In “Caribbean Dreams,” an exhibit on display at Light Work, photographer Samantha Box explores notions of identity and family heritage as well as perceptions of the Caribbean and the concept of exodus.
Box, who was born in Jamaica, moved with her parents to New Jersey when she was 5 years old. She’s focusing not only on her experiences but also on those of other people who’ve left a homeland to go to another country.
Discussing those themes in an exhibition is a complex undertaking, but Box has no problem meeting the challenge.
Working in her studio, she’s built elaborate still-life sets incorporating fruits, vegetables and other items. She collages in images of herself, photos of her mother and other relatives, creating a visual idiom for this project.
In one instance, she reproduces a sales receipt from the Community Green Market in the Bronx. This is definitely not a space filler. The receipt links to a store owned by immigrants, where most of the customers are immigrants.
Various artworks demonstrate Box’s multiple approaches to developing a theme. In one work, there’s an image of the artist munching on a piece of fruit and gazing at a tabletop filled with flowers, cherries, plantains and several packages of food. One label refers to Jamaican Hot Peppers.
Another piece encompasses two photos: one in which Box looks at her own image in a mirror; a second depicting a hilltop in Jamaica.
And one of the best works displays multiple, blurred versions of the same photograph, a shot of Box as a five-year-old child. They are accompanied by greenery and lush yellow and green colors.
Elsewhere, a photo portrays a tablecloth on a couch; the cloth belonged to Box’s grandmother and is part of her heritage. The artwork also integrates an image of cliffs, other objects, and a patch of darkness.
Moreover, the market receipt mentioned earlier in this article appears in a photo along with a plant and products referencing Jamaica: Mountain Peak Instant Coffee and Blue Mountain Country Natural Molasses.
“Caribbean Dreams” also accesses a body of work the artist has created over several years — flashcards, each portraying a vegetable or fruit from the Caribbean region. A few examples include sugarcane, Julie mango and passionfruit. Twenty of the flashcards appear in the Light Work show.
Depiction of vegetables and fruit, either on flash cards or in still life creations, is an important element of the exhibit, one encouraging discussion on several levels. In one context, this references laborers who pick fruit or harvest fields, typically earning low wages and working under harsh conditions.
Box, in a September 1 presentation at Light Work, said she sees vegetables and fruits as a metaphor for people moving across borders. We live in a time of a global economy in which goods and capital flow across boundaries. Yet, movement of people from the Caribbean to the United States is strictly regulated and controlled.
People come from various Caribbean nations to work in Florida groves or orchards in Washington State, but they are in the United States on a temporary basis.
“There’s a message to migrants,” Box said. “Come here, work, don’t stay.”
Box explicitly rejects the idea of the Caribbean as paradise on earth. This is a region whose history is marred by legacies of slavery and colonial rule, by companies from Europe and the United States exploiting natural resources, by governments dominated far too often by dictators or economic elites.
Viewed from several perspectives, the exhibition has lots of appeal. When Box photographs tomatoes or plantains, they are vivid, seemingly delicious. And when she organizes an exhibit like the one at Light Work, it’s clear that she’s willing to experiment, to move in new directions.
Indeed, the show signals a transition for Box. When she first came to Light Work in 2015, she was an artist in residence in the midst of a long-term, documentary project devoted to photographing homeless LGBTQ youth living in New York City. Today she’s concentrating on the new series, “Caribbean Dreams.”
Box, who’s based in the Bronx, has shown her work at various venues: The Houston Center of Photography, DePaul Art Museum, and the Paul Robeson Galleries at Rutgers University’s Newark campus, among others.
“Caribbean Dreams” is on display through October 13 at Light Work, located at 316 Waverly Ave. on the Syracuse University campus.
The gallery is open to the public from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 1 to 9 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. There is no admission charge. For more information, call 315-443-1300 or visit www.lightwork.org.
Carl Mellor covered visual arts for the Syracuse New Times from 1994 to 2019. He continues to write about exhibitions and artists in Central New York.