Caribbean American artists offer myriad traditions to U.S. art lovers.
“There is no single Caribbean American identity,” President Biden said in a proclamation, referring to the roughly 8 million Caribbean Americans living in the United States today. “The mix of cultures, languages, and religions alive across the United States and the islands reflects the diversity of spirit that defines the American story.”
Here are images of art by five Caribbean American artists who work in an array of mediums as they address issues from colonialism within the Afro Caribbean diaspora to climate change.
Ana Mendieta (1948–1985)
Ana Mendieta was born in Havana and came to live in the United States with her sister when Fidel Castro took power in 1960. She studied painting at the University of Iowa before turning to photography, sculpture and “earth body works,” in which she used mud and other natural materials to create Siluetas, silhouettes of her own body. By imprinting her body on the earth’s surface, she connected the human form to the natural world. Mendieta is remembered as a preeminent artist whose work weds environmental concerns with 1970s feminist theory. “To question our culture is to question our own existence, our human reality,” she said in 1980 for an exhibition at A.I.R. Gallery in New York. “This in turn becomes a search, a questioning of who we are and how we will realize ourselves.”
Didier William (born 1983)
Haitian American painter Didier William mixes traditional printing techniques with collage-inspired designs to create elaborate multimedia paintings. “The kind of layers that are inevitably part of a family’s history when they have to move, I’ve found those layers on a material level in print,” he told ShareAmerica.
“Technically and formally when we’re looking at a print, we’re looking at a series of layers that are stacked together that the viewer can read as a whole of an image. I’ve found a lot of analogy in that system of layering with the kind of stories that I am trying to tell.”
An art professor at Rutgers University, William received his master’s in fine arts degree from Yale University and his bachelor’s degree from the Maryland Institute College of Art. His paintings tell the story of what it feels like to be an immigrant in the United States — as he and his family were in 1989 — through a lens of history, mythology, Vodou and other religions, as well as childhood memory.
“Language figures very largely in the work because when you don’t speak the language, you have to perform the labor of translation constantly,” he says of his paintings.
Felix Gonzalez-Torres (1957–1996)
Felix Gonzalez-Torres was born in Guáimaro, Cuba, and lived in Puerto Rico with his uncle from the time he was an adolescent. He received his bachelor’s degree from the Pratt Institute in New York City and his master’s in fine arts degree from the International Center of Photography. Gonzalez-Torres, who won grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, was part of the artist collective called Group Material, which believed in using art to achieve social justice.
He included minimalist images and used objects to address the AIDS crisis within the gay community. His works — such as Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) and Untitled (Water) — were inspired by watching his partner, Ross Laycock, “disappear like a dried flower” from AIDS. “When he was becoming less of a person I was loving him more,” Gonzalez-Torres said in a 1995 interview. “Every lesion he got I loved him more.”
Gonzalez-Torres himself died from AIDS in 1996, but his work is still displayed in art museums around the world, reminding viewers of the devastating history of the epidemic.
Firelei Báez (born 1981)
Born in the Dominican Republic to a Dominican mother and Haitian father, Firelei Báez went to art school in New York City, where she still lives. She creates large-scale paintings and installations that weave themes of the African diaspora in the Caribbean with Dominican folklore.
One recurring theme is Báez’s interpretations of women’s bodies, specifically the ciguapa, a mythological woman from Dominican folklore who transforms into various animals and tricks men. “In reading my paintings of ciguapas, I’m asking the viewer to come to terms with their own feelings around a woman’s body,” she says in a 2019 video for Art21. “The ciguapa is this trickster figure. She is a seductress.” Baez depicts other types of Caribbean women, such as the above image, which recontextualizes the 1791 Haitian Revolution.
Nari Ward (born 1963)
Nari Ward was born in Kingston, Jamaica, and moved to the United States with his family when he was 12. He now lives in New York City, where he is the head of the Studio Art Department at Hunter College.
Ward creates large multimedia works that use recycled material — such as shoelaces, baby carriages or cash registers — to explore immigrant experiences and racial discrimination. “That idea that you can claim your own history is really important,” he said in 2017 after winning the Vilcek Prize in Fine Arts. “We’re all coming from somewhere, and sometimes it’s necessary to be lost so that you kind of figure out things for yourself. And I feel like that’s what art should be about.”