From 'Islas inútiles' to Happy Island: Art in Aruba today

Aruba. One happy Island is the letter of introduction inscribed on the license plates of the cars of that small country in the Leeward Antilles. It was part of the so-called “Islas inútiles,” a term coined by the Spanish conquistadors to designate those territories with scarce natural resources. In possession of the Netherlands, it was part of the Netherlands Antilles until 1986. After a short period of splendor with cattle raising and gold mining, many of its people moved to neighboring territories, such as Cuba, between the 19th and 20th centuries, searching for jobs in the sugar industry and other labor profiles.¹ Today it flourishes as a global tourism destination in the tropical waters of the Caribbean Sea.

It is a circumstance of which there was little to no knowledge. However, every country builds its history and tradition, and Aruba has its own. In a well-founded study, Adi Martis and Jennifer Smit review the art processes there up to the 1990s in the book Arte. Dutch Caribbean Art/Beeldende kunst van de Nederlandse Antillen en Aruba, 2002.²  

The nineties saw the emergence of a group of artists—all of them with studies in Dutch academies—with a unique way of understanding art, who could very well be seen as a movement even though they did not coalesce around a uniting manifesto. Questioning the procedures, contents, forms, and genres put in play by their predecessors, these voices signaled a shift.

Artistic responses converge in two main directions. The first encompasses ways of viewing the landscape, the human environment, and their possible derivations. With a broad pictorial work, Ludwig de L’Isle assumes the linguistic perspective of almost pure abstraction; while leaving only slight glimpses of connection with nature. A more profound dimension brought forth by other imaginations of connectedness with the environment and anchoring in the drifts of time. In Los privilegios de la vista, Octavio Paz recognized that the conquest of modernity was resolved in the exploration of the subsoil, of myth and reality. In an ancestral reservoir like Aruba, revelations of this kind take on an extraordinary meaning, as some artists delve into the local “subsoil”, into the beginning of all things, going on to share archeological-based mechanisms latent in the Latin American visuality of the eighties and nineties, of “exhuming” the archives of that origin as an expressive and research instrument.  

For more than thirty years, the context has been Stan Kuiperi’s leitmotiv. Following his participation in the II Biennial of Painting of the Caribbean and Central America in Santo Domingo, the Dominican Republic, 1994, I remember talking about his painting as an abstract-expressionist consequence of the environment. If Brancusi found inspiration for his sculptural forms in shells, pebbles, and other natural elements, Kuiperi actively introduces in his painting’s material references such as sand, snails, feathers, bones, wood, and stone used both for the expressive richness they provide and for their symbolic connotations. 

Recently, he has confirmed his ability to expand the radius of action of his work, capable of dealing with diverse objects and mastering the secrets of their spatial arrangement, in installations such as Kasike: monument to a Paradise Lost, 2011 and On the road, 2012. Moving from painting to the installed field does not seem to have modified his philosophy much, coherently attached to his foundational themes in correspondence with the interior-exterior landscape, history, and culture. 

9. 2011 Kasike Monument for a Paradise Lost 2
Stan Kuiperi. Kasike: monument to a Paradise Lost, 2011

Similar will identifies Ciro Abath, a passionate follower of archeology whose discoveries sustain his creative process. Abath moves with astonishing malleability from material to material, from clay and ceramics to metal, until he incorporates glass. 

While on a first approach, his forms and structures appear concerned with past or ancestral cultures, his production admits other interpretations.  A moment 1, 2012, his most ambitious project to date, reproduced a device of cogwheels perfectly arranged inside a container: clockwork machinery, sugar factory? Symbol of trans-national connectivity and the increased flow of goods, the container could be interpreted as a device to shred contexts, their particularities; a postmodern wink from the Caribbean to Charles Chaplin’s “modern times.”

Elvis López. Cultura, Cultura, Cultura (Culture, Culture, Culture), 2008. Mixed media. 196 27/32 x 157 37/64 in. (5 x 4 mts.). In: One in Soul, Ballet show by Alidya Weve, Cas di Cultura, Oranjestad, Aruba.

Close to Kuiperi and Abath, Ryan Oduber in his early work establishes connections between nature and technological advances from a minimalist object packaging. In hybrid objects and assemblages, he converged tree trunks and branches with electronic and industrial components in rare lamps and artifacts motivated by the necessary respect for the environment. 

