The islands that make up the Caribbean each have their own story to tell, set against a backdrop of ruthless conquest, bold revolution and lush tropical landscapes. With rich diversity and storied histories, Caribbean artists often work across mediums to contemplate the complexity of their island nations. Yet, as a faction of contemporary art, Caribbean artists are frequently miscategorized as ‘Latin American’ artists, which fails to capture the nuances in their work. March’s cohort of Fountainhead artists - Jairo Alfonso, Gwladys Gambie and Giscard Bouchotte, all hailing from vastly different Caribbean lands - convened in Miami to share their work in a city where Caribbean influences peeks out at every corner.
“This residency is about bringing our Caribbean neighbors together to have a voice in Miami,” says Kathryn Mikesell, the co-founder of Fountainhead Residency. “In the art world I think it’s certainly one of the regions that doesn’t have as strong a voice as others, and yet deserves it.”
Hailing from Cuba, a Caribbean island that arguably receives more widespread recognition for its artists and art movements, Alfonso’s work has frequently mined his experience growing up in rural Aguacate, just outside of Havana. Initially, his practice explored material culture in a rural landscape, but evolved into a deeper examination of material culture across different economic contexts. Lately, Alfonso has taken to creating works on paper that capture hundreds of different objects in a single frame, or dissecting and drawing the parts of outdated communication objects, like radios and cameras.
“My work speaks to the obsession with consumption, but from an archaeological perspective,” Alfonso says, pointing to 494 (Bergenline Avenue), a work inspired an avenue of the same name in Guttenberg, New Jersey, in which Alfonso documented and meticulously drew 494 objects he saw in windows or on the streets, and that he feels truly capture the essence of the place. “I draw each object one by one and do not do a sketch beforehand,” he says. “I work until I fill the space, so that its a time capsule. Once I’m done, I count the objects in the work and title it that way.”
At Fountainhead, Alfonso spent most of his time in thrift stores, photographing and gathering materials for new works inspired by Miami’s particular relationship to consumerism. He also prepared for an upcoming exhibition at The Bronx Museum, “Useless: Machines for Thinking, Seeing, and Dreaming,” which will feature Alfonso’s work alongside artists like Roxy Paine, William Kentridge, and Fountainhead Alum Simón Vega. Between making work and promoting his new show, Alfonso was thrilled to connect with other artists from the Caribbean, and share his work with a large audience. “It’s been an incredible experience because I’ve met a ton of people and have been able to connect with other artists, go to exhibitions, meet new galleries and connect with the local community. I even got to be on TV because CBS filmed at the residency!” he says.
Like Alfonso, Bouchotte also hails from a Caribbean country that tends to draw more attention for its cultural capital. Bouchotte, a renowned Haitian curator and writer who will curate Haiti’s pavilion at the Venice Biennale for the second time this year, approached his time at Fountainhead somewhat differently than the artists that usually participate. “I’m comfortable in the idea that a curator has to serve as a link between creation and production, and I’m interested in linking the artists I’ve met to institutions and organizations who have money to put into production,” Bouchotte says. Invited by the French Art Associates to curate a performance during the Tout de Monde Festival, the residency offered an opportunity to connect with artists he might otherwise struggle to meet. “It’s really interesting to know that it’s easier for us to meet in Miami than our respective countries because of the difficult, expensive flight connection,” he says. “For those of us living and working in the Caribbean, Miami is a hub.”
For the Tout de Monde festival, Bouchotte staged a procession with local artists that fused Carnival influences with the Rara tradition more popular in his native Haiti. “The Carnival is one of the only state-supported cultural events, but there’s another collective performance named Rara, which was formed initially as the Carnival of the slaves because it happened after the Carnival of the masters,” Bouchotte explains. “The slaves didn’t really get to enjoy the masters’ Carnival, but Rara was theirs to enjoy. So I proposed this idea and invited three performing artists to interpret this edition.”
Gambie, from Martinique, had never before visited the United States. Her work, however, speaks largely to much of the racial issues currently being discussed in the U.S., as seen through her own Caribbean lens. Whether creating gorgeous drawings with an ink and liquid technique, or donning a sculptural costume for a self portrait, Gambie reflects on the restrictive stereotypes pushed onto the black female body while heavily incorporating nature and landscape motifs. “My work is a way for me to get out of the stereotypes and aesthetic canons associated with black women, and represent their bodies with empowerment, sensuality, and surrealism,” says Gambie. “In Martinique, we have stereotypes of what a black woman should look like, but it’s a hypocrisy because we have a lot of beautiful, big black women, and I aim to show them with eroticism, something different.”
At the Fountainhead, Gambie mounted a work in the "Echo Natures, Cannibal Desires" exhibition at the Little Haiti Cultural Center, entitled Moko des Indes, which represented the first time she exhibited within the U.S. She also created works inspired by the scores of Spring Breakers in the city, drawn to the voluptuous curves and fearless fashion of many of the young black women vacationing in Miami Beach. The residency also presented an opportunity to work on a larger scale, while meeting new artists whose process or practice touches on many of the same issues as hers. “I come from a little island and for me, this is very different,” she says. “In Martinique I work in my house and I don’t have the possibility to do big work, and I’m experimenting with that while meeting new artists and getting out of my comfort zone.”
With the Caribbean as a backdrop and the Fountainhead as their meeting point, Alfonso, Giscard, and Gambie encountered enormous opportunities to drive their work forward, from a televised CBS interview to countless meetings with curators and gallerists, and the opportunity to show their work before a new audience. But they also found themselves reflecting on the geographies of their region, and how each other’s work might influence a future project. “We meet people and we never know what can happen with them,” says Bouchotte. “I can’t imagine today what kind of collaboration we’ll have in the long term, but I know it will certainly be interesting.”
By Nicole Martinez, Culture Conductor