on by attending to the plantation as a foundational site of modernity, common environmental vulnerability, and shared exposure to the onerous grammars of colonialism and debt, disaster, and extractive capitalism.2 While Relational Undercurrents, the last major Caribbean group exhibition to take up this rereading forwarded an archipelagic and thus geographic perspective, Forecast Form complicates geographic framings by centering the diaspora.
Curator Carla Acevedo-Yates and her collaborators’ key intervention is to reread the Caribbean not as essential geographic unity, but as affective archipelago and mobile, sensorial geography. In a round table published in the exhibition’s catalog, María Magdalena Campos-Pons describes an occasion in which “I was miles and miles away from what is called the Caribbean, but I felt the Caribbean.”3 In the exhibition itself, Christopher Cozier’s two-channel video installation Gas Man tracks silhouetted, suited masculine figures using gas pumps as lassos to evoke continuities between western imaginaries of manifest destiny and current oil prospecting in the Caribbean.4 As it turns out, the body of water they stand in front of is not the Caribbean sea, but the Midwest’s Lake Michigan, situated near the MCA. These types of uncanny doublings trouble assumptions of geography, territory, and nationality by collapsing them into sensorial echoes and affective rhymes. The Caribbean proposed here approaches what Ren Ellis Neyra calls “Affective and sensorial attachments and orientations in excess of identitarian representation”, or what José Esteban Muñoz proposed as the brown commons.5 Across the exhibition, the Caribbean as a signifier exceeds the containerized geographic form of the map. Throughout, it appears less as a stable object of geographic or anthropological knowledge and more as a moving concept and feeling.
Forecast Form is somewhat perfunctorily grounded in the 1990s. This choice can be perplexing given the show’s disinterest in presenting a coherent picture of the period, that some works date as far back as the 1960s, and that thematic sections on the aftermath of slavery and colonial landscape conjure an even more expansive temporality. The symbolic window of the 1990s allows for the show to reconfigure two of the 1990s most indelible discourses: globalization and multiculturalism. In this sense, globalization’s hypermobile capital is broadly invoked through histories of global trade (including the increase in circulation of Caribbean art since the 1990s) and a facile multiculturalism is reconfigured as perpetual movement without fixed identity or final destination. The 1990s was also, as Ricardo Órtiz has pointed out, a decade when cultural theorists increasingly began conceptualizing the diaspora.6
The curatorial team forwards a broad interpretation of diaspora, a term meant to lend coherence to a set of polyform processes of movement from exile to immigration.7 They do important work in challenging a nativist anchoring that tends to characterize survey shows. Certainly, there are many artists that may be adequately characterized through the dual geographic specification via origin and current residence. At the same time, the itinerancies of Caribbean artists frequently exceed the oversimplified, dyadic grammar of label texts that fret over fixing singular origin and final endpoint. Some artists return to the region after spending years elsewhere; others live in several places simultaneously; some never settle at all. (And what of the gig-ification of artist residencies and biennials, themselves effects of globalization and multiculturalism, that demand artists to be perpetually mobile?) An insistence to geographically fix these artists, the curators argue, misses the point that Caribbean artists are often endlessly mobile. In the wake of 1990s globalization, Forecast Form proposes that the Caribbean can be many places at once.
Following this reality, the concept of diasporic movement becomes the exhibition’s central organizing concept. In “How to Install Art as a Caribbeanist,” Krista Thompson proposed her own rereading of the region, one that complicates enduring anthropological approaches through attention to structures of visuality and what objects do.8 I hear in Thompson’s suggestion a call for methodologies that hone closer to visual cultures than traditional art history, and Acevedo-Yates responds by imagining the diasporic movement as curatorial criteria.9 Across the exhibition, movement is alternatively rendered literally through video and invoked more opaquely through attention to materiality that conjures histories of global trade. In Álvaro Barrios’s minimalist-adjacent El Mar de Cristóbal Colón, the viewer’s movement transforms a sea of monochrome blue screen prints into a horizon of perilous red. In Zilia Sánchez’s Soy isla, the canvas itself is given to the sea, an act that is documented in a corresponding video. At its furthest edges, an elastic Caribbean stretches to comprise the work of Filipino artist and activist David Medalla (an installation that was closed when I visited). Forecast Form also makes room for under-acknowledged movements to the region, as with Alia Farid’s tapestry on the Arab presence in the Caribbean or Suchitra Mattai’s use of saris to reference the South Asian diaspora. Throughout, the works derive collective meaning not through the logic of semantic equivalence but rhyme and echo.
In its fealty to a capacious understanding of Caribbean art and artists and attention to interlocking oppressions, Forecast Form shines. At the same time, even the most promising rereading has its limits, and Forecast Form’s proposal that the Caribbean be reconceived as sensorial geography and affective commons raises a number of questions. First, how can curators avoid the trope of presenting the region as merely sensorially pleasurable, a tendency that reifies noxious fantasies of the Caribbean as ahistorical paradise ripe for Western consumption?10 Forecast Form proposes placing Caribbean curators, artists, and scholars at the center of these projects. Relatedly, at what point does the aestheticization of the region begin to obscure the need for urgent, cogent action to address, for instance, the lack of self-determination in Puerto Rico or the need for reparations in Haiti? Works by Deborah Jack and Teresita Fernández, among others, evince the ongoing need for curatorial and artistic approaches rooted in decolonization and antiracism. Finally, as the museological fetish of nativism is loosened, where are the outer edges of a Caribbean conceived through affect as attachment? Amidst the sprawling itinerancy of the exhibition’s works and artists, the Caribbean itself can be hard to locate. While opportunities for coalitional solidarity emerge from an affective Caribbean, when taken to extremes, the region, in comprising everything, could come to mean nothing.
Luke Urbain is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Spanish & Portuguese at UW-Madison. Their dissertation, “Scenes of Inseguirdad: Safety and Uncertainty in Contemporary Cuban Culture,” explores the political ambivalences of safety in Cuba and the Cuban diaspora across the revolutionary period.