In Part 3 of our conversation, Elvis Fuentes, project director for Caribbean: Crossroads of the World, spoke candidly about explorations of race, racial identity, and history in contemporary Cuban art. Here, he talks about aspects of the project that extend beyond the exhibition, and its contributions to scholarship in this field.
We’ve talked pretty exhaustively about the exhibition, but there are other elements in Caribbean: Crossroads. What can you tell us about them?
You know, we never called it “the Caribbean exhibition.” We call it “the project.” Because that project has several components. The exhibition is one of them. Of course it’s the most visible, because it’s going to be there for six months or so, and it’s going to grab a lot of attention. It’s the one that will make people go to a place. But we also have a series of public programs that are already happening—artist’s talks, concerts, presentations of music, dance. That is happening throughout the length of the show.
The public programs are really important because you can’t think of the Caribbean without thinking of performing arts. Music is really, really key; also dance, and the carnival. That’s really important. So we’re going to have a carnival in the fall.
We also have an educational component for schools—for teachers—at different levels. And it will be accompanied by a database of artists that is now online and being populated as we speak. And the last one is the book.
Tell us about that.
Caribbean: Art at the Crossroads of the Worldis not a catalogue—it’s very important to understand that. It’s a publication that we see as part of the larger overall project. I co-edited it with Deborah Cullen. We commissioned texts from several people who are really knowledgeable about the Caribbean, and we wanted them to contribute some specific discussions. So you’re going to see a range of texts, from general pieces on ideas about the Caribbean to more specific texts about one island—something that’s not necessarily about the whole Caribbean, but you’re going to see a lot of connections there.
Just to give an example, there’s a text by Jennifer Smit on Curaçao—just Curaçao—as a hub, how this small island throughout the centuries has been a hub. So the whole idea of the Caribbean as a crossroads, you can see it there. We usually think of hubs as Panama or Havana or Cartagena. But you can see it in a small island like Curaçao.
Or you can have a text like the one written by Sergio Ramírez Mercado, a very important Nicaraguan writer, that he called “A Black Animal Dressed in Sequins.” Which talks about the idea of popular expression, the “wild” on one hand and also the Baroque. The first book he wrote about popular expressions in the Caribbean was in the 1970s. He’s been working on this throughout the years, and he’s a top writer in Latin America, so not surprisingly he wrote a marvelous piece.
There are some reprints too, of texts that are really important in the history of the Caribbean. That’s just a selection, a sampling, of the texts. But for us the most important is the selection of images that go along with them.
What’s the relationship between the exhibition and the images in the text?
Not all of the works in the exhibition are illustrated, because we were responding more to the requests of the writers. Because she was writing about Curaçao, for instance, all of the works that Jennifer Smit requested are from Curaçao, or by Dutch artists traveling in Curaçao. So there are some images in the book that are also in the exhibition, some that are not. We didn’t reproduce the exhibition themes in the book—those were for the show, and had a lot to do with the institutions themselves, as I explained earlier.
What we did in each museum was to develop themes that we could then adapt further to the institutions themselves. That was an organic process. We developed the themes and then we said, “Oh! These two could go well here, and these two could go well there”—you know, it all made sense. In the last phase of the project, when we were working directly with the curatorial staffs at each museum, we were able to accommodate the themes even more to the interests of the institution as well. For instance, as I was saying, the references to the Harlem Renaissance in the show at the Studio Museum. Also for Queens Museum because they have this historical relationship with the World Fairs, we created a small section about the Caribbean in the Universal Expositions.
The database of artists is an interesting element. Tell us about that. Is it online now?
It is, and we’re constantly adding. The last time I checked there were something like 400 artists. The idea is to keep adding artists as we receive them. The data is a small bio of the artist, information on the work, and images—a lot of images. And here again, what’s important for us is that people are able to see. The idea is that this is going to be an artist archive, where you can see art from all over the Caribbean.
Caribbean artists working in New York?
No, all over the Caribbean. All Caribbean artists, in France, in Martinique, in Brazil, it doesn’t matter.
So Cuban artists could send their information.
Oh, yes. We’re getting a lot of information. But of course we have to process it. It’s being handled by the registrar at El Museo, and the curator, Rocío Aranda-Alvarado, working with interns.
We ask for specific things, like a one-paragraph bio. But you never get that. (laughs) You get a full curriculum. So the whole editing process takes longer. And resizing the images so they work well in the database.
So that’s going to continue. The things that are going to live longer, we didn’t want them to be attached only to the exhibition. For instance, we didn’t want the database to be just artists in the exhibition. That selection was restricted by issues of space and budgeting. In the book and database, which are the things that will last longer, it was important to go beyond those specifics of the show.
Tell us about your own background.
