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Exhibitions/ Arte del mar: Artistic Exchange in the Caribbean/ Exhibition Galleries

Arte del mar: Artistic Exchange in the Caribbean

At The Met Fifth Avenue
December 16, 2019–June 27, 2021

Exhibition Galleries


In the centuries before 1492, the Taíno peoples of the islands of the Greater Antilles and the diverse civilizations of Central and South America exchanged materials and ideas across a rich maritime network around the rim of the Caribbean Sea. Unfolding in four thematic sections, Arte del mar (art of/from the sea) examines the ways in which indigenous artists across the region expressed widespread concepts of ritual knowledge, ceremonial performance, and political power.

Caribbean peoples understood deities and ancestors to inhabit trees, stones, and other aspects of the landscape. This divine environmental force, known as zemí (or cemí) to the Taínos, inspired the production of sculptures, stands, and vessels, which were used in ritual acts. Artists throughout the region also created spiritually charged greenstone and gold pendants for leaders, both men and women, to wear in ceremonial performances that reinforced their political power and connected them to mythological narratives.

From the sixteenth century onward, the means of cultural exchange for Caribbean artists expanded greatly from regional relationships to global networks that encompassed Europe and Africa. Centuries of violent colonial rule transformed indigenous artistic production, and the forced mass migration of enslaved peoples resulted in new Afro-indigenous forms of expression. Artistic exchange, both in the region and among diasporic communities, flourished into the twentieth century, as seen in the work of Cuban painter Wifredo Lam (on view in the final section). Artists today continue to draw upon the Caribbean landscape and the enduring legacy of ancestral traditions.


The exhibition is made possible by the Friends of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas: Art of Five Continents.

All or the majority of the people of Hispaniola have many zemís, of different types. Some have the bones of their father, their mother, relatives, and ancestors; others are of stone or wood; many have both forms; some speak and others bring to life things they eat; others make rain; others make wind.

—Ramón Pané, Catalan friar, 1498

Zemí (or cemí) was the central concept in art and ritual among the diverse societies known today as the Taínos. Zemí in the Taíno language refers to the spiritual and vital force of deities and ancestors that permeated the Caribbean environment. Men and women leaders accessed zemí and mythological knowledge through ceremonies and harnessed this sacred power through sculpture.

The process of creating zemí figures was a collaboration between political leaders, ritual practitioners, and master artists. First, the leader perceived a connection with a tree or stone. The spirit within would then demand that he or she summon a ritual specialist, who would reveal the zemí’s identity through a ceremony in which they inhaled the vegetal hallucinogen known as cohoba. Taíno artists then sculpted the tree or stone into the specific bodily form of the divine power as described by the specialist. The physical effects of Taíno ritual acts are often visible in the zemí itself: it may have widened watering eyes, a grimacing expression, limbs adorned with ligatures or wrappings, and an emaciated figure due to fasting. The leaders became the caretakers of these zemí embodiments, which, in turn, became powerful agents in their communities.

Knowledge of Caribbean rituals and traditions derives primarily from late fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Spanish accounts, excerpts of which are featured throughout the gallery.

Selected Artworks

On this island, from what I have been able to understand, only their songs, which they call areitos, are their book or history that remains from people to people, from parents to children, and from those present to those to come.

—Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo, Spanish colonizer, 1526

All around the sea people came together to build large public plazas, which were the sites of dances, musical performances, and processions that united communities. Taíno performances (areitos) relayed the complex histories of ancestors and political leaders through dancing and lyrical chanting. Other public ceremonies drew upon ritual knowledge to reinforce the political power of noble families. Greenstone objects and gold pendants in the form of eagles were worn as symbols of power during these performances, and pendants with bells and groups of stone beads added a sonic quality to dances.

Ritual competition in the form of a ballgame (batey) played with rubber balls also brought together communities, especially in the Greater Antilles. Like the more widespread games from mainland Mexico and Central America, batey involved hitting the ball with the hips, knees, shoulders, elbows, and head. Sculpted stone belts or collars with zemí imagery may be effigy versions of textile or leather ballgame regalia worn by players. More than mere sport, ballgames in the Americas had religious, diplomatic, and moral dimensions, perhaps even functioning to resolve conflicts.

Selected Artworks

There were in this island Hispaniola five very large principal kingdoms and five very powerful kings, whom almost all the other lords, who were numerous, obeyed.

—Bartolomé de Las Casas, Spanish colonizer and friar, 1542

Ritual performances and luxury regalia reinforced the political authority of powerful men and women. In the islands, indigenous leaders known as caciques competed against one another for claims over territory and subjects. They commissioned sculptors to create duhos, or seats, which provided a privileged vantage point during important ceremonies. Leaders also organized trade over land or sea to obtain gold-copper alloy (guanín), jadeite and other greenstones, and marine shells. These luxurious materials formed part of their wealth and were fashioned into important symbols of political power, such as pendants, axes, and woven, beaded, and feathered belts and headdresses. Innovative vessels, such as marble vases from Honduras, were also valuable exchange goods.

Objects with bird- or batlike symbols convey the importance of flying creatures to the identities of leaders or ruling families. A metate (grinding stone or stool) from Costa Rica features birdlike creatures that may have symbolized a particular lineage or reinforced the political prowess of a single leader. The majesty of flight was also a pervasive theme in prestigious gold and greenstone regalia, such as pendants from the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in Colombia. In such objects, idealized leaders wear elaborate headdresses featuring fearsome birds to project divine power.

Selected Artworks

In Wifredo Lam the poetics of the American landscape (accumulation, expansion, power of history, the African connection, presence of totems) is part of the design. From the dense layers of the jungle to those clear spaces hardly touched by color, where so many mythical birds alight.

—Édouard Glissant, philosopher and writer from Martinique, 1989

From the twentieth century to the present, Caribbean artists have often incorporated themes of ritual knowledge, ceremonial performance, and political power into their work.

Wifredo Lam was a Cuban artist of Afro-Chinese descent, renowned for using art as what he later called an "act of decolonization." In the 1930s and 1940s, he created his own visual glossary of Afro-Caribbean deities and spirits, fusing them with modes of representation that drew on European Cubism and Surrealism. He referenced West African religions such as Santeria (or Lucumi) and Vodoun (or Vodou) that incorporated indigenous Taíno practices as they spread throughout the Antilles. Just as the trees and stones in the islands spoke to the Taíno peoples several centuries prior, the natural ecology and agricultural production of Lam’s birthplace inspired his artistic practice.

Selected Artworks

Deity Figure (zemí) (detail), ca. A.D. 1000. Dominican Republic (?). Taíno. Wood (Guaiacum), shell, 27 x 8 5/8 x 9 1/8 in. (68.5 x 21.9 x 23.2 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979 (1979.206.380)