Since its 2011 opening in the window-encased lobby of the Silberman School of Social Work, the Hunter East Harlem Gallery has exhibited art that speaks to and engages with the surrounding community. That’s especially true of its most recent exhibition, Dust Specks on the Sea: Contemporary Sculpture from the French Caribbean & Haiti, a collection of sculptures by artists from the French Caribbean and Haiti.
The exhibition’s name draws on a 1964 quote from French President Charles de Gaulle describing the Caribbean islands as “dust specks in the sea” when viewed from his plane flying overhead. How complicated, then, for contemporary artists from that region to contend with perceptions of their work through the European lens, and to forge their own expressions of identity.
Rather than didactically demonstrate the conditions of the region and its colonial trauma, the artists in this exhibition express their personal relationships to heritage as they navigate art-making in the globalized contemporary art world and look beyond their cultural backgrounds for inspiration and ideas. Their works are placed in close proximity and direct conversation with one another, evoking a mosaic of ideas and artistic approaches. Some pieces made their way across oceans to the East Harlem space while others came from just down the block, but they find cohesion in the gallery’s fluid layout—art overhead, hanging on the walls, from the ceiling and underfoot.
“We chose to display the artworks in close proximity so that you’re not always sure which work is which,” says Arden Sherman, the gallery’s curator. “This way, you can see the parallels—it’s like the pieces are visually networking with each other.”
This show will run until March 2, 2019. But Sherman believes it has the potential for a longer life, even beyond its current East Harlem home. She and her co-curator, Katie Hood Morgan, are looking for opportunities to tour it.
On November 8, Sherman and Morgan hosted a walkthrough with five of the featured artists, who spoke about what influenced their work and process and shared the sometimes ocean-crossing journeys their pieces had taken to East 119th Street. Julie Bessard, a French-born sculptor who lives in Martinique and has been exploring wing imagery in her work for decades, said: “Even when I don’t want wings, they come.” Her piece—a large set of wings composed of thousands of metallic staples and copper mesh—plays with shadows, negative space and the juxtaposition of industrial materials with mythological motifs.
Jean-Marc Hunt’s piece¸ “Bananas Deluxe,” attempts to confront and explode one of his early experiences of racism in the east of France—being mocked in the street for eating a banana—by depicting the fruit in an elevated form, hanging gracefully in a three-tiered chandelier. The work is intriguing audiences, including Hunter students.
Aronjon Katayev, who is pursuing his master’s in clinical social work, had finished his classes for the day and was headed home. “But I saw the gallery, and thought: I have to check that out. First I fell in love with that piece,” he said, pointing to Edouard Duval-Carrié’s “Ogu Feraille”—a giant fiberglass light-box depicting a spirit god in the Yoruba tradition. He was also thrilled to meet some of the artists, and plans to visit the exhibition again.
That’s the kind of reaction Sherman hopes to spark. “My criteria for a successful exhibition are simple and two pronged: One, if I can turn off my head while I’m in the exhibition space, and I can just experience the art without the contemporary chatter and obligations of contemporary connected life—if it can just be about the sensory experience of the art. And two, if I’m still thinking about the art after I leave—that’s success.”
Dust Specks on the Sea: Contemporary Sculpture from the French Caribbean & Haiti
November 7 – March 2, 2019
Exhibiting artists: Mathieu Kleyebe Abonnenc, Julie Bessard, Hervé Beuze, Jean-François Boclé, Alex Burke, Vladimir Cybil Charlier, Gaëlle Choisne, Ronald Cyrille, Jean-Ulrick Désert, Kenny Dunkan, Edouard Duval-Carrié, Adler Guerrier, Jean-Marc Hunt, Fabiola Jean-Louis, Nathalie Leroy-Fiévée, Audry Liseron-Monfils, Louisa Marajo, Ricardo Ozier-Lafontaine, Jérémie Paul, Marielle Plaisir, Tabita Rezaire, Yoan Sorin