Tellin We Own Story – Art from the Caribbean

Hands Up by Iyaba Ibo Mandingo

Hands Up by Iyaba Ibo Mandingo

At St. Francis College in Brooklyn Heights, through the end of the month, you’ll find a small but powerful, politically charged exhibit   PICTURE THIS – Visual and Verbal (Re)Imagining of the Contemporary Caribbean which explores the work of Caribbean creative writers who are also visual artists.

Next to the art works are poems and statements by the artists.  Perhaps the sparest of these is the most visceral:  Hands Up, a large canvas by Iyaba Ibo Mandigo painted entirely in black, with two white hands, whose red streams descend the canvas – the artist’s text reads:

Another Black Man

got killed by the cops today

… pass the ketchup

Next to this work are three of his brightly colored stylized semi-abstract, symbolic works, Grave Markers, each of which bears the inscription “black boys are dying”

detail from The Stroll, by Laura James 2005

detail from The Stroll, by Laura James 2005

You’ll also find Laura Jone’s four giglee prints of Caribbean domestic workers and nannies with their young charges; the bright colors and spare backgrounds are paired with statements by domestic workers from the Caribbean that illuminate the interior turmoil and isolation they feel under the surface veneer of “everything’s ok”

Opal Palmer Adisa has three pieces that are both photos and photoshopped, testifying to the indomitable spirit of the Haitians after the  2005 flood; the text on each of them speaks to life in Haiti, especially the role of women.

Jacqueline Bishop has created a series of 4 lovely, spare, line drawings in ink, made for a suite of Caribbean-themed poems based on Shakespeare’s play The Tempest.

There are just some of the works on display, and if you’re in the neighborhood, stop by the Callahan Center at St. Francis College on Remsen Street.  Unfortunately, there’s no website, but for more information, you can contact the Caribbean Cultural Theatre who organized this show at info@caribbeantheatre.org

I’ll be posting more images on Instagram

Puerto Rican and European Art

"Pineapples" by Francisco Oller

“Pineapples” by Francisco Oller

Under the heading of “Be Sure to See” is the show of Francisco Oller’s work at the Brooklyn Museum which demonstrates how  Oller (1833 – 1917), one of Puerto Rico’s foremost painters, put the techniques of European painting in the service of depictions of Caribbean life.

By exhibiting 40 of Oller’s works along with 45 by Caribbean and European artists, the show essays to place Oller in the context of the worlds – Puerto Rico and Europe;  the artistic styles – realism and impressionism;  and the genres – landscape, portraiture, still life, through which he moved. Like the previous sentence, the subject can get a bit lost.  The show opens with paintings by several Caribbean artists, including Jose Campeche – a formidable portraitist and one of Oller’s teachers – and the 18th century painter, Louis Poret Alcazar, then wends on to depictions of the Caribbean by European and American artists (with several oils by Camille Pissaro (who was born in St. Thomas) and a few watercolors by Winslow Homer), all of which present lush, verdant, tranquil locales with no hint of strife or slavery.

Another section features the still lifes that Oller painted between 1912 and 1914, evocative of the European style of composition and technique, and featuring very detailed native fruits such as plantains, mangos and coconuts.  Their setting, on wood tables with a few utensils against plain backgrounds, simultaneously accords the produce prominence and intimacy.

Further on you’ll find about half a dozen portraits by Oller, which tended to be large scale, with the subject in a very formal, three-quarter length pose against a simple background.  Two of his more notable subjects were President William McKinley (who did not sit for Oller and never saw his likeness) and Jose Julian Acosta y Calbo, President of the Liberal Reform Party and ardent abolitionist.  I was struck by the almost photographic quality of this latter portrait, and how his gaze seems so knowing.

The School of Master Raphael Cordero, by Francisco Oller

The School of Master Raphael Cordero, by Francisco Oller

While we’re talking about portraits, I’d like to turn to  one that’s in a different section, and completely different in mien. In The School of Master Rafael Cordero (1890-92) Oller’s affection for his subjects couldn’t be clearer.  In this masterwork we see a teacher of color surrounded by young boys of all backgrounds, some seemingly very quiet, others more rambunctious. Master Cordero looks directly at the viewer with an expression somewhere between exasperation and patience, and underlined with sagacity.  Cordero was the legendary founder of the first school for enslaved children in San Juan in 1810, which he eventually opened to children of all social strata.

Hacienda La Fortuna by Francisco Oller

Hacienda La Fortuna by Francisco Oller

Oller painted some great landscapes, which often included local people of color, in a very straightforward, unvarnished style.  You’ll find some lovely “portraits” of sugar plantations here, which reconcile Oller’s tendencies towards realism and impressionism.  Some show a thriving landscape, but others depict unblinkingly the plantations that were abandoned after the abolition of slavery rendered sugar cultivation economically unsustainable.  Throughout the exhibition, the explanatory labels refer repeatedly to devastating effects slavery, and European and American colonization had on the Caribbean economy, but the added commentary is not always that illuminating.

Unfortunately, “The Wake,” considered to be Oller’s masterpiece could not travel.  There’s a large-scale reproduction in the exhibit, as well as three earlier studies which allow us to see how Oller’s conception of the painting changed over time.

Oller studied in Madrid from 1851 to 1853, and sojourned there again between 1877 and 1884, during which time he was court painter to King Amadeo I.  A small room displays a few of Oller’s work and influences from Madrid, which include an impressive large scale portrait of Colonel Francisco Contreras by Oller, and a magnificent portrait of the French painter Ingres by Frederico de Madrazo, one of Oller’s instructors in Madrid.

Landscape with Royal Palms by Francisco Oller

Landscape with Royal Palms by Francisco Oller

The last gallery is focused on Oller’s time in Paris, which he visited three times, living there for a total of about 12 years, and becoming friends with Camille Pissaro and Paul Cezanne, among others.  This section contains some wonderful landscapes  by Corot, Claude Manet, Gustave Courbet, Charles Francois Daubigny and Alfred Sisley for starters.  Some of these works are placed side-by-side with Oller’s, which allows you to  appreciate how he so effectively applied the styles and techniques he learned in France to his local subjects, creating art that was both international and indigenous; however, this arrangement doesn’t really let Oller’s paintings breathe on their own.

Overall, I enjoyed this exhibit, and I hope you’ll make the time to see it.