‘Dust Specks’ art show at Sfai confronts the colonization of Haiti and the French Caribbean

Some artists focus on the region’s colonial history, while others explore heritage, family and personal experience

By Gina Gotsill

Bay City News

Art exhibitions can make you feel as if you’re on a voyage, traveling far away from all that you know. It may be the subject matter that makes you feel this way, or the media or the artists’ unique experiences. Sometimes it’s all three. “Dust Specks on the Sea: Contemporary Sculpture from the French Caribbean & Haiti,” is that kind of show.

Finding your bearings first — geographically, historically and politically — will help. The French Caribbean has a long history of European colonization and consists of the islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique and the region of French Guiana in South America. Enslaved people in Haiti, a neighboring Caribbean island, rebelled against French colonizers in 1791 and the island gained independence in 1804.

In 1964, former French President Charles de Gaulle flew over the French Caribbean islands and described the archipelago as “dust specks on the sea,” the namesake of the show. The artists in the exhibition push against de Gaulle’s dismissive words — the voice of the colonizers — and that creates the tension that rises through the space.

The artists all have intimate and personal connections to Guadeloupe, Martinique, French Guiana and Haiti — some focus on the region’s colonial history, while others explore heritage, family and personal experience.

In “The bookshelf 2,” Alex Burke, who was born in Martinique and lives in Paris, uses embroidered cloth bags to express the history and pain that is woven through the region. The bags are neatly lined up on a bookshelf and each are embroidered with dates that tell the story of colonization in the Americas. The bags are tightly cinched, conveying a feeling of secrecy and burying a painful, even brutal past.

That brutal past is laid bare in Guadaloupe artist Ronald Cyrille’s “Key Escape.” A boat — teetering on a pile of sand symbolizing a small island — with black hands reaching for the sky is heavy with loss. It’s a visual diary of the slave trade that ripped millions of Africans from their homelands and made them slaves to European landowners. The “Dust Specks’” catalog reminds us that “descendants of these enslaved people make up a large portion of the French Caribbean today.”

Other work may appear campy, but history is waiting to be discovered just below the surface. Jean-Marc Hunt, a French artist living in Guadeloupe, created “Bananas Deluxe,” a chandelier of bananas inspired by the costume that Josephine Baker wore during her 1920s performances in Paris. (Fun fact: Student gallery workers put up fresh bananas on a regular schedule.)

In one performance, Baker, clad in her banana skirt, shimmied down a tree to the beat of a drum and discovered a white explorer asleep under a tree. The French were wild about the banana skirt and its suggestion of exotic sexuality that tiptoes into our lives — an ideal that may be harder to stomach today. With “Bananas Deluxe,” Hunt is also paying tribute to “Strange Fruit,” a song of racial protest that Billie Holiday recorded in 1939, according to the show catalog.

Audience reaction has been positive, says curator Katie Hood Morgan. People are excited to have new work in the gallery again, she said. And the general public is happy to have an on-campus exhibitions after the long pandemic closure.

“Dust Specks on the Sea” is a traveling show — it opened in Harlem and has also stopped in Albuquerque.

“We are hoping to continue the tour beyond San Francisco, hopefully to Paris,” Hood Morgan says.

The exhibition is free, and visitors receive a full-color catalog to keep. It is on view at the San Francisco Art Institute’s Walter and McBean Galleries, 800 Chestnut St., S.F., until March 5. To learn more, visit sfai.edu.

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