4.4 / Miami

The Capital of Caribbean Cool: Caribbean Diasporic Artists in Miami

By crystal am nelson November 15, 2012

Image:Leyden Rodriguez-Casanova. Lace and Table, 2012; wooden table and lace; dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist.

If using Renny Pritikin’s Prescription for a Healthy Art Scene as the measure of a city’s cultural health, then Miami may be considered the pinnacle of wellness. For a city with a scene still in its infancy and whose global reputation rests largely on an annual art fair, this is a good thing. At first glance, Miami’s strengths are many, including Art Basel; the world-class, publicly accessible private collections held by such prominent Miamians as the Rubell, De la Cruz, and Fontanals-Cisneros families; and the substantial funding structures available to artists as a result of unique partnerships between public and private entities.

Then there are the elements discoverable only upon embedding oneself in the local scene. These unique strengths include  risk-taking and experimentation, widespread resourcefulness (evident in the way Miami artists leverage local resources to build artist-run spaces and develop innovative programming), and mutual support among the some 200 artists that have formed a community that is like a close-knit family. Such less obvious elements are the strengths of Miami’s growing art scene and are inextricably linked to the city’s unique position as a hub of the Caribbean diaspora. The unique demographics of Miami make it an art capital unlike any other. We see these same characteristics in the family and social structures of many Caribbean nations—particularly in Cuba and Haiti, the primary ethno-racial origins of a large percentage of Miamians.

Taken at face value, the diasporic influence may appear self-evident  or culturally moot. However, despite Miami’s official nickname, the “Gateway to the Americas,” and the large population of Caribbean diasporans in the art scene, few of its active participants wish to overtly align themselves with this scene. A number of conversations that I have had with Miami artists and curators revealed a reticence to acknowledge or even to admit the impact of the Caribbean diaspora on their artistic practices and on Miami’s contemporary arts ecology as a whole. This is not surprising in view of the critical backlash that artists have received s for their overt engagement with identity politics; it is a reluctance that is particularly true for underrepresented artists who rose to prominence in the 1990s, as seen played out in an astonishingly sensational fashion by critics who felt put out by the politics of the 1993 Whitney Biennial. Not only was the show castigated, but it was also summarily dismissed for ostensibly eschewing white heterosexual male artists in service to a multicultural agenda. Robert Hughes writing for Time magazine called it a “fiesta of whining,” while Christopher Knight writing for the Los Angeles Times compared it to the train wreck scene in The Fugitive.1 Although I cannot ascribe blame to those artists for the Miami art scene’s self-distancing from a Caribbean identity, it does provide a framework to understand why, even in the larger art world, identity has become such a four-letter word, and why some artists avoid claiming allegiance to it altogether.

In my view, artists embracing Miami’s cultural history can only deepen the richness already present in the city’s art scene, as doing so would for any city (an argument  that could be added to Pritikin’s prescription for a healthy arts scene). This is not to say that cultural producers must work from or in demonstration of some ethno-racial allegiance, whether real or imagined, but rather that an artist’s identity—if we understand identity to be a multivalent compound of experiences that are predicated on the bodies in which we live—is always already present in the artwork he or she makes. 2 Photographer William Eggleston is a great illustration of the ways identity is inscribed in work even when not overtly or intentionally referenced. His ability to document some of the more rural parts of the Deep South is partially due to the access and mobility all but guaranteed by his race, gender, and class. Simply put, as a white man, son of an engineer, and prominent judge, Eggleston was less burdened by the safety concerns that would have, at the time, weighed heavily on a lone female photographer of any ethnicity and certainly on a black man. These oft-ignored issues of access lend themselves to more nuanced considerations of identity and its impact on artistic production. They reify identity as an amalgamation of elements emanating from the cultural milieus to which any individual is exposed—and diaspora, transnational movement and transcultural shifts, is a salient feature. For this reason, when we look to Miami and talk about how diaspora contributed to its evolution as a unique cultural space, we are also obligated to discuss diaspora’s influence on cultural production in Miami.

