The first thing we see in the video is tourists milling, cow-like on a beach, wearing ill-considered swimwear and working on their burns. Airplanes are landing and taking off at a nearby airport. We are on Maho Beach on the Caribbean island of Saint Martin.
Suddenly, the scene changes as an airplane flies very low, sending a blast to the ground that scatters belongings and turns the beach into a Sahara-like sandstorm. In slow motion, we see a tropical idyll become an ordeal.
This video, Jet Blast (2015) by René Emil Bergsma, born in Curaçao in 1959, is among the works of 50 different artists from the region featured in “Relational Undercurrents: Contemporary Art in the Caribbean Archipelago.” The show is on exhibit at the Delaware Art Museum in Wilmington through Sept. 8.
For many people, this combination of beach and airport is all they ask or expect from the Caribbean. For some, the islands are verdant little Edens, full of flowers and mountains, and yes, beaches. Others choose to see an array of backward and failed places, filled with corruption, witchcraft, and crime.
Works by the 50 or so artists in the show allude to all these outsiders’ perspectives. But its great value is that it invites us to see as islanders see, with engaging and surprising paintings, photographs, videos, and installations.
The exhibition was organized by the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach, Calif., and curated by Tatiana Flores, associate professor of art history and Latin American studies at Rutgers.
Its approach is slightly unfamiliar. Rather than viewing Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic as part of Latin America, as curators are wont to do, it considers them along with the smaller islands first colonized by England, France, the Netherlands, and Denmark — all part of a single cultural and geographical zone. The show concentrates on the things they have in common.
They are all islands. They were all European colonies. Most were settled to produce sugar, using African slave labor. Many are shaped by the tourism industry. All suffer from the same hurricanes. And most striking of all, none of them has any indigenous population.
The native Taino people, who numbered in the millions in 1492 when Christopher Columbus “discovered America” in the Caribbean, was wiped out within two decades, mostly by disease. Those who live there now descend from those who came, mostly involuntarily, from somewhere else.
To live on an island is to have endless horizons in all directions but little territory in which to move. Many of the works in the show depict horizons and the sense of isolation islands can breed. In one instance, the Cuban photographer Marianela Orozco creates a very wide image in which she uses her prone body to simulate a horizon and landscape.
In 2007, the Dominican artist Fermín Ceballos staged a memorable performance in which he swam to a small rocky islet near Santo Domingo, where some building materials had been left. Ceballos proceeded to use the materials to construct a tiny fortress around himself, much as the colonial powers had done throughout the region. His defensive wall left him isolated, powerless, unable to act.
Many Caribbean people are living in the ruins of old empires, another recurring theme. My favorite response is that of the Barbados artist Ewan Atkinson. He has created an alter ego, named Starman, who is part-superhero and part-celestial constellation. (The stars look a bit like a map of the islands.)
Atkinson creates elaborate projections of Starman, which he shines at night on such local landmarks as the Empire Theatre and the Lord Nelson Statue, laying claim to places and things that in the light of day appear as monuments to oppression.
Another large group of works looks at the natural world, which is often shown as so burgeoning and profuse that it is difficult to focus upon, or even to see. Some artists revel in showing the blur, while others try different strategies. For example, the Puerto Rican artist Frances Gallardo makes elaborate, doily-like cutouts based on meteorologists’ diagrams of the eyes of individual hurricanes. They are lovely wispy things, but they might make you remember the fury of the storm.
Charles Juhasz-Alvarado celebrates the sounds of Puerto Rico, where he grew up, in the 2017 work Cantos: (en madera). It consists of metal display “trees” from whose branches dangle handmade wooden objects that, when twisted, emit bird calls. Visually, they owe more to the department store than the jungle, but it is good to be reminded that the environment is far more than what we can see.
Still, there is room for sheer postcard lusciousness, as Roberto Stephenson demonstrates in his photograph series Peyizaj (2012). These color digital prints show unspoiled natural vistas, marked by location and time. The twist here is that these images show sites in Haiti, famously the poorest and most troubled country in the hemisphere.
While other artists in the show take pains to show the ugliness amidst the tourist-serving opulence of resort culture, Stephenson finds romantic grandeur in a notoriously degraded place.
The most unsettlingly gorgeous work in the show is Lost At Sea (2014), by Edouard Duval-Carrié, a Haitian artist based in Miami. In this very large composition of glitter, glue, and paint on aluminum, we see sparkling azure water, a gray and silvery forest, and a deep blue sky whose clouds appear to be incised. It is a vaguely uncanny variation on the theme of island paradise.
In the water, we see the head of a black man, staring directly at us, not looking a bit panicked or lost. Indeed, he doesn’t actually even appear to be at sea.
“Lost at Sea,” the museum’s label says, “addresses how Florida and the Caribbean are presented as tropical paradises, further obscuring and perpetuating economic and social disparities.” The catalog speculates that the painting responds to a colonial-era fear that the burgeoning tropical environment encourages hypersexuality and indiscipline.
Neither of these interpretations gets at the power and mystery of this work. Is the man its focus, or the cause of its disquiet? Is he the one lost, or are we?
Relational Undercurrents: Contemporary Art of the Caribbean Archipelago
Through Sept. 8 at the Delaware Art Museum, 2301 Kentmere Parkway, Wilmington.
Hours: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Weds.-Sun., with evening hours until 8 p.m. Thursday. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays.
Admission: Adults, $12; seniors, $10; students with ID and children ages 7-18, $6 (under 7 free). Free for all Sundays and 4-8 p.m. Thursdays.