In 1964, French President Charles de Gaulle visited Martinique, Guadeloupe and French Guiana on official state business.
While he flew over the Caribbean, he described the islands as “dust specks on the sea.”
The quote illustrates both an otherwordly aerial view and a deep-seated hierarchical perspective of the region stemming from French colonization.
Open at 516 ARTS, “Dust Specks on the Sea: Contemporary Sculpture from the French Caribbean & Haiti” aims to overturn that colonial bias with 27 works from the Caribbean archipelago.
“It’s very under recognized, even in the world landscape,” curator Arden Sherman, director of the Hunter East Harlem Gallery at Hunter College, New York. “These are citizens of France, they use Euros there, everybody speaks French.”
This isn’t folk art. Many of the artists studied at French universities, she added.
The French Caribbean includes the of two islands – Guadeloupe and Martinique – and the state of French Guiana. Haiti shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic. In 1804, after more than a decade of slave-driven rebellion, Haiti gained independence.
These historic currents ripple throughout the exhibit.
“There’s like this feeling of calm, of place-making in almost every work,” Sherman said, “whether it’s very apparent or abstract.
Guadeloupe’s Ronald Cyrille’s (aka B. Bird) “Key Escape” (2018) is a mixed-media piece featuring a boat with cartoonish waving hands sporting hot pink nails. Run aground on Guadeloupean sand, green moss-like material fills the craft’s interior, affirming its uselessness as a vessel. The work and its title recall the transatlantic slave trade.
Merchants kidnapped millions of Africans, forcing them to the Caribbean and elsewhere, where they were enslaved on British and French plantations.
Julie Bessard’s “The Wings” could represent a bird or an angel. The shadow on the wall behind it dances in a contrast between darkness and light.
“There’s definitely the feeling of flying away or leaving,” Sherman said. “Her work is very gestural and colorful.”
Made of industrial material, when lit by a spotlight, it reflects and redirects light, casting a shadowy presence. For Bessard, wings are a symbol of rebirth.
Jean-Marc Hunt’s “Bananas Deluxe” (2013-2018) is a chandelier dangling bananas instead of crystals.
“The real bananas are meant to rot during the course of the show,” Sherman said.
The piece references the 1939 Billie Holiday anti-lynching yowl “Strange Fruit,” as well as the skirt Josephine Baker wore when she was a 1927 Paris sensation at the height of French colonialism.
Viewers may also read the bananas as symbols of lust, the wealth of imperialism, and the vanity that grew out of Caribbean exoticism in postcolonial conditions.
Edouard Duval-Carrié’s tinted fiberglass “Ogu Feraille” (2015) speaks to the complexities of the Caribbean diaspora with a focus on Miami’s Haitian community.
“That is the head of one of the Haitian gods; the god of steel and war,” Sherman said. “The Haitian artists tend to give tribute to their culture. (The piece) is really big and it glows really bright.”
Colonialism is a common thread running throughout the exhibit.
“It’s undeniable,” Sherman said. “All of these artists are of color and they’re all descendants of a very complicated history.”