Charo Oquet. Crazy Widsom and A Dance of the Cosmos—Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic,

Charo Oquet. Crazy Widsom and A Dance of the Cosmos—Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic, 2011; mixed media performance and intervention; dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist.

To better understand Miami artists’ relationships to the city’s cultural composition and position as an anchor point in the Caribbean diaspora, Art Practical led a roundtable discussion with four artists who are at various stages in their careers, “Capital of Caribbean Cool: Contemporary Caribbean Diasporic Artists in Miami” on September 21, 2012.. Three of these artists represent the Caribbean: Leyden Rodriguez-Casanova from Cuba, Charo Oquet from Dominican Republic, and Kira Tippenhauer from Haiti. The fourth artist, Eddie Arroyo, who is of Colombian and Peruvian descent, provided crucial historical context to diasporic trajectories leading to, through, and from Miami. By the end of the conversation, we were able to lay bare the problematic elements of diasporic identity as a defining component of Miami’s art scene. Perhaps the most interesting piece of the conversation was the group’s challenge in reaching a consensus on what a Caribbean diasporic artist actually is, despite three-quarters of the panel having made the prototypical journey from the Caribbean to Miami. Each had a strikingly different idea of what diaspora means for him or her, and the city they all now call home.

Oquet suggests that a Caribbean diasporic artist is one “who sees himself or herself as a Caribbean in essence and who addresses issues which are related to what it means to be a Caribbean.”3 Although one could argue semantics over the use of “essence,” the term poses questions about whether there is such a thing as an authentic or pure Caribbean. These questions are further complicated by the Caribbean’s position to creolization, which by definition counters common notions of purity and authenticity. Nonetheless Oquet’s devotion to showcasing a contemporary Caribbean aesthetic in Miami is evident in her long-term project Edge Zones (2003–present), an exhibition- and event-production initiative supporting intercultural exchange among English-, French-, and Spanish-speaking America. Miami-based artists feature prominently in many Edge Zones programs, through which they engage in what I refer to as reverse diasporic transmissions—cultural artifacts produced by diasporans and exchanged with their homelands—from Miami and the Caribbean.

Rodriguez-Casanova, on the other hand, refutes claims to any specific Caribbean diasporic narrative. For him, Havana, Cuba, is just his birthplace: “[A]side from where you’re born, it’s really not, for me…so apparent as a category or label.”4 His position is interesting considering the conceptual underpinnings of his work: an interdisciplinary artist working in the minimalist tradition, Rodriguez-Casanova utilizes mass-produced, cheaply made household furniture and décor in striking installations. His work demonstrates a clear, albeit subtle engagement with the socioeconomic realities he remembers from the Cuba of his early childhood. He is particularly interested in how Cuba’s ongoing economic crisis lends itself to a DIY home-improvement aesthetic, a simulacrum of haute architecture and design that is fetishized by American and European bourgeoisie but necessarily embraced by citizens of smaller, economically challenged countries who may only have access to cheap, mass-produced goods and materials. While these problems do not belong to Cuba alone, Rodriguez-Casanova’s choice to tackle what he considers Cuban-specific manifestations of these issues is intrinsically connected to his experience/memory as a member of the Caribbean disaspora.5 Yet he strategically gives primacy to conceptual frameworks rather than ethno-racial origins. In doing so, he stresses (even if he does not fully resolve) the tensions between hegemonic structures that created these marginalizing labels and those artists who embrace the labels not only to gain access to hegemonic institutions but also to use their artwork to deconstruct the Eurocentric and masculinist ideologies that undergird them.