In a more advanced stage, he stands out for his installations. At the Havana Biennial, 2003, he presented the video installation Incógnito, with the marketing of the facial cream of the same name and its pixelating benefits. The cosmetic supposedly made the faces of those who used it unrecognizable, touching on the theme of surveillance of the subject in the contemporary world. Nowadays, Oduber is using these means much more powerfully.    

In the opposite direction, the artists of the second group coincide in an exploration of the personal. Elvis Lopez represents one of the paradigms of this orientation. His most significant contributions are located precisely in the nineties since his later responsibility in the direction of the Ateliers’89 academy retains a good part of his time. ³ In 1994 he participated in the Fifth Havana Biennial with the polyptych of drawings Social Critical, Serie no 5/Cuba, 1993, a sequence with themes such as the island, AIDS, oil, and others. They were, to some extent, hermetic works, like his early paintings. In an abrupt transition months later, he attended the 22nd Sao Paulo Biennial with a three-dimensional approach based on photography and self-reference, in short, the constant that would identify him. In this discursive line, he produces the trilogy Playing with the Gods, 1994, based on photos of his first communion, Amnesia, 1997, and the light video installation E mariposa, 1997, based on the fragment of a children’s song in Papiamento taken from his childhood. 

On the margins of childhood memories or the use of the photographic archive, his work does not reflect only on himself. López revisits his history and the data on religious, gender condition, and sexual orientation, without forgetting – the “compulsory amnesia” that Eduardo Galeano talks about in his essays and poems – because above it lies the idiosyncratic and conflictual relationship of the subject with the island. A discourse with parallels between the states of Being and the meanings of reality.

Glenda Heyliger deals with the past in two unforgettable works: The black Book of my life, 1995, exhibited at the Sixth Havana Biennial, 1997, and Autobiographical self-portrait in 1996. Since the personal exhibition, The mystery of my soul, 1995, Osaira Muyale establishes a deep affiliation with the introspective nature and the deconstruction of memory. Her iconography, indebted to the undoubted influence of Louise Bourgeois on many artists, takes shape in the methodical withdrawal into the inner universeHer interests range from dysfunctional communication to the crisis of the modernist model of progress, the collapse of utopias, and the announced death of the subject. The core of his work is the complex construction of identities, the entrenchment and safeguarding of the personal, which Okwui Enwezor understands as dislocation, uprooting, displacement and dispersion, exile and alienation taking ground, even in the rooms of the house. 

With time Muyale perfects much better the resources to be employed. Halfway between the human-animal-mythological syncretism of Wifredo Lam and Samothrace’s Victoire in “Blue Klein,” I’m not white, not black, but blue, 2012, a hybrid image with blue tonality levitates on a trampoline as a good example of the prolongation of all these concerns with an extraordinary power of synthesis. 

Osaira Muyale, “Blue Klein”, I’m not white, not black, but blue, Happy Islands. Prome Encuentro Bienal Aruba, 2012

With a self-taught formation, plus some courses at the Ateliers’89 and enormous efforts to update herself, Alida Martinez shares these ideo-aesthetic and representational invariants and relocates them in a different context of relationships. An artist of the two-dimensional in her beginnings, with time she intuitively experiments with installation, collage, and object art. 

Martinez tends towards excess and bricolageNo More Tears in Paradise, 2007 or For sale in Aruba Only, 2009 are symbolic constructions of hybrid syntax in fifty-fifty between the sacred and the profane, between sensorial capacity and rationality. Her repertoire contains personal, religious, global, and Caribbean politics, women’s handicrafts, paper money, and consumer objects. In her most recent installations, Mega Bite Candy, 2010, Isla Aruba, 2011, or Territorios en fuga, 2012, cartography plays a connotative role, along with icons such as the Chinese-made golden Mickey Mouse and the typical Aruban house. 

Alida Martínez. Raíces (Roots), 2000. Installation. Variable dimensions.

Renwich Heronimo, Evelino Fingal (designer of the island’s paper money), Giolina Molina, Gustave Nouel, King Lie Kwie, Marlene van Blarcum, Irene Petersen, Belinda de Veers, accompany this avant-garde, the most promoted at regional and international level.

Another element cannot be overlooked. In Aruba, processes of actualization are taking place. The expansive thrust of younger voices is perceptible in the construction of new paths and narratives, with a predominance of performances, the fundamentals of video, digital devices, web management, and emergent media. Ryan Oduber could be the link with this batch of newcomers and continuators: Kevin Schut, Natusha Croes, brothers Ken and Jess Wolff and Velvet Ramos, among others, or with artists of other nationalities based there, such as Rob Ter Haar, Holland, Nelson Gonzalez, and Hugo Palmar, from Venezuela.

