The Galleries Championing Artists from the Caribbean Region
For centuries, the Atlantic has served as the transient space that connects the “old” and “new” worlds. As humanity has evolved in its movement through it, reducing the traveling time from months to mere hours, this space has served as a highway for cultural, economic, and social transit. Many islands along the way from point A to point B were submitted to what became the beginnings of many empires of plunder. This geographical region, with its many cultures and histories, demonstrates that the Atlantic isn’t just an in-between place defined by travel and tourism, but rather an actual place where people live and experience ramifications of historical oppression. The Atlantic World Art Fair, an initiative hosted on Artsy, looks to reframe the Caribbean and its neighbors from within, on their own terms. Presenting nine women-led platforms for this inaugural edition—Black Pony Gallery, TERN Gallery, ReadyTex Art Gallery, Suzie Wong Presents, Gallery Alma Blou, Frame Centre Gallery, Galerie Monnin, Olympia Gallery, and the curatorial agency Sour Grass—the fair seeks to give visibility to artists who are too often omitted from conversations within the art world and market.
“Modern, Western geography made the Caribbean, but that doesn’t include everything,” said Lisa Howie, lead organizer of the Atlantic World Art Fair and founder of Black Pony Gallery in Bermuda, which is presenting works by Bahamian artist Dede Brown and Bermudian artist Charles Zuill, among others. “Think about how many countries were affected by the Haitian Revolution, and how this signified the end of the capitalist transatlantic slave trade! We invite people to see our work and rethink our region from within the scope we offer.”
Oftentimes the Caribbean is minimized or swallowed when it is included within the curatorial scope of Latin America as a whole by museums, art history programs, and others. But there are specific narratives that differentiate these geographies. And even with the recent attention given to the region by institutions in the global north, there is a disproportionate distribution of this spotlight, which reflects a disconnect felt among artists and cultural workers in the Caribbean.
“I remember seeing colleagues of mine some years ago in the elevator at the Brooklyn Museum for the ‘Infinite Island’ exhibition, and we asked ourselves: ‘Why is it that we have to meet here, why can’t this happen in the Caribbean?’” recalled Annalee Davis, co-founder of the Barbados-based curatorial agency Sour Grass and two artist-led initiatives, Caribbean Linked and Tilting Axis. “And that’s not to say that there isn’t value to these shows happening in the global north, but there’s also issues around them.”
In a region where populations are constantly recovering from hurricanes, earthquakes, and, most recently, a volcano eruption and the COVID-19 pandemic, the arts aren’t at the forefront of many governments’ priorities. As a result of economic and political decisions across generations, there is a lack of materials that even affects the supply of frames and canvases, while things like shipping costs can be astronomical due to high duty taxes. Artists often make work in their bedrooms or on balconies because real estate in much of the region is priced for tourism development and outside consumers, which makes the cost of renting a studio, opening a gallery, or hosting a fair prohibitively high.
The extreme banking restrictions brought on by the region’s history with money laundering and other financial schemes further complicate the local picture, and reinforce preconceived notions many have about the Caribbean (though, ironically, the money being laundered through its islands is often from the global north). These and other persistent problems mean curators, gallerists, and artists in the region are often fighting uphill battles, when in reality their stories are much richer than the narratives of resilience typically projected onto residents of the Caribbean.
“In the global south we have to act outside of the norms in response to our various constraints, because if not, the numbers just don’t crunch,” said Susanne Fredricks, owner of Suzie Wong Presents, a digital-first gallery based in Kingston, Jamaica, showcasing artists including the Canadian Jamaican painter Zoya Taylor and the Haitian American artist Edouard Duval-Carrié at the Atlantic World Art Fair.
In spite of the hardships the industry faces, or perhaps because of them, the relationships between the gallerists and artists in the region grow deeper. This is partly a result of some dealers and curators returning to and remaining in the Caribbean, committing to break with the neo-colonial practices that still shape much of its culture and economy. They feel it is possible to build and maintain nurturing spaces, and take care of artists, in spite of the history and circumstances they’ve inherited.
Most of the participants in the Atlantic World Art Fair have had their share of institutional experience at national levels, and have learned to navigate the gaps within their respective art ecosystems. “Without the other moving parts, everyone wanted the institution to do everything—high-school art shows, support young emerging galleries, create portfolio workshops,” said Amanda Coulson, who founded TERN Gallery after having worked 10 years as the director of the National Art Gallery of the Bahamas. “If you were in New York or London, you wouldn’t expect the national galleries to be showing your work straight out of school. You don’t get there until you’ve been doing it for 20 years. So there was a noticeable void within different sectors of our infrastructure.”
Gallerists in the region have had to reconsider their roles and their work with a more local focus. “We are building something that’s productive, nimble, and functional within spaces that are slow and chaotic,” said Holly Bynoe, another co-founder of Sour Grass, Caribbean Linked, and Tilting Axis. “It’s easier to create something like this from within independent initiatives rather than the institutions. In doing so we keep the work accessible and open to opportunities.”
Many of the galleries and platforms in the region currently operate without physical spaces, but they’ve nevertheless created a foundation and bedrock for their artists. Given the lack of conventional infrastructure, these gallerists reimagine the traditional practices and roles of the art gallery, serving as representatives and so much more for the artists in the region by developing scholarship, pursuing exhibition and residency opportunities, serving as references, and providing peer support.
“Yes, we want sales, but we also want to provide the resources our artists need to have success and operate at international standards, and be part of the canon and the general markets,” said Coulson, whose TERN Gallery is showing photographic works by Bahamian artists Delton Barrett and Melissa Alcena, among others. “That’s why we need more writers and museum curators doing residencies here, so that our artists are recognized, re-inserted within this revision of art history we’re seeing. That way, we gain more support to be able to keep this sustainable, provide the resources our artists need, and even be part of nation-building.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly given the realities facing artists in the region, numerous works featured in the the Atlantic World Art Fair focus on personhood in relation to the sea and landscape. These include works by the Dominican American conceptual artist Joiri Minaya and Saint Martin–based photographer Lisandro Suriel, both presented by Sour Grass. Other recurring motifs relate to ideas of syncretism, spiritualism, decolonization, queerness, and the anthropocene, as represented in the works of LaVaughn Belle from the U.S. Virgin Islands (showing with Suzie Wong Presents) and Haitian artist Jhonny Cinéus (showing with Port-au-Prince’s Galerie Monnin). The works reflect the Caribbean’s diversity of themes and concerns, while conveying a sense of kinship forged from the often painful, difficult histories the artists share.
While collectors in the region have historically gravitated toward traditional works that glossed over those difficult histories, the Atlantic World Art Fair offers collectors in the Caribbean and beyond a more complex and compelling picture of the region’s artistic production. Gallerists I spoke to estimated that only 10 to 15 percent of their collectors are locals, while international supporters and increasingly well organized groups of each country’s diasporic communities are showing greater commitment to the region. This dynamic is due in part to the current political moment, when conversations about the Black Lives Matter movement and calls for decolonization within institutions are ever present.
For some of the participants, the Atlantic World Art Fair is their first experience within a platform of this scope. The fair has fostered a collaborative environment among the participants, who have been nurturing a deeper understanding of each other’s strategies from island to island, without having to fly to and from Miami to get to each other. From their seemingly solitary positions as islands, the archipelago that forms this fair has found a sense of unity, standing its ground as a region to be reckoned with.