To further complicate matters, a common refrain I heard from several artists in Miami—and briefly mentioned during the “Capital of Caribbean Cool” conversation—is that Cubans are a “different story” when it comes to Miami’s arts and cultural scene. The history of Cuba-United States relations and the special political status granted to Cuban immigrants in the United States are well documented and do not need reiteration, but the circumstances surrounding the arrivals of Cuban asylum-seeking artists in Miami is instructive to understanding why some might share Rodriguez-Casanova’s position. The generations of Cuban artists

who started arriving in the US in the 1960s received widespread attention because of unprecedented support from Miami’s museum and collector base who cultivated these artists and underwrote a number of Cuban-themed exhibitions.6 Miami-Dade Public Library and the Lowe Art Museum were particularly instrumental in promoting this strain of “new” Cuban artwork. The Mariel boatlift brought even more artists referred to as the Miami Generation including such icons as Ana Mendieta and Felix Gonzalez-Torres, and further mobilized Miami art denizens around a new strain of Cuban art that reflected the conceptual movements.7 After nearly fifty years of organizing Cuban artists along ethno-national lines and with immigration laws progressively changing on both sides of the Florida Strait, fatigue has undoubtedly set in. Yet still, there are artists currently living and working in Miami who are exiled from Cuba permanently, at least as long as Fidel Castro is alive, therefore making various aspects of diaspora central to the conditions under which they are artistically productive and making “contemporary Caribbean diasporic artist living and working in Miami” a useful phrase for understanding the city’s contemporary arts landscape.8

Haitians are also altogether a different story—one too long to adequately address in this article—but I hope we all remember images of the US Coast Guard turning away boats of Haitian refugees looking to escape the Duvalier regimes. Haitians’ access to the United States and other parts of the world has been hampered in a variety of ways, but those who were successful in their migratory attempts have contributed significantly to Miami’s cultural capital.

Tippenhauer is a relatively new addition to Miami’s art scene, only having arrived in the United States from Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in 2004 to earn a college degree. After studying international relations at Elon University in North Carolina, she moved to Miami to earn an MFA in fine arts and ceramics. Still early in her artistic career, Tippenhauer has not yet formulated a position on the issue of diasporic identity as a defining component of Miami’s art scene, although she considers Miami to be the best place for her to develop her artistic vision: “I think Miami’s perfect—with my work, with my background, there are so many other Caribbean artists and professionals here; this is the perfect scene.”9 Her love for Miami directly correlates with Miami’s role as a hub for Caribbean diasporans and, more specifically, for Caribbean diasporic artists working in global-conceptual modes and tackling the complexities of identity, an approach she believes is missing from the dialogue in Port-au-Prince, Haiti:In my work I talk about [the crisis with my racial identity]. I talk about my body type. It’s not like what you see in magazines where everything is thin and polished and very soft. I have cellulite. I have dimples all over my body. So I portrayed that. In Haiti people are not comfortable with that. People are not comfortable with my work. I cannot get an endowment in Haiti, and it’s not a question of experience, it’s the content in my work, because I don’t paint pretty beaches. I don’t do shells. I don’t do the typical market day scene, and my work doesn’t sell there, thus far.10

Kira Tippenhauer. Dainty Rivalry, 2012

Kira Tippenhauer. Dainty Rivalry, 2012; mixed media collage; 4x4”; Courtesy of the artist.

Her questionable characterization of Haiti’s contemporary art scene notwithstanding, Tippenhauer is not alone in this view of the differences between artistic production in the Caribbean and the United States. She shares this view of cultural production in the Caribbean with Oquet and others with whom I spoke,, revealing another potential reason for the current art scene’s general unease with recognizing a diasporan influence.

