Vassar Stories

Environmental Activism and Activist Art in the Caribbean

Prof. of Hispanic Studies Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert is working on a book on environmental activism in the Caribbean. Sofía Benítez ’18 is a Media Studies major and Latin American Studies minor who helped curate an exhibit on artists from the Caribbean at Vassar’s Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center.

So it’s hardly surprising that this professor and student spent part of the summer together, talking to Caribbean artists and other environmental activists about climate change. Under the auspices of Vassar’s Ford Scholar program, Benitez accompanied Paravisini-Gebert to Miami, Cuba and Puerto Rico to help her gather information for her forthcoming book.

Both say the collaboration was a perfect fit. “I love the way art is often integrated with activism,” Benítez says, “and when I saw (Paravisini-Gebert’s proposal) on the Ford Scholar site, I thought to myself, ‘All the work I’ve been doing lately has been leading to this.’”

Paravisini-Gebert says she was thrilled to have Benítez join her on her book project. “I put my project up on the Ford Scholar website, and Sofia answered it about 15 minutes later,” she says. Her idea for the book was inspired by an article in Newsweek magazine, entitled “50 Places to Visit Before They Disappear.” Some of these places were in the Caribbean, she says, “and when I did some research I found out that nobody down there is talking about this very much except artists and fishermen.”

Paravisini-Gebert invited one such artist, Alejandro Durán, to speak to her Environmental Studies class last fall. Durán, a native of Mexico currently living in Brooklyn, has been working for the past six years on a project that began when he discovered mountains of trash washed up on a remote beach in the Yucatán on Mexico’s largest federally protected environmental reserve. Alejandro told me the beach had been ravaged by strong storms that scientists believe are triggered by the conditions that are causing climate change,”Paravisini-Gebert says.

She says she learned many other artists in the Caribbean are also working to call attention to this threat, so she and Benítez arranged to travel to the Caribbean to interview them. One of their first stops was the tiny fishing village of Casilda on Cuba’s southern coast.

Paravisini-Gebert had visited the village several years ago on a previous Vassar-sponsored trip to Cuba, and she had since learned the Cuban government is moving many of its residents inland to protect them from increasingly intense storms. While they were in Trinidad, Paravisini-Gebert and Benítez met Juan Carlos Naranjo Miranda, an environmental journalist who introduced them to local fishermen who talked to them about the storms they have encountered.

Paravisini-Gebert and Benitez met in Puerto Rico with three artists, MariMater O’Neill, Dhara Rivera and Teo Freytes. In Miami they met another landscape artist, Eduard Duval-Carrie, and learned Duval-Carrie is a trained geographer who has a wealth of knowledge about climate change that is sometimes reflected in his art. “I knew about his art,” Paravisini-Gebert says, “but I didn’t know about his science background, and this opened up a lot of discussions about how he approached nature in his work.”

O’Neill, one of Puerto Rico’s best known contemporary painters,  recommended that they speak to a pair of artists she referred to as “The Twins.” The artists, Jaime and Javier Suarez, collaborate on sculptures. Paravisini–Gebert and Benitez viewed one of the sculptures in a pool of water at the Museo de Ponce. From the surface, viewers can see what appears to be a series of islands in a body of water. But when the water level is lowered, viewers can see the stones are arranged in the shape of a man. “It’s a statement about the perils mankind faces from rising water, but the stones that depict a man also represent the sub-marine unity of the people of the Caribbean,” Paravisini-Gebert explains.

Benítez says the trip and the ongoing work she is doing with Paravisini-Gebert has been inspiring. “Everyone we met was so ready to engage with us,” she says. “What I like most about this project is it’s so collaborative. It’s the nexus of art and science, a real convergence.”

Paravisini-Gebert says Benítez’ assistance was invaluable. “Sofia’s prism is different from mine,” she says. “I take more of a thematic approach to the work, and she sees many visual elements I don’t see. We ‘re a good team.”

--Larry Hertz

Photos courtesy of Lisa Paravisini-Gebert

Posted Thursday, August 25, 2016