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date: 25 September 2017

The Caribbean Visual Palette

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Latin American History. Please check back later for the full article.

The Caribbean is generally considered the islands and territories bounded on one or more shores by the Caribbean Sea, containing an archipelagic stretch of islands, from the Straits of Florida in the United States to the tip of the South American continent, and including the mainland territories of Belize, Suriname, and Guyana. A Caribbean palette incorporates a taste, a way of looking, a value system of what is considered beautiful, representative, or pleasing; an aesthetic sensibility, and feel, for these territories, not just the ways in which art and artistic representation lay down color and texture. It includes expectations that the viewer, whether internal or external to the region, has come to associate with Caribbean peoples. The term “visual palette” also refers to the range of colors and artistic expressions that are connected to the region as a result of its geography and climate, its tropical flora and fauna, the mixing of its ethnic and racial groups, and their religious practices. These elements have accumulated to a range of iconographic symbols derived from festivals, producing values, customs, and variations of shade, shape, and sound that, over time, have morphed into a Caribbean aesthetic, which, like all living cultures, continues to evolve each day.

The historical process by which culture has been created in this region—European colonial settlement of relatively unpopulated lands, displacing the indigenous groups from the 15th century onwards to the present—has affected the way in which the Caribbean has been represented over time. Post-colonial relations of dominance, among and between racialized groups in the different Caribbean territories, have signaled ideas that have demographic appeal. At the same time, there is no unified or shared acceptance of taste or formal values of what is fully representative of the Caribbean visual standpoint, either within societies or between and among them. In an area that contains Anglophone, Hispanophone, Francophone, and Dutch Antillean languages, as well as countless dialects, there are barriers to communication that make for inhibited fluidities or sharing. Nonetheless, due to commonalities of history and topography, there has evolved a uniqueness, perhaps, of color or subject matter that resonates with the Caribbean visual experience. This article examines some selected elements of the different aesthetics produced within this region and explores how these have emerged to create a sensibility that is understood loosely as Caribbean.