Caribbean art markets tend to sway toward the art buying elite’s taste for abstract, traditional landscape, and realist figurative paintings—all forms associated with the modern tradition and not contemporary art per se. We can argue semantics about the meaning of “contemporary” in contemporary art, but it is clear that a number of Miami-based cultural producers draw stark distinctions between global conceptual art and the traditional forms that were once popular in Miami as a result of Caribbean migrations from the sixties to the eighties. These fissures marking US modes of artistic practice as “legitimately” contemporary over and above Caribbean styles require closer examination because they suggest a false parallel between education and sophistication; accepting them as natural allows for traditional Caribbean artists to be shifted out of coevality from their contemporaries based in the United States or Europe and consequently shifted out of subjectivity and even modernity.11 None of the artists I spoke with denigrated artists who live and work in the Caribbean; they only criticized the art markets, which compelled Tippenhauer to remain in Miami after receiving her MFA, and led Oquet to relocate to New Zealand by way of the United Kingdom after attempting to launch her career in Dominican Republic in the years following graduate art studies in Miami. Her combined migrations ultimately led her back to Miami to launch the Edge Zones project using the city’s aesthetics, remixed from years of diasporic exchanges, as a counterpoint to her homeland’s market-driven art scene.

Miami’s conceptual artists’ rejections of Caribbean art markets underscore the region’s economic realities, which in turn are some of the leading catalysts for transnational migration from the lower Americas. As Rodriguez-Casanova reminds us, the dominance of traditional and modernist art forms in these markets could indicate “that it was more difficult to make a living as an artist in a country that was more economically worse off,” and therefore Caribbean-based artists, regardless of their educational background, have to meet market demands in order to survive and support their art practices in their homelands.12 With this in mind, an argument could also be made that the extreme impact of market forces on artistic production in the Caribbean is a pronouncement of global conditions—the reverberations of colonialism through these smaller, poorer nations as demonstrated by the economic disparities between them and their former colonial powers (France, Spain, and the United States). Such an argument effectively places Caribbean-based artists in direct dialogue with their “First World” contemporaries. In this context, diaspora can both accentuate the sociopolitical dynamics that force cultural producers to leave their homelands in order to sustain an art practice as well as unearth an under-acknowledged privilege of those who can afford to travel to the United States or Europe in pursuit of their careers. In other words, diaspora not only connotes displacement and exile but also opportunity.

Leyden Rodriguez-Casanova. An Uneven Floor

Leyden Rodriguez-Casanova. An Uneven Floor, 2010; carpet and wood; dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist.<

This final point returns us to the opening task of defining a contemporary Caribbean diasporic artist and its relevance for Miami’s art scene. As the panelists prove, the definition is one that is multiple, fluid, and contextually dependent on the occasion during which diaspora unfolds, but which also takes into consideration that diaspora is always unfolding and never ceasing. The conversation also demonstrates that regional commonalities do not automatically translate into social, cultural, or political alliances, useful or superfluous, nor should they. Rodriguez-Casanova’s choice to decenter diaspora from his practice creates space for him to pursue broader connections beyond the Caribbean and the Americas to Europe; though it at firstmay seem trite, but Rodriguez-Casanova reinvigorates the approach with his independent exhibition space, Dimensions Variable (DV). DV transforms Miami into an experimental zone and resource for artists outside of Miami, thereby inverting the traditional exchange model with more established art capitals by making Miami the point of arrival rather than the point of departure.13 Oquet’s hyper-awareness of diaspora allows her to bridge gaps between the Caribbean and its US progeny, the city of Miami. Bridging these gaps is becoming all the more important in the wake of an exponential increase in the number of international biennales in the Caribbean—with the Havana, Haitian, and Dominican Biennales at the forefront—as well as in light of increasing mobility between the United States and these nations. Tippenhauer’s diasporic experience, in its freshness and even in its convention, allows her to rewrite “the rules” in accordance with twenty-first century models of mobility. As seemingly disparate as these experiences may seem, taken together and reconciled they offer a viable response to the question: a contemporary Caribbean diasporic artist has traceable roots in the Caribbean, has traveled to other parts of the world at some point in her life, may have returned to her Caribbean homeland to visit or repatriate, and by virtue of her comings and goings, is able to remix and expand the diasporic reach. With regard to contemporary Caribbean diasporic artists in Miami, panelist Eddie Arroyo perhaps put it best:

All of them just brought their own history to Miami and reflected it…I would say, mostly it’s a Miami movement, homegrown basically, for lack of a better word, because they really weren’t from here. However, Miami became their home and people responded to them. Hence, the art world responded to them to a certain extent, of course. That became the beginning of a Caribbean diaspora.14

 

Listen to the full recording of the Art Practical roundtable,“Capital of Caribbean Cool: Contemporary Caribbean Diasporic Artists in Miami,” which took place on September 21, 2012 at David Castillo Gallery, in Miami, on Patti Hernandez's SoundCloud.

