María Elena Ortiz

Upon my arrival at the Queen Beatriz International Airport in Oranjestad, I was greeted by the powerhouse Elvis Lopez—founding director of Ateliers ’89 in Aruba. He directs one of the oldest alternative art centers in the Dutch Caribbean. Lopez has pioneered Ateliers ’89’s legacy through his tireless work and visionary spirit. He picked me up because I was one of three guest curators participating in Caribbean Linked IV—a residence program initiated by Lopez with Annalee Davis from Fresh Milk in Barbados, and Holly Bynoe from ARC Magazine. With the administrative and logistical support of Katherine Kennedy and Robin de Vogel, Caribbean Linked IV focuses on promoting regional artists and their creative process by inviting 12 individuals from different parts of the archipelago to participate in the program. There, I met a new generation of Caribbean artists looking critically at their cultural realities, expressing themselves through Contemporary art. We benefited from moments of formal professional exchanges like artist presentations, studio visits and my own talk. I was captivated by the conversations driven by experimentation. These interactions maintained a sense of community beyond the restrictions of cultural and geographical borders.

(L-R) Humberto Diaz, David Knight Jr., Maria Elena Ortiz and Elvis Lopez

(L-R) Humberto Diaz, David Knight Jr., Maria Elena Ortiz and Elvis Lopez

In three weeks, artists were introduced to their peers from other islands and engaged in a variety of activities that allow for collaboration. The residents were  Frances Gallardo (Puerto Rico), Travis Geertruida (Curacao), Charlie Godet Thomas (Bermuda), Nowé Harris-Smith (The Bahamas), Dominique Hunter (Guyana),  Tessa Mars(Haïti), Oneika Russell (Jamaica), Shanice Smith (Trinidad), Simon Tatum (The Cayman Islands), Laura de Vogel (Aruba). Aside from the residents, I also met David Knight Jr. (US Virgin Islands), the writer in residence, and Humberto Diaz (Cuba), the master artist, both guiding the group through the course of the three weeks.

During my studio visits, I was fascinated by how the resident artists were alluding to specific Caribbean art historical references, such as the work of Hervé Telemaque or Tirzo Martha, related to other international influences like Conceptual art, Feminist art, Text-based practices, Abstract art, among others. It also became clear that some artists were interested in considering the history of representation within their own contexts—attempting to rediscover or bring forth dismissed cultural narratives. Others approached art-making through formal questions, engaging with ideas about the possibilities of sculpture, drawing, figuration, or improvisation. The themes driving this group varied significantly. I found commonalties through their art-making strategies, such as using everyday objects to make works. It could have been disposed objects or things from nature; nonetheless, everyone seemed comfortable using materials that were at hand.

One day, we visited the historic site Balashi Gold Mill Ruins, which is very windy, for an impromptu exhibition by master artist Humberto Diaz and resident Simon Tatum. Diaz was working at the site with Tatum to create a tri-dimensional drawing. Tatum is trained in drawing, and Diaz was interested in pushing Tatum into considering drawing as a physical space. They worked together for a few days, maneuvering the heavy winds that come from different directions in the ruin. One afternoon, we were invited to view their efforts. The artists used yellow tape to create a web with entangled objects from the site, resisting the heavy winds. After seeing the show, the group destroyed the work and continued to help another artist, Shanice Smith, with a video project at the site. We were all summoned to work together, testing our understanding of art and engaging with community.

At other times, we sat at the lunch table exchanging stories about politics, race, and art in the region, comparing stories about the conditions of the islands that are not independent nations, such as Aruba, Puerto Rico, and Curacao. These conversations led to discussions in which we assessed our differences and similarities in terms of sovereignty. I also was intrigued with how all of us shared a story of migration—part of our “Caribbean life experience”—either our own migratory story or a friend or relative. We all came from different island environments (I, a Puerto Rican living in exile in the US), but had an easy time communicating through different languages, challenging the estate of insularity created by our colonial past or current realities.


Dinner with members of the Aruban Community

It was also rewarding to connect with the local arts community in Aruba. Artists such as Osaira Muyale and Ryan Oduber continue to be pillars within the scene. One night, I had the chance to meet others who have supported Ateliers ’89’s programs, as well as museum professionals working in Aruba.  Even though there is not an art museum, contemporary art center or art school, I got the general sense that there is a group of people on the island committed to promoting and ensuring the growth of the cultural sector.

Caribbean Linked promotes the development of a sustainable language that recognizes cultural production in the region. This program takes on the complexities of the context, similar to how other residencies no longer in existence, such as CCA 7 in Trinidad or M&M Proyectos in Puerto Rico, did in the early 2000s. These earlier programs promoted critical thinking and consistency in artist’s projects, and connected the Caribbean with the international community. One of Caribbean Linked’s greatest successes is its desire to connect artists within the Caribbean—allowing for art productions in the region to be considered in hybrid terms and creating a sense of community beyond our insular borders.