On view in Caribbean: Crossroads at the Queens Museum of Art: Sandra Ceballos, Absolut Delaunay, 1995

Filling gallery spaces in three museums, Caribbean: Crossroads of the World takes a panoramic look at the dozens of countries that make up this region, in what the New York Times has called “the big art event of the summer season in New York.” In the first of a four-part Thursday series for Cuban Art News, Elvis Fuentes, project director for Caribbean: Crossroads, talks about the Cuban art and artists in the show, and Cuban art in general.

How does Cuba figure in the exhibition, and in your thinking about Caribbean art in general?

Cuba is the largest of the Antilles. Throughout the 19th century—and most of the 20th century, actually—it was one of the most important places, especially Havana. There are many ways in which Cuba intersects with Caribbean history, or the way we were thinking about it. Havana and Matanzas were the most important, rich areas in terms of the plantation system, especially sugar, and of course cultural development throughout the 19th century. But in terms of Caribbean history, Santiago de Cuba is also very important, and Cienfuegos, because there was a very important migration of planters who moved there after the revolution in Haiti.

I tried to not over-emphasize Cuban presence, but the fact is that the earliest academy of art in the region is there, for instance—the Academy of San Alejandro in Havana. That says a lot about the development of a certain type of academic painting tradition, as opposed to other islands and territories where that development is more sporadic. And where you can find really important figures, but not a mass of artists—that’s a fact. But we tried to have balance throughout the show.

How many countries are represented in Caribbean: Crossroads?

We did a counting after the whole thing was finalized: 379 artists from 39 countries. That information is related to where the artists were born, not where they live now—where they developed the work, or if the work refers to that country. It might be, let’s say, like a Belgian artist that was visiting the Caribbean and did a painting on Sint Marteen. That doesn’t necessarily mean Sint Marteen is counted, but the Belgian was. But 39 was the number of countries that were somehow represented.

And how many works in all three museums, total?

585. Plus a number of reproductions, approximately 30.

And do you have a sense of how many are by Cuban-born artists, or relate to Cuba?

Hmmm. We didn’t really do it country by country. But I think there are 40. Artists of Cuban descent. In some cases, like Amelia Peláez, you have more than one piece. So it’s 40 artists, not 40 works. José Bedia also has more than one piece. René Peña, Ana Mendieta…

You’ve given us a sense of the Cuban art from the colonial era that’s in the show. How does the exhibition place Cuban modernism in the early 20th century? And the Vanguardia movement?

The show is not about art history—that is really key. It’s about cultural history, cultural issues in the Caribbean. Issues of race, issues of political history, issues of migration, language. The carnival, different cultural expressions we thought were important to have in the show. But there’s not a specific interest in tracing a history of art in the Caribbean.

First, because that would be completely unbalanced. Because as I was saying, Cuba has an academy of art very early in the 19th century, but the next school of art you will find in the Caribbean will be at the end of that century, in Venezuela… In the islands it’s even later, for instance, 1942 in the Dominican Republic… in the 1950s in Puerto Rico. But there are several of these places, especially the small islands, that don’t have a school of art even today. Or they rely mostly on private academies led by one artist. Which is also something that is important throughout the Caribbean, but it’s a different kind of model, a different kind of development.

So it was not as much important to have this kind of history of academic art in the Caribbean so much as seeing how the cultural history of the Caribbean has affected the visual arts. Which is mostly what we were dealing with, or thinking of as relevant for the show.

With the sense of balance that the curatorial team brought to the process, what were the criteria for selecting the artworks for the show?

It was a very long process, and took the most time. We had a series of meetings in different Caribbean islands or places. We went to Trinidad and Tobago, we went to Guadalupe and Martinique, Aruba and Curaçao, Colombia. We had a very close relationship, of course, with Cuba and Puerto Rico…

Did you go to Cuba?

I am from Cuba, so I went on my own. Also I traveled throughout Central America. I went to all of Central America except Belize. Each place has its own characteristics.