I studied art history at the University of Havana and my focus was mostly on Caribbean art. Actually, my thesis was on Caribbean artists living in New York. And the tutor was Yolanda Wood, who is a respected scholar in the Caribbean field. She founded the Caribbean Studies at the University of Havana in the 1980s, and is currently the director of the Center for Caribbean Studies at the Casa Las Américas in Havana. I was her teaching assistant while in school, and because she used to travel a lot, I would teach some of the classes.
As I said, my thesis was on Caribbean artists living in New York, some of whom were never studied before in Cuba, like Félix González Torres, Luis Cruz Azaceta… There were mostly Cubans, but also several Puerto Ricans, because Puerto Rico has a very important presence in New York. And as a matter of fact, I even studied the history of El Museo del Barrio, which is very funny, because I ended up working there.
I graduated in 1999. Before graduating I was already working at the Ludwig Foundation in Cuba, which at that moment was really thriving, with many of the interesting projects that were happening in Cuba at that time. Dannys Montes de Oca was the main curator there, and she basically trained me for the job and then left. I worked there for about three and half years. At the same time, I was one of the readers for Graciela Pogolotti, a very respected intellectual in Cuba, daughter of the painter Pogolotti, who was blind. She used to have several readers and I was one of them. For me, this was really a wonderful experience. I worked with her for about three years, and of course it wasn’t just reading. What was most rewarding are all the discussions that these readings generated. And it was like a one-on-one, really an incredible learning experience.
After that I won a scholarship here at CUNY to continue research on my degree thesis. I came in 2002 and decided to stay. In 2004 I was invited to join the team that was organizing the triennial of printmaking in Puerto Rico. I went down to Puerto Rico and stayed there for approximately two and a half years. When I finished there at the Instituto de Cultura, I was engaged in the preparation of the first art fair in the whole Caribbean, Circa Puerto Rico 2006. While I was working on that, I was called by El Museo. They were looking for a new curator. We had just had an experience together, when I curated a show of Félix Gonzales Torres in Puerto Rico that was presented at El Museo. I guess they were very happy with the project. That’s how I got invited to join the curatorial team.
My first day at the museum was the kickoff meeting of Caribbean: June 30, 2006. It was this big meeting with dozens of curators, scholars, even artists. MoMA was involved. It was like a brainstorming thing, people talking about issues, like defining what we meant by the Caribbean, how would it be understood for the project, or what was most needed in terms of scholarship. There was a lot of back and forth about time frame, what would the exhibition focus on, and things like that. That was the beginning, and that was my first day at El Museo. So exciting!
Now that the project has launched, what comes next for you?
I started my PhD last year at Rutgers University. For me it’s a new chapter. I decided to go to Rutgers because at the university’s Zimmerli Museum, they have a very important collection of Russian art, especially Soviet and what they call “non-conformist” art from the former Soviet…empire. It’s an empire, because it’s beyond just the Soviet Union—all the Eastern European countries. What I want to study is the relation of these traditions and their focus on specific issues, especially social issues, the role of art in society and discussions about the role of the intellectual in society, the artist specifically. How these ideas have impacted the art of Latin America and the Caribbean.
The impact of Soviet and non-conformist art on the art of Latin America and the Caribbean?
Yes. Or more specifically, the impact of the ideas that they were debating, trying to implement or to question in their respective contexts. That has a lot to do with the experience of the avant-garde in Mexico, in Cuba, in Argentina. People tend to forget that before the McCarthy era, I would say like 80% of the intellectual class in the U.S. and Europe were socialist or anarchist or… something that came out of this link. It was an international phenomenon. And it had a long-lasting impact throughout Latin America, especially in universities and in the intellectual elites. The fact that these ideologies have less influence today does not mean that the seed was not planted, somehow, throughout Latin America. What I found even more interesting was that there are many ways in which this can be traced. That’s what I’m interested in doing.
And how about Caribbean: Crossroads?
There’s interest on the part of many institutions that the show travel—of course, a selection of the show, not all of it. I’ll probably be related to El Museo throughout this project. After that, I’m not sure. I really want to concentrate on the PhD and finish it, and be able to dedicate time . . . to learn Russian, things like that. (laughs) Travel to the third madre patria. We have Spain, then the U.S., and then the Soviet Union. And we have a love/hate relationship with all three of them. Some say the fourth one may be China. Who knows?
The whole idea of doing the show big, and having the three museums, was to make this a citywide event, and I think we did it. We saw institutions responding with their own projects—like the Bronx Museum of the Arts, with its Cuban contemporary show this summer. Even the Brooklyn Museum has stepped up its collecting from the Caribbean. I think that trend is going to continue, which is really good both for the Caribbean and for the museums themselves.
Caribbean: Crossroads of the World continues at El Museo del Barrio and The Queens Museum of Art through January 6, and at The Studio Museum in Harlem through October 21.