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At the Little Haiti Cultural Center, a world-class exhibit focuses on the art of the Caribbean

Joscelyn Gardner's Creole Portrait III

At the barely known and underused Little Haiti Cultural Center, a world-class exhibit focusing on the art of the Caribbean begs for attention.

Curated by Miami's Edouard Duval-Carrié, largely funded by the French government, and cosponsored by the City of Miami and the Haitian Cultural Arts Alliance, "Global Caribbean" features the work of nearly 25 artists and offers a tantalizing survey of the region's top talent and contemporary trends.

The exhibition showcases videos, sculpture, photography, painting, and mixed-media installations that gather the detritus of a colonized culture to create stunning collages of social commentary on the endless search for cultural identity.

During this past Art Basel, the art world glitterati flocked to the exhibit's opening, which generated a lion's share of buzz, but since its brief moment in the sun, the show has remained unnoticed by the local community. That's a crying shame.

Inside the gorgeous, pristine gallery space — featuring sparkling terrazzo floors, gleaming skylights, and an inviting edifice with a warm Caribbean flair — Cuba's Alexandre Arrechea makes a powerful statement with his enigmatic video installation, The White Corner. The dual video projection is a self-portrait, with the artist's twin doppelgangers menacingly confronting each other from opposite corners of free-standing, angled walls.

On one side, the bare-chested artist wears shorts and wields a sword. On the other, he dons blue jeans and swings a Louisville Slugger. While their unruly Afros and shifty behavior as they approach each other with weapons recall the bickering cavemen in Geico commercials, Arrechea's alter egos also suggest the clash between indigenous cultures and colonizers.

Another artist who whipsaws the peepers is Bahamian Blue Curry. His untitled piece deploys a bull shark jaw and the guts of old cassette tapes as a commentary on the predatory influence of American pop culture on the island nations of the Caribbean.

The piece hangs from the rafters under a skylight, where the shark's gaping maw vomits a streaming torrent of cassette tape ribbons that form an ankle-deep puddle on the shiny terrazzo floor. The opaque brown tape catches the sunlight in twinkling reflections, undulating as rhythmically as a cascading waterfall.

Curry, who often creates works that navigate the tightrope between cultural artifact and tourist souvenir, offers a powerful argument that foreign cultural influences, when chewed up and swallowed, result in a loss of identity or exploitation and should be belched out to expel contaminants.

Joscelyn Gardner, who hails from Barbados and lives in Canada, evokes the harrowing history of the Middle Passage through a series of stellar, impeccably executed lithographs on frosted Mylar.

Titled Creole Portrait III, "A Collection and Singular & Scarce Creole portrait Heads to perpetuate the memory of the WOMAN of Egypt ESTATE in Jamaica," the artist's haunting images combine intricate black women's hair braids and ornate hairstyles with the oppressive implements of slave torture. The faceless hairpieces conjure a sense of anonymous suffering, which is magnified by the accompanying shackles, leg braces, and choke collars.

In Dominican artist Jorge Pineda's installation, a young man appears to be losing a fearsome battle with his inner demons and buries his head ostrich-style in a wall. Afro-Fight-Issue III features a painted life-size wood-carved figure wearing a camouflage shirt and sweatpants while his hands are trapped in useless boxing mitts clapped at his sides. His missing head is stuck in a swirling purgatory of scribbled visual noise rendered in graphite directly onto the wall like a giant, polluted thought bubble. The artist is known for his installations referencing loss of innocence and the exploitation and abuse of children worldwide.

From work to work, it's evident Duval-Carrié exercised a deft curatorial eye when putting together this thoughtful show.

For example, Arthur Simms's sculptures remind us of how island nations not only are assailed by dominant foreign cultures but also have become the depository of the world's garbage washing upon their shores.

Simms, a native of Jamaica, created Buddha, an eye-poppingly crusty opus, out of what appears to be beach-scavenged bottles, wood, bamboo stalks, wire, rope, ice skates, and a birdcage. The conglomeration of disparate objects looks like the ramshackle pushcarts often seen on island streets and suggests both cross-cultural pollination and the experience of the diaspora.

Along the same lines, Guyana's Hew Locke investigates the tensions between self-identity and the colonial past via a gargantuan installation titled Kingdom of the Blind # 5, 6, 7. In it, three towering hybrid figures are confected from plastic flowers, Mardi Gras beads, dolls' heads, and toy dinosaurs, lions, scorpions, and spiders.

His devilish mutants resonate with the veneer of Transformers and are posed against a wall painted a sickly Pepto-Bismol pink. It's as if Locke lobbed a mortar shell into a dollar store and his cast of kitschy apparitions rose from the fumes.

"This is some of the best work being created in the Caribbean today," Duval-Carrié said during a recent visit to the show. "It's hard to believe that no one has come to see it after our Basel opening."

The new gallery is part of a multimillion-dollar cultural complex designed by prominent Miami architect Bernard Zyscovich. It boasts a capacious black box theater, dance rehearsal spaces, community classrooms, computer workrooms, and a sprawling outdoor esplanade with comfortable seating, a vibrant mural, and a stage for alfresco performances in an area surrounded by swaying palm trees.

With a mission to promote and present Afro-Caribbean culture locally, the architectural jewel stands out like a shimmering oasis on a street riddled with colorful yet mostly shabby buildings.

"The complex was initiated by Miami Commissioner Art Teele, who shot himself and never saw its completion," says Duval-Carrié, a respected local artist whose studio also is part of the compound. "Later, Michelle Spence-Jones was overseeing the project until she ran into trouble," he says of the city commissioner who was arrested this past November on corruption charges. The center appears to have been limping along in bureaucratic limbo since opening with modest fanfare in May 2008.

Enter Duval-Carrié, who spent nearly two years organizing this show, launched by Caraïbes en Créations, a new program of Culturesfrance, the French government agency for international cultural exchanges.

"They financed a great part of the exhibition," Duval-Carrié says. "The City of Miami did give us carte blanche to stage the exhibit, but the French government funded $120,000 for the project and plans to continue the project locally the next five years with visiting curators, if all works well."

It's hard to believe the City of Miami dropped the ball on promoting this can't-miss exhibit and the beautiful space that harbors it.

A visit to the Little Haiti Cultural Center promises a voyage of discovery into not only a vibrant and provocative collection of contemporary Caribbean art, but also of a local cultural treasure that merits no excuse to continue remaining hidden in plain sight.

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Little Haiti Cultural Center

212-260 NE 59th Terrace
Miami, FL 33137

305-960-2969


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