 

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NOTES:

1. Robert Hughes, “Art: The Whitney Biennial: A Fiesta of Whining,” Time, March 22, 1993 [Accessed on November 11, 2012]. Available at http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,978001,00.html. Christopher Knight, “1992 Year in Review: ART: It’s Called Art, Not Politics: With identity politics overriding the art world, it was a relief to see shows by artists like Vija Celmins and Adrian Saxe,” Los Angeles Times, December 26, 1993. [Accessed November 11, 2012]. Available at http://articles.latimes.com/1993-12-26/entertainment/ca-5558_1_art-museum

2. I understand that within the context of contemporary cultural production “identity” is a complex and contentious subject, particularly with respect to dominate postmodern approaches to identity and subjectivity—strategies I do not necessarily find useful for underrepresented artists whose subjectivities and narratives have yet to gain appreciable traction in the public sphere or art historical discourses. Although I accept the notion of a decentered subject, I also acknowledge that even a decentered subject cannot escape the inevitable relationship between the body, history, and structures of power. Nor can it escape the causation of these factors in the social context. For these reasons, and despite that there have been and continue to be generations of artists who directly engage identity politics in their work, I assert that an artist’s identity is always already present in his or her artwork, even when it is not the intended conceptual underpinning of an artwork.

3. Charo Oquet, from the “Capital of Caribbean Cool: Contemporary Caribbean Diasporic Artists in Miami” roundtable, held at David Castillo Gallery in the Miami’s Wynwood District on Thursday, September 21, 2012, 6–8:30 p.m.

4. Leyden Rodriguez-Casanova, from the “Capital of Caribbean Cool: Contemporary Caribbean Diasporic Artists in Miami.”

5. Based on a separate interview with the artist in his studio on September 11, 2012.

6. Suzanne Oboler,and Deena J. Gonzalez, eds. Oxford Encyclopedia of Latinos and Latinas in America, V. 1. London: Oxford University Press, 2005. P 106–111. [Accessed November 12, 2012]. Available at http://www.delacruzcollection.org/calendar/2012-cesar-t-talk-sept-27-2012/Cesar_Texts_resized/Oxford_Cuban_American_Art_Trasobares.pdf

7. See “This Day in History: April 20”for more information on the boatlift for more information on the Mariel boatlift [LINK: http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/castro-announces-mariel-boatlift]. The  label “Miami Generation” also served as the title of a 1983 group exhibition at the Miami-Dade Public Library, curated by Margarita Cano, mother of renowned Miami-based artist Pablo Cano. Archives and additional information pertaining to the show are in the Smithsonian Archives of American Art [accessed November 10, 2012].[LINK: http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/margarita-cano-papers-5445]

8. Glexis Novoa has been in exile in Miami since he arrived in the States during the Mariel boatlift. His artwork interrogates power structures and the political ideologies behind them and can be viewed at http://www.glexisnovoa.com/.

9. Kira Tippenhauer, from the “Capital of Caribbean Cool: Contemporary Caribbean Diasporic Artists in Miami.”

10. Ibid

11. > Okwui Enwezor discusses this theory, originally posited by Johannes Fabian in his book Time and Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object, in an essay he wrote for the catalogue to the 2006 exhibition Snap Judgments: New Positions in Contemporary African Photography

12. See Footnote 2.

13. Leyden Rodriguez-Casanova, from the “Capital of Caribbean Cool: Contemporary Caribbean Diasporic Artists in Miami.

14. Eddie Arroyo, from the “Capital of Caribbean Cool: Contemporary Caribbean Diasporic Artists in Miami.”

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