From what is art autonomous?—Okwui Enwezor, "The Black Box," Documenta XI, exhibition catalogue, 2002
In our own reluctance to ask how work engages within the larger social context, we are attempting to protect art and the artist from censorship; however, in practice we are actually participating in the bourgeois notion of the isolation of the artist from society and of so-called high culture from the debates about representation and plurality current in popular culture.—Carol Becker, Social Responsibility and the Place of the Artist in Society
Visual art in the twenty-first century is a field in transition. Perhaps no other activity has undergone as radical a redefinition over the course of the twentieth century as the practice of "art." Indications of such change can be found at all the major curatorial extravaganzas that constitute the pantheon of contemporary art at the global level. Megashows such as Documenta 11, the Havana Biennale, and the Venice Biennale have reflected this shift in the new media they have increasingly created space for; media such as video, film, site-specific projects, and concept-based artwork that bear little or no explicit resemblance to the staples of modernist art agendas—painting, sculpture, photography, installation, assemblage—that still dominate art locales in some parts of the Caribbean. Artists from several Caribbean islands, especially Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Martinique, and to a lesser extent, Trinidad, Barbados, and Jamaica, have, however, become regular participants in these global exhibition arenas. [End Page v]
In an uncanny way Documenta 11, under the directorship of Okwui Enwezor, seemed to presage—indeed almost set the stage for—the kind of images and visual information that would challenge the very operating systems of global power brokers such as the United States and Britain. Enwezor's focus on processes of transitional justice, truth and reconciliation commissions, state-sponsored torture, state impunity, systemic violence, repression, war crimes, and human rights violations presciently foregrounded the very issues raised today by the publication of photos of Iraqi prisoners suffering gross and inhuman abuse at the hands of American and British soldiers and by the very use of visual representation—photography—as an intrinsic form of torture. If there was a moment when the battle for the control of Iraq shifted gears and world opinion decisively turned against the Americans it was during the war of images that occurred soon after the anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq in the spring of 2004. Today the photo of the hooded and garbed prisoner, arms outstretched, balancing for dear life on a shaky crate is likely to become as iconic a memento of this era as the image of Kim Phuc's naked, napalm-covered child's body, arms outstretched, desperately fleeing hostile skies, was to a previous one.
The parade of visual evidence amassed against the invaders framed the naked bodies of prisoners, stripped not only of their clothing but also of humanity, being violated—poked, probed, prodded, invaded, electrocuted. The dissemination of the images well beyond the closed circuits they were intended for revealed the poster boys of democracy to be no less barbaric and inhumane than the regimes of brutality they were supposed to be rescuing Iraqi citizens from. That these were Muslim/"heathen"/non-Western bodies unaccustomed to appearing unclothed in public made the pictures that much more horrific, their message now freighted by the additional burden of infinite otherness cloaking them. What are the "spectatorial regimes" governing the consumption of such images? How should we respond as members of a community that claims a special relationship to the visual in the Caribbean? In the midst of the series of unfolding global crises, how should art and representation be rethought? Where do art and visual representation in Caribbean locales fit in or relate to these newly defined "global" definitions of art and politicized representational landscapes?
Caribbean locales are riven by their own battles for meaningful visual representation. Recent debates generated by Redemption Song, the Jamaican monument to Emancipation unveiled in August 2003, constitute another kind of war over representation, more specifically, a struggle over the memorialization of the battle to end...