Now on view at the Museum of the African Diaspora (MOAD) through Aug. 11 is “Coffee, Rhum, Sugar & Gold: A Postcolonial Paradox.” The exhibition is concerned with complex histories of colonialism in the Caribbean and uneven power relations between colonizers and subject peoples, brought forth by imposed social orders through physical conquest and cultural domination and deprivation.
Anchored in the legacy of European colonialism, on display are more than 25 works in a variety of media (mixed media installation, painting, and sculpture) by Firelei Báez, Leonardo Benzant, Andrea Chung, Adler Guerrier, Lucia Hierro, Lavar Munroe, Angel Otero, Ebony G. Patterson, Phillip Thomas, and Didier William.
The participating artists are variously connected to the Caribbean by birth, exposure, or empathetic identification with Caribbean histories. The exhibition’s title stems from core products historically produced and exported from the Caribbean to the world within what became a globalized capitalist system. Indeed, the exhibition is situated within a conceptual framework that recognizes the effects of colonial domination still exist, are prevalent, and condition everyday life through global control of international financial and banking mechanisms and military might.
The issues raised in the exhibition are thus complicated and diverse, as are the individual means by which the artists (re)present our historical and social interconnectedness. In this context, the presentation of “Coffee, Rhum, Sugar & Gold: A Postcolonial Paradox” at the Museum of the African Diaspora is similarly of social significance. MOAD stands as a cultural counterpoint to the origins of museums as integrally connected to the European Age of Exploration, the “discovery” of the “New World,” and Eurocentric classification systems and hierarchies of “cultural difference” that were concurrent with the rise of Renaissance wunderkammer (“wonder rooms”) and kunstkammer (“art rooms”), which housed “exotic” and miraculous trophy objects in princely and aristocratic palaces.
“Coffee, Rhum, Sugar & Gold: A Postcolonial Paradox” at MOAD suggests by contrast that museums may serve as sites for interrogating exhibition display and the nature of art as representing socially transformative practices that engage history by presenting a more fully articulated account of the objects, issues, and histories that exhibitions can reference.
INTERROGATING CULTURAL LEGACIES
Here, the questioning of the ideologies surrounding art are central to recognizing both differences and continuities among people, objects, and social legacies. In so doing, the exhibition speaks to the potential for museums to self-consciously relate the collecting and display of objects and museological discourses to a more inclusive redefinition of world culture(s).
Although “Coffee, Rhum, Sugar & Gold: A Postcolonial Paradox” does not directly address the rise of museums as informed by European colonialist expansion, the use of the Eurocentric idea of history as “enlightened progress” as justification for control over subject peoples, or the construction of a world view that defined non-European cultures and objects as fundamentally different from those of the West, the invocation of the phrase “postcolonial’ in the title, and its presentation at MOAD, does allude to this history. Indeed, “Coffee, Rhum, Sugar & Gold: A Postcolonial Paradox,” at the very least, conjures and addresses the notion that colonization created a globalized economy of international production, exchange, and consumption through the exploitation of land and labor. The exhibition also indirectly suggests that as a consequence of what became a globalized integrated economic universe — fostered by greater travel, cultural repression, and forced migration — there also arose dissident voices that demanded greater freedoms and recognition in the form of anticolonial struggles and urban protests.
These processes were further advanced by the advent and proliferation of women’s studies, gender studies, ethnic studies, as well as the development of culturally specific cultural centers and exhibition spaces — like MOAD — which helped facilitate greater exposure of underrepresented artists and oppositional formal vocabularies.
While these histories are only subtly alluded to in the exhibition, the attempt to address a “postcolonial paradox” inherent in colonial histories does speak to the potential for museums to advance a critical and inclusive redefinition of art and culture as historically informed, and constituted by individuals whose work references intracultural exposures and social relations.
Thus, in the exhibition we see how some artists use art as a strategy for connecting complex histories of power and domination — relating colonial wealth to exploitation — to actively address issues of liberation through cultural contestation, resistance, and self-affirmation. In so doing, the artists in “Coffee, Rhum, Sugar & Gold: A Postcolonial Paradox” interrogate the shifting effects of nationalisms, economic underdevelopment, and simplistic notions of “ethnic identity” that distinguish and separate “culturally specific” people and practices while, paradoxically, recognizing the complexities of historical interconnectedness of people, artists, and art practices, and thus celebrating the potential for enlightened social change.
Coffee, Rhum, Sugar & Gold: A Postcolonial Paradox: Wednesday–Saturday 11 a.m.–6 p.m., Sunday noon–6 p.m. through Aug. 11, $10, Museum of the African Diaspora, 685 Mission Street (on the ground floor of the St. Regis hotel), 415-358-7200, moadsf.org
Anthony Torres is an independent curator, art writer, and art appraiser. Email: [email protected]