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From America's Paradise to Beantown: Local Art Bound for Boston Exhibition

Sept. 11, 2007 — Virgin Islands and Puerto Rican art is on its way to Boston, Mass., for an exhibition called "America's Paradise" and "Isla Del Encanto: Contemporary Art from the American from the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.”
The exhibition is the brainchild of Joanna Soltan, curator of Boston's School of the Museum of Fine Arts (SMFA).
“Our school is very much interested in being open to the world, bringing in artists from everywhere,” Soltan said. “Art making takes place everywhere, not just New York, London and Berlin.”
The art addresses the reality of life in a tourist destination, she said.
“What I found interesting is how the American Caribbean is assigned a certain role," Soltan said. "In the popular imagination it is 'America’s paradise' — the Virgin Islands’ license-plate slogan. From far away, people think of them as ecologically pristine, serene places of relaxation, not as places with very complex, long histories.”
Her goal was to start a conversation and show a glimpse of the diversity and complexity underneath the public image, the myth of tropical paradise and attempts to reclaim innocence. Among the topics that inform the work Soltan selected are ecological concerns, as well as issues of identity, migration and the complex relationship with the mainland United States.
“I was particularly moved by those artists who were not manipulated by the pressures of tourism,” Soltan said. “Artists who were creating art for their own reasons and their own messages. … Each artist has a strong personality. You can’t lump these islands into one group — never mind the individual artists. There is no one, single sensibility that comes from this part of the world.”
The exhibition includes paintings and work on paper by Monica Marin, Elsa María Melendez, Shansi Miller, Maud Pierre-Charles and Rafael Trelles; sculptures by Luca Gasperi; installations by Edgar Endress and Erik Pedersen; video documentation of installations by Mike Walsh; a video by Quintín Rivera-Toro; and a documentary film by Johanna Bermudez-Ruiz. The media used vary as widely as the themes portrayed.
Pedersen, a St. Thomas artist, creates elaborate installations assembled from found items, painting, papier mache, metal and things he builds. For the past decade or more he has created works that, as a group, reflect the Caribbean coral reef as a symbol of life in the Caribbean.
“The reef is a metaphor for the incredible beauty and incredible danger of life here,” Pedersen said.
The barbarities and inhumanity of slavery are among the dangers Pedersen incorporates in his work. One piece, “Unearned Suffering,” was inspired by a church service.
“It came out of a Lenten series on suffering at Frederick Evangelical Lutheran Church on St. Thomas,” Pedersen said. “The cover of the bulletin holding the worship services was a copy of an old print showing a row of slaves in a cane field, overlooked by two overseers leaning on guns, prepared to enforce discipline. They are like a chain gang of convicts, but what crime did they commit? The subject is chattel slavery.”
Pedersen took other copies of the bulletin, using them to create a small cemetery with crosses. Off to the right a slave escapes, led by a plastic dove.
“It is like birds in Grimm’s Fairy Tales, leading children out of the forest to safety,” Pedersen said. “There is a great deal of energy here, and we need to pay attention to it. Part of the beauty is the shadow side. … It is all about befriending the shadow — not being afraid of it, that’s all.”
Mike Walsh, a sculptor and metal worker on St. Croix, has also assembled complex pieces, combining found items with those he makes. But his themes are very different. Walsh’s work is site specific and so cannot travel. What will travel is a video documentary of several pieces involving plastic grocery bags.
“They are very arresting in their visual impact,” Walsh said. “Their lightness, their transparency, the beauty of light through the bags — it is like they are alive. As the air moves, they seem to breathe.”
While the environmental aspect of trash bags in the bush and in the water are obvious potential messages, Walsh said he is not focused on the political and societal aspects so much as the sensory characteristics of his found media.
“I’m not sure I want to venture into the issues of plastic bags as an evil of consumerism destroying the life we value,” he said. “I’m not really directly trying to make a comment on litter and the damage plastic bags do. It’s more about how, when you present them in a particular way, juxtaposing the bags and the natural background, you create an arresting image.”
Johanna Bermudez-Ruiz of St. Croix will show a portion of her feature-length documentary on the Puerto Rican community and the migration of people from Vieques and Culebra to the Virgin Islands during the 1930s, '40s and '50s. Named “Sugar Pathways,” the film is set for release by the end of the year.
“It is a film … that puts into context a piece of American and Latin American history that most people in the Midwest don’t know about,” Bermudez-Ruiz said. “One that exposes the U.S. Virgin Islands and makes people want to come and see what this culture is all about, not just as a tourist place but as a cultural landmark of the United States.”
Born and raised on St. Croix, Bermudez is second-generation Crucian with Puerto Rican roots. After graduating from St. Croix’s Manor School, Bermudez went to Antioch University in Ohio, where she studied film and political science.
She won a best documentary award at the New York MAAFA Film Festival in 2000 for her documentary “Spirit of Expression” on the spiritual practices of Guyanese priestesses.
Also in 2000, singer and actor Harry Belafonte presented Bermudez with the Humming Bird Award at the San Juan Film Festival for “Vieques: An Island Forging Futures,” a short documentary about the protests against U.S. Navy occupation and bombing practice on the island of Vieques.
The initial germ of an idea for the Boston exhibition grew out of a series of talks at the Caribbean Museum Center in Frederiksted.
“While I was here giving and attending a series of talks at the Caribbean Museum Center, I met lots of artists,” Soltan said. “The artists who came to my talk expressed an interest. Candia Atwater and Emily Graci were instrumental. Because of them, I felt I had access to people in a way that would have been very difficult to do from Boston. That we are so far from the Caribbean is part of what I love about this show.”
The exhibition, featuring mostly Island artists, goes on display at SMFA’s Grossman Gallery in Boston starting Sept. 18 and running until Oct. 13.
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