Among the latter, Nelson Gonzalez is inserted in the cultural milieu as one more Aruban. Characterized by disciplinary hybridizations, he recently participated in the Twelfth Havana Biennial, 2015, where he presented Vamos a ver si eso es verdad…! a sort of performance-event -Fredric Jameson. With a starting point in a theatrical script and its subsequent staging, halfway in the overlapping of the “cult” and the “popular”, written exclusively with the raw material of sayings and proverbs, with the extensive use of those references and the multiplicity of readings of such constructions of orality, the representation was nourished as a root of the artist’s nomadic identity. 

Meanwhile, in the 1990s further steps were taken towards greater interaction with the international scene. As interim director of the Culture Institute, Evelino Fingal, supported by Elvis López, implemented a well-conceived promotional project that contributed to positioning the country in the contemporary visual map. The 1992 Biennial of the Caribbean and Central American Painting in Santo Domingo was the starting point. A year later, Carib Art, Curaçao. In 1994 Aruba began to attend the Havana Biennial on a sustained basis until the present. The tour includes the 22nd Sao Paulo International Biennial, 1994; Karibishe Kunst Heute, in Germany, 1994; Island Caribbean. Exclusion, fragmentation, paradise, Badajoz and Madrid, Spain, 1998; the VII and X Cuenca Biennial, Ecuador, 2004 and 2009 and Caribbean: Crossroads of the World, in New York, 2012, among others.4

The panorama barely sketched in this text on art in Aruba must be framed within the postmodern context in which artistic manifestations respond to mutations in the production, valuation, and circulation of the work of art.

All these artists show that the renovation process opened in the nineties maintains continuity, adapting itself to the passing of time with full openness to advanced contemporary experiences. Beyond the generational diversity observable today on the island, there is a general spirit among artists of different ages to pay a great tribute to the existing artistic vitality by implementing new orientations. Perhaps they transcend the narrow borders of the context, but they cannot ignore the argumentative alibis of this context against the backdrop of the paradisiacal slogan that identifies the license plates of the island’s cars.

NOTES

  1. A shared narrative in the Aruban imagination attests to this. After the men’s departure, women were left as heads of families and households, and it was common to see them ascend one of the mountains that adorn the island’s mostly flat topography to scan the horizon, hopeful searching for a ship bringing back their husbands and sons. A detailed investigation tells about the presence in Cuba of Aruban laborers and reveals the presence in central and eastern Cuba of descendants of those laborers who formed families and roots in the greater of the Antilles.
  2. See Adi Martis and Jennifer Smit.Arte. Dutch Caribbean Art/Beeldende kunst van de Nederlandse Antillen en Aruba, Koninklijk Instituut voor de Tropen/Royal Tropical Institute, The Netherlands, 2002.
  3. Evelino Fingal and Elvis López established the Ateliers’89 academy that year, and the latter has been its permanent director. It is one of the contemporary Caribbean’s pioneering initiatives in non-regular teaching, and an inspirational point of reference for similar spaces launched later.
  4. The artists most intensely promoted have been Elvis López, Osaira Muyale, Alida Martínez, Stan Kuiperi, and Ciro Abath.

JOSÉ MANUEL NOCEDA FERNÁNDEZ

Art historian and researcher

Graduated in Art History at the University of Havana. Has worked at the Wifredo Lam Contemporary Art Center since 1984, where he is a specialist in the work of the renowned Cuban painter and researches contemporary art from the Caribbean and Central America. He has been a member of the curatorial team of the Havana Biennial since 1994. He was deputy director of that institution from July 2001 to May 2005 and during 2010.

Organizer of numerous exhibitions on Wifredo Lam. He has been curator of the X Cuenca Biennial, Ecuador, 2009; one of the 5 curators invited to collaborate with the I International Caribbean Triennial, Dominican Republic, 2010 -he made the selection of artists from Central America; of the First Biennial Encounter of the Caribbean, Aruba, 2012 and of the Cuban Pavilion at the 57th Venice Biennial, 2017. Author of the books: Wifredo Lam. La cosecha de un brujo, Letras Cubanas, Havana, 2002 (anthology) and Wifredo Lam en las colecciones de Cuba, Sello editorial Artecubano, Havana, 20

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