A report on the Brown Bag Lunch by: Yuanqiu Jiang
On January 17, 2018, the Program of Comparative Literature hosted its first Brown Bag Lunch of the spring semester. Professor Michelle A. Stephens, Dean of Humanities, also an affiliate faculty member of the program, gave a talk on the book she newly coedited with Professor Tatiana Flores (Art History and Latino and Caribbean Studies), Relational Undercurrents: Contemporary Art of the Caribbean Archipelago. Along with the book, an exhibition was curated by Professor Flores for the Museum of Latin American Art (Long Beach, CA).
Both the book and the exhibition focus on contemporary visual arts produced in the Caribbean islands, around which a conceptual framework is built. This framework, Professor Stephens suggests, challenges traditional area studies such as American Studies and Caribbean Studies. In addition to posing “a critique to the continental,” Relational Undercurrents also pushes Caribbean Studies to reconceptualize the Caribbean itself: it is more than ex-colonies; and compared with only taking the relations between ex-colonies and the respective metropoles into consideration, the assemblage of seas, continents, and islands enables us to investigate ties and associations that look beyond those defined by colonialism. Through its internal complexity and inexhaustible particularity, the Caribbean, as an assemblage, makes possible a variety of new perspectives. In turn, new understanding of places beyond the Caribbean would also emerge.
Professor Stephens further introduced the four main sections of the book. The first is conceptual mapping. A personalized mapping of landscapes articulates a Caribbean that modifies, counters, and challenges the cartography imposed by colonial powers. The second is perpetual horizons, the horizon being a shared theme and trope among many of the artists. Different artists mobilize the horizon differently: some may view it as a symbol of freedom, others may focus on its function of bridging the islands. The third is landscape ecologies. Rather than (re)presenting a romanticized or exoticized landscape, what emerges in artists’ visualizations are wild, messy, sometimes even uncanny. In a move that de-familiarizes paradise and beach tropes often ascribed to the Caribbean, harsh realities such as oil drilling and garbage in the sea are shown. The last section, on representational acts, addresses the figuration of the human body, including race and gender. The political and interactive staging of the impacted body is an essential component in the visualizing and theorizing of contemporaneity.
The talk was followed by an extremely lively discussion. Scholars from different disciplines shared their experiences and critical understandings of the term “archipelagic.” Professor Stephens pointed out that oceanic studies share a similar conceptual framework with continental studies, which is why the assemblage mentioned before is important: it disrupts these studies materially and metaphorically. The discussion also demonstrated that “archipelago” does not designate a locale-fixed notion, nor is it a term solely used in Euro-American academic discourses, suggesting its far-range applicability.
The book, the talk, and the discussion all gave manifestation to the comparative and collaborative (frame)works Professor Stephens presented on. Thank you to all participants, and congratulations to Professor Stephens and Professor Flores!