“Those alive to ever-present signifiers of enslavement and colonialism have to look no further than the average bottle of rum. For the labels either contain supposedly comforting artistic renderings of benevolent plantation scenes, or these labels boldly and proudly declare that the product has a centuries-old manufacturing pedigree. We don’t have to do much speculating as to what sorts of people were obliged to do pretty much all of the work.”
— Eddie Chambers, from his catalog essay Coffee, Rhum, Sugar & Gold: A Postcolonial Paradox. Some Considerations
Coffee, Rhum, Sugar & Gold: A Postcolonial Paradox, an exhibition on view until August 11 at the Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD), looks at the legacy of European colonialism in the Caribbean through the work of ten contemporary artists. Whether connected to the Caribbean by birth or focused on the region by choice, the exhibiting artists use their work as a means of examining the relationship between the power structure, those who are controlled by it, those who benefit from it, and those who actively seek to liberate themselves from it.
With roots in a variety of Caribbean countries including the Bahamas, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Jamaica, and Puerto Rico, participating artists are Firelei Báez, Leonardo Benzant, Andrea Chung, Adler Guerrier, Lucia Hierro, Lavar Munroe, Angel Otero, Ebony G. Patterson, Phillip Thomas, and Didier William.
Coffee, Rhum, Sugar & Gold: A Postcolonial Paradox is curated by first-time MoAD contributing curator Larry Ossei-Mensah, Senior Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit and Co-Founder of ARTNOIR, and Dexter Wimberly, independent curator and Founder & CEO of Art World Conference.
The exhibition title is inspired by some of the core products that have historically been produced in and exported from the Caribbean to the rest of the world. A key driver of the exhibition is the theory that colonialism has continued to exist in other forms, and is in fact spreading through the export of soft power, the use of military force, the control of international financial and banking mechanisms, as well as the increase in globalization.
“Colonialism is often discussed in the past tense,” states Wimberly. “We want to look at how it impacts modern day life. More specifically, Coffee, Rhum, Sugar, & Gold: A Postcolonial Paradox is concerned with how colonialism’s legacy can be seen throughout the politics and economies of the Caribbean and beyond.”
“Themes such as imperialism, hegemony, and neo-colonialism are not just relics of the past, but are notions the influence today’s policies which are very visible in our present day,” says Ossei-Mensah. “They may be called different names like nationalism, BREXIT, or foreign aid, but they all are mechanisms designed to control and oppress the ‘other.’ We hope people leave the exhibition feeling inspired, empowered, and informed—ready to challenge the status quo.”
Coffee, Rhum, Sugar & Gold: A Postcolonial Paradox features more than twenty-five works in a variety of media including mixed media installation, painting, and sculpture.
Phillip Thomas’ large-scale triptych on canvas, Pimper’s Paradise, the Terra Nova Nights edition (2018) shows how fashion can function as a tool or weapon of differentiation, subordination, and re-colonization. Dispersed throughout the background of the piece are images of plantation society, racial subordination, and wealth, while in the foreground are the contemporary signatures of upwardly mobile wealth. In Thomas’ work, fashion operates as a signifier of class, economic mobility, subordination, and social alienation.
Rendering her subjects in complex layers of pattern and imagery, Firelei Báez casts cultural and regional histories into an imaginative realm, where visual references drawn from the past are reconfigured to explore new possibilities for
the future. Often featuring strong female protagonists, Báez’s portraits incorporate the visual languages of regionally-specific mythology and ritual alongside those of science fiction and fantasy, to envision identities as unfixed, and inherited stories
as perpetually-evolving. Firelei Báez contributes three works to the exhibition including her painting, How to Slip Out of Your Body Quietly (2018), in which human legs protrude from under sprouted palm seeds, a work born out of the artist’s interest in the way culture and identity are shaped by inherited histories.
Leonardo Benzant’s mixed-media work emerges from his ongoing and deep exploration of his Afro-Dominican heritage. His colorful hanging sculptures and paintings help him both navigate and express his identity and spirituality. “My practice is driven by my connection to the trans African-Atlantic diaspora. I recognize both my ties and disjunction from an ancestral past by considering the possibilities of genetic imprints, cultural identification, innate and intuitive beliefs and a conscious seeking of links that reveal continuities that are hidden or largely unsuspected by the mainstream”. His totem-like sculpture, The tongue on the blade: Serenade for Aponte and all those who have vision (2017), is inspired by historical figure José Antonio Aponte’s lost book of paintings, discovered in Havana in 1812 as authorities investigated a rebellion and conspiracy to end slavery in Cuba.
Resembling an outsized, semi-translucent bag overflowing with blown-up replicas of Embajador (Ambassador) Chocolate, Lucia Hierro’s Embajador (2017) borrows from pop culture, the history of art, and everyday items of the working class in the US and the Caribbean. The monumentality of her work, and elevation of the status of objects, engages the viewer in a discourse on issues of class, culture, identity, and gender.
Lavar Munroe maps a personal journey of survival and trauma in a world of gang violence, drugs, murder, and self-discovery. Though inspired by the past, Munroe’s loud, energetic, and unapologetic visual language confronts contemporary society with the strained and difficult relationship between authority and those who are marginalized and oppressed by systems of power. As well as tapping his own experiences, much of Munroe’s practice comprises research that is informed by critical investigation and theories surrounding mythology and literature. Through his work, Munroe explores several social stereotypes to critique and challenge disparities that cut across gender, race, class, and age.
Featured image: Lucia Hierro, Aesthetics y Politics, 2019, site-specific installation at MoAD. Courtesy: MoAD