Connecting Caribbean stories through water
Curated by Bettina Pérez Martínez and assisted by Simone Cambridge, Seascape Poetics presents the work of six Caribbean artists who explore the complex connections of Caribbean relationships with water. The virtual exhibition is hosted by 4TH Space, a programming research space, and the Curating and Public Scholarship Lab, an experimental gallery at Concordia.
Caribbean artists Deborah Jack, Joiri Minaya, Lionel Cruet, Nadia Huggins, Olivia Mc Gilchrist, and Jeffrey Meris engage in a virtual environment to depict the relationship of water with colonization, slavery, exploitation, and Caribbean identities.
The Caribbean has a complicated past as the region was colonized. The ocean surrounds many islands and is a keeper of the many colonial histories that aren’t spoken about. Hurricanes, slavery, colonization, memory and many other themes are explored through the artists’ work concerning the ocean.
The artists also evoke a sense of nostalgia derived from being away from the main homeland due to environmental catastrophes, exploitation of resources, but also tourism which affects the local people of islands that are taken for granted for private interests.
As stated on the exhibition’s website, Seascape Poetics engages in a form of digital placemaking where the Caribbean and its diaspora exists temporarily in a shared archipelagic space.
When entering the exhibition, viewers are situated under palm trees near a wooden house, with the sea on the horizon. On the next page of the exhibition, the sound of waves crashing and the coquí, a small frog that inhabits Puerto Rico, can be heard, letting the viewer enter into an unfamiliar environment.
The exhibition is set at dawn and takes place in a tropical environment, but not the tropicalized environment that corporations have produced to sell the Caribbean. Instead, it is an uncrowded space near the sea, depicting different ecosystems that inhabit the many islands of the Caribbean, such as mangrove trees, a type of small tree that grows in coastal waters. As all of the artists have different backgrounds, they share a space where they can draw connections in an environment that resembles their homeland.
The public can navigate throughout the exhibition with 360 controls, meaning that viewers can click and drag on the background to have a look at their surroundings. Each artist has a page to showcase their work, accompanied by a description. There is also a play button at the right of each artwork title, enabling viewers to listen to a commentary by Martinez and Cambridge.
The first art piece presented is Drawn by water. (Sea) drawings in  acts, Act One: Wait(Weight) on the Water (2018) by Deborah Jack, an artist whose work revolves around video and sound installations, poetry and more. This video installation, which consists of scenes of sea shorelines filmed in Saint Martin and the Netherlands, looks at memory, colonial history and climate change. The video is black and white, erasing bright colours to avoid tropicalization.
The second artwork, Labadee (2017) by Dominican-American artist Joiri Minaya, is a video that draws parallels between colonization and tourism, and questions whether tourism is ethical. The video starts with a Columbus narration in contrast to the perspective of a Caribbean Royal cruise ship sailing in the same sea that Columbus once sailed. The video was filmed in Labadee, located on the northern coast of Haiti, a private beach rented by Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., an American cruise company. Minaya also draws attention to the impact cruise ships have on the ecosystem and the way it’s being damaged.
Moving forward, Puerto Rican artist Lionel Cruet’s Flood aftermath and other hurricane stories IV and V (2020) is a painting created on a blue tarp, the same blue tarp that was distributed to local Puerto Ricans by the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency to cover roofs that were destroyed by Hurricane Maria (2017). This artwork depicts the aftermath of the landscape after hurricanes by showing abandoned houses. Puerto Rico is still trying to recover from the event.
Then, viewers dive underwater where they can observe the work of Saint Vincent and Grenadines photographer Nadia Huggins’s Transformations No 1 (2014), depicting two images: to the left, a self-portrait of the artist underwater, her face covered in shadow and on the right, a sea urchin that emerges from the artist’s face. This artwork is significant as it draws connections between human life and marine life, where class, gender and social norms don’t exist.
Returning to the surface of the water, French-Jamaican artist Olivia Mc Gilchrist’s video installation Virtual ISLANDS (2019) shows a combination of lakes, rivers and oceans, creating ambiguity between land and water with the use of a circular lens that submerges viewers into a virtual world.
The exhibition ends with Haitian artist Jeffrey Meris’s Mouth to Mouth (2020) installation placed on the shoreline to honour overseas migrants. This artwork consists of fibreglass resin and plastic bottles sustained from a steel frame, creating an abstract version of lungs, including concepts such as breath, memory, and displacement.
The exhibition enables viewers the opportunity to understand realities that they may not be aware of, allowing them to have a better comprehension of the many stories that the Caribbean holds in its archipelagic area.
Photo courtesy of 4TH Space.