We started working on an ideal checklist that would be the basis for the selection. That changed, of course—after the earthquake in Haiti, for instance. We were thinking of bringing some works from Haiti that were really important and that haven’t been seen here in ages, or never before. Especially things that are not so commonly associated with Haiti, such as the academic tradition, which is strong in Haiti. We tend to think of Haitian art as just the primitives.

Something that was very important to us was the deconstruction of many of these stereotypes having to do with the art of the Caribbean. One of them, for instance, is a meta-narrative throughout the region that is especially strong in Cuba, about the Vanguardia art going against academic art, or the art of the Revolution sweeping all academic past, and so forth. We didn’t want to go by these narratives. Because that’s more of interest within a history of art. It’s not that it’s not important, it’s just that for this project and what we wanted to accomplish, it was not necessarily the best direction.

We worked on this massive checklist. But then comes the reality of budget. We had a serious hurdle in the fact that El Museo didn’t have a director in place for a year and a half. So fundraising efforts were cut back. We had to move to a second approach, which was also important for us: to get the local collections more involved.

That was something we wanted to do anyhow, because it’s a way of saying, or rather a way of making visible, this other problem of the migration of cultural patrimonies. I wouldn’t say it’s specific to the Caribbean, but it’s really widespread throughout the Caribbean: there weren’t protections on the patrimonies until recently. Because in many cases we’re talking about territories that are still colonies or got independence just a few decades ago. So most of the works, or most of the cultural and artistic expressions, have left the islands. It was important for us to demonstrate that, if you want to do a big project on the Caribbean—even a big historical project—you can do it in New York just by using New York collections. There’s so much that you can find here.

Do you think that’s true of Cuban art also? Do you think that the patrimony is mostly gone?

To the first question, yes. Definitely. You can find some fine examples of Cuban art in New York collections. The second question is bit of a tricky story because you have some protections in place, and there is a tradition of institutions that creates a different reality. The first museum of art in the Caribbean was in Cuba, the first academy of art… so it’s somehow a more nuanced history. In general, you could say that there has been some interest in protecting some areas of the patrimony. Those protections are constantly violated, but they exist. There are big names that need special permission for anyone to get their work out of Cuba. Mostly the modern masters, like Wifredo Lam, Amelia Peláez, et cetera. But you wouldn’t find that kind of protection in place for other artistic expressions, especially so-called primitive artists, which, for this exhibition and the story of the Caribbean are really important. Those are not necessarily well protected.

Of course there are differences from one place to the other, but the fact of the matter was that we were here in New York, and we were able to find incredible things—and we know there are many more, of course. In some cases, there were things that we needed to bring from the islands. But just counting what was in New York, you could assemble a really strong show

In the case of Cuban art, though, you relied significantly on collectors in Miami, too.

In some cases it’s a political decision to say “We prefer to bring things in from the countries, from the places that relate to the story.” This is also the case of Miami. It’s a way of getting these people involved, and getting them to know about the project. And there are things that you will find in these places that you won’t find here. Miami is central not only in terms of collecting Cuban art, but also Caribbean and Latin American art as a whole. So we did borrow from several collections there.

Did any work come directly from the island?

No. It’s always been difficult to bring stuff from Cuba. We tried when we did [the 2010 exhibition] Nueva York. It was a major project for us. We were collaborating with the New-York Historical Society. They were the ones leading the project. This is a very strong institution internationally, and they weren’t able to pull it off.

Because of that precedent, but also because of the fact that this obviously adds a lot to the budget, we decided that there weren’t any things so critical for us that we would need to spend resources and energy in getting them in from Havana, especially if you are unsure of the outcome. I do, for instance, regret that we couldn’t have any Marcelo Pogolotti, or some other major painters that are very hard to find outside of Cuba. Or Juana Borrero’s famous painting [Pilluelos] of the three black kids that she painted in Florida. There were some things that it would have been very, very nice to have. But you can’t have it all.

Next: Defining Cuban art, on and off the island.