The Art of Caribbean Exchange, in Gold, Stone or Hardwood

The Art of Caribbean Exchange, in Gold, Stone or Hardwood

By the 16th century, after the Spanish brought their weapons and their diseases to the New World, the Taino had almost completely died out. Their ceremonies were supplanted by Christian worship, their zemi statues by crucifixes and saints.

“Arte del Mar” might have been more illuminating if it were a bit larger, and extended past the pre-Columbian tradition to include the art of colonial settlers and of Afro-Caribbean populations. Yet Mr. Doyle has provided a sharp modern coda with the Cuban artist Wifredo Lam’s “Rumor de la Tierra” (“Rumblings of the Earth”), a 1950 painting on loan from the Guggenheim that depicts angular, mostly headless humanoids dancing or charging through a sea of brown. The placement of the figures is explicitly indebted to Picasso’s “Guernica,” but also draws on the forms of the Afro-Cuban religion known as Santería — and the prehistoric bird at the center bears a passing resemblance to the avian statuary elsewhere in this show.

Alongside “Rumor de la Tierra,” you can read on the wall a few lines from the Martinican philosopher Édouard Glissant, who argued that Lam’s art embodied a particularly Caribbean aesthetic. The painting allows African, indigenous, and European forms to jostle with and transform one another without losing their cultural specificity.

It’s encouraging to discover the voice of Glissant, perhaps the last century’s most profound thinker on global culture and identity, in galleries that were not too long ago designated for “primitive art.” Unlike the Mediterranean Sea, he proposed in his classic “Poetics of Relation” (1990), the Caribbean is “a sea that explodes the scattered lands into an arc. A sea that diffracts.” It’s not a melting pot, but a web of lived relations, where the Old World’s absolute categories of race, language or religion mix and mingle.

In that way, Glissant understood the Caribbean as a paradigm for a contemporary global citizenship, a way to understand identity in an era of constant motion. As the Met prepares a major renovation of its Rockefeller Wing, where some of this show’s Taino artworks have been on view for a generation, the best thing its curators can do now is to learn from these Caribbean examples, and to map the objects in its collection as links in an infinite, nonhierarchial chain of human encounters. (Montreal’s Museum of Fine Arts, incidentally, has recently rehung its collection in explicit tribute to Glissant, uniting all its departments into a single “Arts of One World.”)

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