Chaos in the Caribbean

Tracing Antilles is an ongoing project produced by multi-media artist Humberto Castro. Based on a series of historical and visual explorations of the islands of the Antilles, the exhibition investigates the evolution of culture in this highly complex region. The work does not aspire to be a chronological account of historical events, but seeks to explore impressions, or traces, of collective experience that still influence the Caribbean psyche and artistic expression today.

Castro was born and educated in Cuba, where he spent the first ten years of his career. In 1989, he emigrated from Havana to Paris where he lived in exile, disconnected from his Caribbean roots, yet very much integrated and prolific within this European context. In 1999, he moved to Miami where the confrontation with his own past and memory inspired him to examine his personal history of migration and displacement within the larger context of Caribbean history.

The exhibition begins as an encounter with the Taíno and Carib cultures, pre-Hispanic peoples and societies that flourished on the islands before the Spanish Conquest. In the opening installation entitled Tracing Antilles, from which the exhibition takes its name, the canoe emerges as the key symbol of movement and refuge. The history of the Caribbean begins with the canoa and the migration of peoples from South America. The installation Escape represents the evolution of the canoe, a vehicle originally used in the transportation of people, transformed into an oar-driven piano representing the global movement of Caribbean culture and art.

In this section of the exhibition, Castro also portrays his impressions of native tradition and ceremonial life with references to powerful Taíno caciques, or chiefs, and deities such as Atabey, Goddess of the Waters. The Shaman’s Predictions foreshadows the arrival of the Spanish galleons and the element of fire is again seen as a symbol of destruction and change through force.

The colonizers’ insatiable thirst for gold and wealth continues to be reflected in the years of struggle and political turmoil the islands have endured through the centuries. In El Dorado, the artist presents the Conquistador as an archetypal force that endlessly haunts the Caribbean imagination. Behind the gleaming surface of indigenous symbology emerges a ghost-like convoy of medieval conquerors arriving on the shores of Hispaniola. Political Bestiary of the Caribbean is the artist’s commentary on this legacy of political leaders distinguished only by varying degrees of megalomania and trauma inflicted on their people, yet it is the resilience of the people that is also portrayed in works such as Rain Forest, which celebrates the writings and lyrics created by thinkers and artists from the Caribbean.

Throughout the Antilles, diverse traditions and belief systems are constantly blending and clashing chaotically, erupting into new forms expressed in contemporary culture. In a series of mixed media vitrines, Castro integrates images from the past with popular objects gleaned from a research journey to the island of Haiti. In the vitrine Saint Jacques, illustrated fragments of armor, signifying European weaponry and horses, elements that contributed to the success of Spain’s conquest of the Americas, are encased with an actual Haitian Vodou flag. The flag represents Saint Jacques, the Catholic personification of the African Ogun, a warrior spirit associated with fire, thunderbolts, iron and politics. For Castro, the vitrine becomes a syncretic artifact and an archeological record of the symbolic excavation that occurred throughout his travels. Spanish and African warriors are sealed together in time and space, the remnants of a ferocious union, and then presented to the museum as a specimen to be viewed and considered.

The exhibition culminates with a series of photographs from Haiti and Cuba. Bidonvilles documents the emergence of shantytowns on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, a city tragically affected by the earthquake in 2010, where many of the structures remain damaged or destroyed. Havana, Cuba is also a city of crumbling architectural structures destroyed not by an earthquake, but by its own political system. Chaos is an image of a deteriorated and non-functional locomotive, a form of transport once used for a thriving sugar industry that no longer exists. Castro sees Cuba’s political system as a decaying machine, a closed mechanical system struggling against the forces of corrosion, slowly moving towards its inevitable end.

Although the imagery presented in Humberto Castro’s Tracing Antilles may not always be hopeful, it is honest. Throughout the work, the common themes of chaos and metamorphosis emerge, processes of change that may be painful and uncomfortable to consider, yet always open to the possibility of transcendence. We leave the exhibition more educated about our collective human history and more aware of what the consequences may be to the choices we make today as a society. Tracing Antilles can be seen at the Frost Art Museum at FIU in Miami until February 2, 2014.

Ana Estrada