Now on view at the Portland Museum of Art, “Relational Undercurrents: Contemporary Art of the Caribbean Archipelago” is an unlikely lead show for a major Maine museum. Just considering the questions of audience, venue and fit, however, begins to unpack the myriad worthy conversations inspired by the exhibition.

Organized by the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach, California, “Relational Undercurrents” is supported by the PMA’s “Art for All” initiative. The goal of the exhibition is to bring attention to the cultural landscape of the island nations of the Caribbean. It presents the Caribbean as a set of societies aligned in an archipelago of islands, at times pulling them together or pushing them apart in terms of their legacies on topics such as identity, slavery, race, colonialism, migration, economic strata and sustainability.

The show is divided into four chapters, beginning rather wisely with “Conceptual Mappings” – art that engages through map logic. Getting grounded with maps helps the viewer find footing, but it also allows for the artists (and curators) to lay out the historic, sociological and conceptual groundwork for the show. This is important stuff: The average American high school student does not graduate with a sophisticated appreciation of the ethnic shifts of the peoples and populations of the Caribbean archipelago and how these have changed since Columbus showed up. How, when and why Africans, Europeans and others came and went is a complex set of histories rife with colonial abuse. But the varied histories also speak of revolution, triumph and cultures rich in human endeavor.

Jean-Ulrick Desert’s “The Waters of Kiskeya/Quisequeya” is a large mixed-media drawing on vellum. It’s an imagined map based on imperialist models of centuries past. “Kiskeya” is what the indigenous people of the Caribbean – the Taino – called “Hispanola.” The cartouche (the title key) of the map is shaped like Africa, and between this and elements (e.g., chains) drawn on the map, we can easily see Desert’s desire to air the legacy of slavery that the owners of the now-common cruise ships – pictured in the old-style map where sailing ships would have been – undoubtedly do their best to whitewash from the minds of their customers. It’s a poignant piece, and its dark wit finds its mark.

From the standpoint of the works in the show, “Relational Undercurrents” presents a broad range of installation, sculpture, video, conceptual works, photography, painting and quirky objects. In this sense, it is visually flavored like many shows seeking to profess a sense of “contemporary art.” This is hardly a bad thing: Frankly, we get too little of it around here.

Desert’s work is joined in the map section by a range of works such as Charles Campbell’s surprisingly pretty paper sphere, latticed with lung tissue, that takes on issue of forced migration. Dominican artist Liber Vilario presents an island map scene populated with Boschian monsters in Mexican wrestling masks who have arms in the place of genitals or are cut down to heads on legs. The island itself becomes a wolf devouring the inhabitants. Cuba-born Juana Valdes presents a photogram of the bottom of teacups and collectible ceramics. It’s a subtle and brilliant work that uses a decorative strategy (it would make a great fabric), the architectural appearance of a (sea-like) blueprint, and the ostensibly charming point of revealing all of the making-sites of the, for the sake of illustration let’s call it, china. Coming together into focus, it’s a savvy model of colonialism as a repeatably infinite process of commodification. Lisa Soto’s hanging sculpture “Relational Realities” is a wire-crocheted complexity that looks like a 3-D model of the mind. It’s a work in need of context, but it gets plenty here, and its message resonates.

Sasha Huber, “Shooting Back – Reflection on Haitian Roots, Christopher Columbus/Disparando de regreso – Reflexiones sobre las raíces haitianas, Cristóbal Colón”

Glenda Leon’s “Cosmic Trace” is a little black box with a lighted lens onto a photo of a fingerprint. Knowing that fingerprints were first used by English colonizers to identify and oppress the people of India (they all look the same, right?) puts this work in a chilling light.

The other three sections are titled “Perpetual Horizons,” “Landscape Ecologies” and “Representational Acts.” These largely play out what their titles suggest. The idea of a theme such as “horizon” sounds abstract, but it holds together visually and is a substantial aesthetic sub-theme of the show. The ecological concerns of people living on island countries is as obvious as it is critical. And the “acts” punctuate something seemingly unsaid (it might be in the handsome catalog, but it’s not stated overtly in the show), and it’s interesting why this is. These works together present bona-fide revolutionary potential. Not all are that strong, but many are – and they stand quite well together. A few have the smell of branding, but most quiver with authenticity, and those lead the way.

Antonia Wright’s “Suddenly We Jumped” is a 10-minute super-slow-motion video of a nude woman crashing through a sheet of glass. We are below (or above?) the glass. It’s flat like a ceiling, and we watch as the artist smashes flatly through a sheet of glass as though doing a belly flop into a pool. It’s easy enough to make the glass ceiling connection, but Wright’s presence is unexpectedly determined and courageous – it’s heroic precisely because she’s not some superhero: She’s real like the rest of us. I imagine “Suddenly” could give nightmares to some anti-feminists. It should.

“Relational Undercurrents” is also a highly entertaining show. There is some impressive painting, most notably Lilian Garcia-Roig’s giant painting of a fig tree – or “banyan” – which is spatially impenetrable and as complex as a Jackson Pollock. Raquel Paiewonsky’s “Bitch Balls: Mentirosas / Pelotas de perra: Liars” is a hilariously irreverent set of large beach ball-sized microfiber sculptures with highly suggestive penis/nipple protrusions. (Note the flipped English/Spanish in the title: All titles are in both languages.) But it is mostly a serious show that takes on tough topics regarding identity, race, ethnicity and the legacies of imperialism and imbalances of power.

I went in asking myself about the audience for this show. Why is it here in Maine, I wondered. But “Relational Undercurrents” is an extraordinary object lesson for Americans – by which I mean all the people of the Americas. It’s a show that indirectly (and effectively) brings light to the European colonialism and imperialism that gave birth to our nation. Maine, we should remember, got its name from a terrible man who founded it, basically to be able to sell the Wabanaki into slavery. And we only became a state because of the Missouri Compromise – an embarrassing pro-Slavery moral low point for the U.S. It’s rough stuff if you are willing to face the truth. And that is what “Relational Undercurrents” sets out to do: start conversations based on truth, however tough it may be.

Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

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