Cuban ethnographer Lydia Cabrera is known for her transnational, non-hierarchical and relational approach to the study of Afro-Cuban mythology. This she shared with the influential Martinican philosopher and poet Édouard Glissant, who writes in his 2002 essay, ‘The Unforeseeable Diversity of the World’, that the entire globe ‘is becoming an archipelago and creolizing’. Glissant suggests that creolization – the process of cultural mixing in the islands of the Caribbean as a result of slavery, plantation culture and colonialism – reflects a broader set of sociocultural trends. ‘Where the Oceans Meet’ considers the work of 40 international modern and contemporary artists through the ideas of Cabrera and Glissant at a time when borders are both culturally porous and increasingly politicized.
In the first room, archival material and video footage introducing viewers to both scholars is punctuated primarily by modernist artworks. Wifredo Lam’s abstract painting Midnight (1962), for instance – rendered in moody tones of brown, black and grey – depicts the femme-cheval, or horse-headed woman, who was a favourite subject of the surrealists. The religious practices of the African diaspora were an abstracted reference for 20th-century European modernists but, in Lam’s work, the blurring of figure and ground is a specific metaphor for the spiritual transformation of a devotee of the Afro-Cuban religion Santería. Midnight has parallels with Cabrera’s book, Contes nègres de Cuba (Afro-Cuban Tales, 1936), a series of fables, myths and trickster tales whose origins can be traced to precolonial Africa and that were later transformed and reinvented in Cuba and the Caribbean.
In the show’s largest gallery, a number of tactile works explore the often-forced migration of peoples and objects from and across Africa. For instance, from afar, Melvin Edwards’s welded-steel wall-mounted piece, Prepaid Logic (1992), is reminiscent of modernist sculptures by artists such as Anthony Caro and David Smith, as much as it resembles an African mask. Close-up, though, the railroad spikes and chains are a visceral evocation of slavery. Glenn Ligon’s painting Stranger #48 (2011) employs coal dust to reproduce a text excerpted from James Baldwin’s 1953 essay ‘Stranger in the Village’, which explores the writer’s experience as the only black man in a small Swiss town. The coal at once articulates the text and renders it illegible, thereby implying the unknowability of the Other. Glissant believed in the right to opacity, or the right to withhold one’s identity as a way to evade authoritarian control. Appropriately, though Simone Fattal’s diminutive bronze sculptures By the Hearth (1988/2017) appear frail, their abstract features are serenely withholding.
Raqs Media Collective’s Deep Breath (2019) is a haunting underwater video that literally evokes the ‘oceans’ of the show’s title, taken from the opening sentence of Glissant’s book Une nouvelle région du monde (A New Region of the World, 2006). Scuba divers swim amongst the remains of two shipwrecks on the ocean floor, where the Saronic Gulf meets the Aegean Sea. The divers eventually come upon a series of fluorescent yellow letters that spell out ‘Forgetting of Air’, the title of Luce Irigaray’s 1999 book on the element largely ignored by Western philosophy. In Raqs’s work, it is impossible to take for granted the air we breathe and senselessly pollute.
Also on display are Maya Deren’s film Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti (1985, edited by Cherel Ito and Teiji Ito) and André Pierre’s colourful paintings, such as Ceremony with Issa and Suz (c.1960), densely populated with African spirits and Catholic saints of the lwa pantheon. Deren met Pierre while in Haiti, where she became an initiate of Vodou. While ground-breaking for bringing critical attention to Haitian Vodou dance rituals, Deren’s film can be rightly criticized as opportunistic. In contrast, Cabrera’s ethnographic work challenged documentary’s truth-value, relying self-consciously on oral testimonies that were often embellished.
In the spirit of Okwui Enwezor’s landmark Documenta 11 (2002), ‘Where the Oceans Meet’ makes a strong argument for how creolization might be used as a critical framework to explore other cross-cultural contexts.
‘Where the Oceans Meet’ is at the Museum of Art and Design, Miami Dade College, USA, until 29 September 2019.
Main image: Raqs Media Collective, Deep Breath, 2019, video still. Courtesy: Raqs Media Collective