Many of us go to the Caribbean to get away from winter. We see it as a place of paradise, where lazy dreams and easy living come into focus as clearly as the soft blue water and white sands.
A new exhibition at the Portland Museum of Art provides a more diverse accounting of the region, offering historical and contemporary context for the Caribbean that emphasizes points of connections among the many disparate people and cultures of the archipelago. “Relational Undercurrents: Contemporary Art of the Caribbean Archipelago,” a traveling international exhibition that includes paintings, installations, sculpture, photography and video, is on view at the PMA through May 5.
The exhibition is ambitious in its scope: more than 80 pieces of art from 50 artists who explore themes of race, identity, sustainability and migration, among others. It paints a complex picture of the region.
“The Caribbean is so eclectic and so diverse to the point of being incomprehensible,” curator Tatiana Flores told the Los Angeles Times in 2018 when the exhibition was in Long Beach, California. “But there are many undercurrents. I’m interested in the undercurrents.”
The Portland Museum of Art is the only New England stop on the exhibition’s national tour, said Jaime DeSimone, associate curator of contemporary art at the PMA. It opened at the Museum of Latin American Art in California and has stopped at the Frost Art Museum in Miami and the Wallach Art Gallery in New York City.
DeSimone worked closely with Flores on the Portland iteration of the exhibition. DeSimone walked through the show with Flores when it was in New York, and Flores, who teaches art history and Latino and Caribbean studies at Rutgers University in New Jersey, came to Portland to help DeSimone spot the show and meet with museum staff to talk about programming components.
The artists in this exhibition have roots in Aruba, the Bahamas, Barbados, Cuba, Curacao, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Jamaica, Martinique, Puerto Rico, St. Martin, and Trinidad and Tobago. Part of the goal of the show, DeSimone said, is to demonstrate to viewers that the Caribbean is wildly diverse and not easy to categorize, despite our tendency to think of it as a tropical getaway where the primary language is Spanish. In fact, many languages are spoken in that part of the Americas, including English, French and Dutch, in addition to Spanish.
The exhibition is full of surprises, not the least of which is the number of artists with Maine connections. Five of the artists either attended or taught at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, including Lilian Garcia-Roig, Maria Elena Gonzålez, Juana Valdes, Nicole Awai and Joiri Minaya. Garcia-Roig will join DeSimone for a gallery talk at 4 p.m. March 27.
“Relational Undercurrents” is a media-heavy exhibition and stands as one of the most extensive contemporary art undertakings in the museum’s history. It includes several large wall hangings and sprawling floor pieces, and is spread out across the galleries on the museum’s first floor, including the primary exhibition space and Great Hall, as well as the Palladian Gallery in the Sweat Galleries section of the museum.
The most dramatic piece in the exhibition, because of its location and its theme, is a sculpture of floating inner tubes, bound together by plastic ties, by Scherezade Garcia. It hangs in the Great Hall and is called “In My Floating World, Landscape of Paradise.” The piece suggests collectivity, community and solidarity – people joining together to make a dangerous ocean crossing. But the empty tubes suggest the absence of people, leading to an assumption their journey ended in tragedy.
“Invaded Sea” by Tony Capellan is a collection of plastic waste taken from the Caribbean and arranged in a color-coordinated manner, from dark blue to light, to suggest water lapping ashore at the beach.
At its granular level, “Relational Undercurrents” provides context about the region’s colonial history, self-identity, environment and vision. It’s complicated and layered, but these artists do a good job providing the groundwork of understanding, DeSimone said. “We’re seeing only a slice of their practice,” she said. “If visitors walk away with a piqued curiosity and more understanding, that would be exiting to me.”
WHERE: Portland Museum of Art, 7 Congress Square
WHEN: On view through May 5
ADMISSION: $18 adults, $15 seniors and students, free for ages 21 and younger
INFORMATION: portlandmuseum.org or (207) 775-6148