Champions: Caribbean Artists Breaking Boundaries in South Florida; Armory Art Center; West Palm Beach, Florida; January 14 – February 11, 2017

Review by Kelli Bodle, Independent Scholar 

Installation view of Champions: Caribbean Artists Breaking Boundaries in South Florida; art by Yanira Collado (L), Morel Doucet (R). Armory Art Center; West Palm Beach, Florida; January 14 – February 11, 2017. Photo: Jane Hart.

Upon entrance to Champions: Caribbean Artists Breaking Boundaries in South Florida, visitors are confronted with Gonzalo Fuenmayor’s Genesis XI, one of the pieces most identifiable as a tongue-in-cheek look at Floridian culture. It is a C-print of a chandelier dripping with crystals, common to homes in Palm Beach, hanging from another common sight in both Florida and the Caribbean: a banana tree. Against the moss green of the flora, the chandelier explodes in a burst of faceted, reflected light. This contradictory combination of natural beauty and manufactured opulence is part of the draw of Florida. Installed next to the title of the show where the curator knows it sets the scene for visitors, this photograph enjoys a prominence of place and will likely be the most photographed by reporters, who love a good title wall shot. In addition to this image, Fuenmayor has three other photographs in the show. They are depictions of colonialism in Colombia, like Genesis XIV, which denotes a “banana republic” viaa C-print of a man with bananas for a head. However, while these photographs are combined in theme, they are unlike most of the other pieces in this show.

Once one passes the entryway, the majority of the artists focus on more mundane things than conquering colonialism. Instead, they focus on day-to-day life: local community, family history, and the materials of daily existence. The Dominican, Cuban, Haitian, Colombian, Trinidadian, Jamaican, and Puerto Rican artists have different stories to tell than those seen in “Visit Florida” ads. Overall, the bulk of the artists exhibiting - all immigrants or children of immigrants currently living in Florida - are at peace with their adopted home and focus on their immediate surroundings. 

The highlight of the show is viewing acclaimed local artists like the TM Sisters and Adler Guerrier alongside emerging and mid-career artists like Jamilah Sabur and Clara Varas.Visitors to the exhibition encounter Varas’s found-object collages, Michelle Lisa Polissaint’s intimate figurative portraits with themes about home in Dancing with Myself, and Morel Doucet’s Clock Work, which is composed of wood and flora from the Atlantic affixed to a wall in the shape of a clock. 

The artists are building identities by merging their heritage with local community.  For example, Johanne Rahaman was profiled in The New Yorker for her photographs of working-class black communities in Miami. For Champions, she exhibited photographs of demonstrators wearing ceremonial tribal garb from a trip she took to the Standing Rock Reservation camp, Cannon Ball, in North Dakota. Both subjects address the theme of exploring and understanding one’s environment. 

Jane Hart, the curator, installed this quote near the exit: “The dynamic compositions are devoted to self-expression through the lens of the artist’s multicultural identities...” In two words - “multicultural identities” – she explains the show. Champions is artists from a multitude of countries, all with their own complex histories. The fact that they all chose Florida to immigrate to does not flatten their heritage into one story. 

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Kelli Bodle works at the Boca Raton Museum of Art in Florida, where she has acted as curator, mounting shows ranging from Italian Futurism to French printmaking. Ms. Bodle is also a writer, contributing to the publication Hidden Treasures: What Museums Can’t or Won’t Show You (Baskin, 2013).