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Going Digital: DVCAI's Caribbean and Latin American Art Digital Archive

Going Digital: DVCAI's Caribbean and Latin American Art Digital Archive

On Holy Saturday (the day before Easter Sunday) the Shroud of Turin was shown in public. The Shroud was last exhibited in 2015. How things have changed in five years. Physical distancing protocols meant that the 2020 public viewing was not the same as it had been in years and decades past. No people actually stood before the holy relic this year. Rather, their contact and experience with the Shroud was virtual. For several hours on Easter Eve, in the midst of a global pandemic, thousands of Catholic faithful the world over were able to live stream the public exhibition of the Shroud on television, social media and YouTube. The Archbishop of Turin took the decision to publicly show the Shroud in such a fashion because he believed the faithful needed the spiritual solace this relic associated with Christ’s death and resurrection could provide. The virtual streaming resulted in a significantly larger number of people seeing the Shroud than ever could stand before it in Turin, even if Italy was not currently inaccessible.[1]

More than providing spiritual comfort when we cannot and should not be congregating in large groups, the Shroud of Turin’s virtual exhibition illustrates how the guardians of the world’s artistic, cultural, and historic memory and treasures – archives, galleries, libraries, museums, and exhibitors – are turning to digital means to give people access to their collections and exhibitions. Visit almost any archive, library or museum website today and you are sure to find expanded digital content. In fact, in the early days of physical distancing I found myself sharing links on social media that highlighted the myriad opportunities for acquiring culture via the Internet. Maybe you didn’t take your kids to museums B.C. (Before Coronavirus), but, in my view, now was the perfect opportunity to integrate art, history and culture into your child’s life. Sneak in that learning especially with school campuses closed, and homebound activities being necessary. 

What better way to deal with the current normal than by immersing yourself in art, culture and history? There are several bonuses to these virtual forays: 

  • They are free! You don’t have to pay admission fees, nor do you need to incur the expenses associated with a trip to a “Museum City,” New York, London, Paris or Rome (to name just a few).
  • You are not bound by operating hours. Whether you’re an early bird or a night owl museums and exhibitions are available at your convenience twenty four hours a day, seven days a week.
  • You have a proverbial buffet of art styles, artistic periods, and genres to choose from and you can spend a morning, an afternoon, or an entire day visiting one or several online offerings.
  • You have an unobstructed view of some of the most iconic artworks in history. Good luck trying to see Leonardo’s Mona Lisa or Van Gogh’s Starry Night up close on an in-person visit to the Louvre or the Museum of Modern Art. 
  • You can enjoy all this art and culture from the comfort of your couch, dressed in your PJs.

Soon after everything began to close individual notifications (emails, social media posts) about virtual cultural content began to circulate and from these I put together a list. My list was far from exhaustive, but included fifteen institutions from all over the world. The usual and expected were there: the British Museum and National Gallery in Britain, the Louvre in France, the Uffizi and Vatican Museum in Italy, The National Gallery and the Metropolitan Museum in the U.S. From my admittedly short list one can see work from every era in western art from Antiquity to the contemporary age, many offering virtual guided tours. These virtual visits and guided tours, however, preference the work of artists in the traditional western art canon.[2] My abbreviated list only features two non-western museums, The National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, Mexico and The National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Seoul, South Korea. I am not saying that the other institutions do not feature non-western art and artifacts in their virtual presentations. My point is that it is easier to find examples of and information about works by Michelangelo Buonarroti, Rembrandt van Rjin, Claude Monet, or Jackson Pollock than it is to find examples and information about artists, such as those from the Caribbean and Latin America, who do not necessarily fall within this more traditional catalog.

Even in pre-pandemic days it took patience and perseverance to find information about Caribbean and Latin American artists from any era. It is not as readily available, whether in digital form or in a print book. One of the things I study is Haitian art and it is extremely hard to find reliable, scholarly writing on this subject. Haitian art books are typically written by private collectors to highlight their collections. While demonstrating the author’s love of the art, they lack substance. Still, I always advise people when you find a book on Haitian art Buy It! These usually have a limited press run, they go out of print quickly, and once out of print become almost impossible to find. I use Haitian art as an example since it is what I am most familiar with, but the case is not that different with art from other Caribbean and Latin American nations. Why does such an issue exist with art from these regions? 

In part, the difficulty in finding material about Caribbean and Latin American art and artists is because archives and museums have to make choices about what is preserved. Generally someone in a position of authority decides what to acquire and what to safeguard. What is selected and made more readily available is prioritized based on physical space (usually limited), patron interest, and funding. Typically that has meant that the western canon of old masters, and better known modern and contemporary western artists, is favored over others. Moreover, it is perhaps not until the mid-twentieth century that Latin American art was recognized as a category of art historical study. And, as I just discovered, Caribbean Art’s disciplinary subcategory designation is even more recent. The dearth of scholarly sources in these fields can partially be attributed to this lack of academic recognition. Another obstacle stems from the fact that many pieces of Caribbean and Latin American art are in private collections. Unless a scholar knows and has a personal relationship with the owner of a collection they cannot study the works and write about them. No access means no scholarly documentation and no resulting journal article or book. 

Thankfully, the situation with Caribbean and Latin American art is beginning to change. More scholars are starting to study the art of these regions creating a much needed academically structured literature. The question of access is further being addressed by institutions and organizations both small and large that are digitizing their collections, including the information they have on the artists, thus creating digital archives. Diaspora Vibe Cultural Arts Incubator (DVCAI), is an example of an arts presenting organization that is creating a digital archive. Established in 1996 and based in Miami, DVCAI nurtures, cultivates the vision and diverse talents of emerging artists from the Caribbean and Latin American diaspora. DVCAI sponsors exhibitions, residencies, international cultural exchanges and education outreach programs. 

Recognizing the need to preserve the important information in the organization’s files, DVCAI’s founder, president and curator, Rosie Gordon-Wallace, partnered with the Digital Library of the Caribbean (dLOC) at Florida International University, and the University of Miami Libraries’ Special Collections, to digitize, preserve, and make as much of their documentation as possible freely accessible to scholars, students, and people who are simply curious. I became aware of DVCAI’s work when I began to work with dLOC a little over a year ago. One of my tasks as the Green Family Foundation/Digital Library of the Caribbean fellow was to scan some of the DVCAI files. From early on, as a scholar, student and educator, I realized that the documents in the DVCAI folders contained a treasure trove of information on Caribbean and Latin American art and artists that likely was not available anywhere else.

Caribbean and Latin American art and artists are usually underrepresented communities in archives, libraries and museums. DVCAI’s digital archive diversifies and increases the volume of obtainable material, making more sources on a wider range of communities available. With the latter scholars have the ability to create more complete narratives about Caribbean and Latin American art and artists that crosses disciplines. It must be noted that the DVCAI digital archive, currently in process, is open access and free to anyone with an internet connection and a desire to learn more about Caribbean and Latin American artists. Many of these artists worked with DVCAI in the early stages of their career, enabling scholars to gain a fuller picture of career trajectories, particularly for those who have garnered more recognition in subsequent years. Filling, as it does, a lacuna in Caribbean and Latin American art history the DVCAI digital archive holds tremendous value for scholars and students of these divisions in the discipline of art history.

Please follow the link to DVCAI’s website to learn more about its work. Visit DVCAI’s dLOC page and click “Go” to see documents already available on the site. Uploading of digitized documents will resume after pandemic-mandated shutdowns are lifted and universities in Florida reopen. 

 

[1] Information on the live streamed exhibition of the Shroud of Turin was taken from: Andrew R. Casper, “What Does it Mean to Exhibit the Shroud of Turin Online?” Slate, April 10, 2020, accessed April 13, 2020, https://slate.com/technology/2020/04/shroud-of-turin-virtual-exhibition-...

[2] Western is used here not to denote geography, but rather the group of cultures sharing common traditions, e.g. Ancient Greeks, Ancient Romans, Europe and the United States.

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