Just in time for hurricane season comes Joiri Minaya’s “Labadee,” on view at the Blanton Museum of Art. The seven-minute video succeeds in transporting its viewers to a Caribbean paradise of (mostly) zinc white beachgoers working on their base tans before returning home to some variation of a landlocked life. No SPF required to watch this looping meditation on tourists, locals, and the barbed-wire fence which separates the two. “Labadee” is an onscreen slice of sandy tranquility and socio-economic inequality.
Leased by Royal Caribbean Cruises, Ltd. until 2050, Labadee is a private resort on the northern coast of Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Labadee has provided much of Haiti’s tourist revenue for decades. Its tightly controlled beach is guarded by a private security force and fortified by a wall (two, actually) to ensure a relaxing time for visitors — while keeping the rest of country out. Only locals employed by the cruise line are allowed access, in addition to a small group of merchants and performers who hope to break even for the fee they must pay in order to enter Labadee.
Minaya herself grew up next door to Haiti, in the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola. Now based in New York, her work often explores issues of cultural exoticism, island tourism, and neocolonialism, all accounted for in this video.
“Labadee” is an immersive installation starting with the entrance to the Blanton’s film and video gallery which has been reconfigured with bright, tropical spandex-lined walls, and a ship-like doorway. A small porthole allows for a quick peek inside the gallery, which is equipped with a pair of white plastic beach chairs, perfect for some couple sipping on drinks with little pink umbrellas.
Minaya’s “Labadee” begins with a shot from the stern of a cruise ship, a churning trail of white leaving its momentary mark on the sea. The image is silent and slow moving, honoring the timeless beauty of a place we haven’t conquered: the vast middle of oceanic nowhere. Excerpts from the diary of Christopher Columbus — who landed on Hispaniola in 1492 — appear as subtitles, suggesting the same pathway of discovery, only centuries later.
From inside the ship we admire a cumulus-cloud sky framed by various windows. The azure blue sky is almost a cliché. A single crew member — seemingly the only human on a boat containing thousands of passengers — quietly burnishes the deck railing with a rag.
“La Bamba” begins to play as the footage turns to Labadee itself, the leased port coming to life with cruise passengers frolicking in the water, lying on the beach, standing in line for food. A group of young vacationers excitedly snap photos of themselves, their selfie stick practically impaling the musicians performing right in front of them. (How many likes will it get on Instagram?)
We’re eventually taken to a wall, shaped like a large blue wave, and beyond that, a barbed-wire fence, where young boys hang around in the hopes of catching the attention of tourists who have wandered off from the bar. All the while, the band’s rendition of “La Bamba” dutifully continues on in the background. At this point, Minaya ponders, via subtitles, whether these locals are also Labadee performers in a way, hoping to entice the “voluntourists” who have gravitated to the wall, curious about those who live on the other side it.
Minaya conveys quite a bit of information with these captions. But their presence at the bottom of the screen feels somewhat distracting. Footage of unsmiling boys holding paper plates and motioning to their mouths from behind a barbed wire barrier needs no words. The expository has perhaps overshadowed the evocative here: Labadee’s clear visual dichotomy seems poignant enough.
Paradise is beautiful, but also vulnerable. Like many islands in the region, Haiti’s history is rife with exploitation and corruption, a longterm pattern which has fostered an economic dependence on the very entities controlling it. In this sense, tourism is a form of modern-day colonialism, a double-edged sword of dollars and despair.
But what happens when these economic struggles are compounded by ecological trends? Hurricanes often gain their strength in the Caribbean after first brewing off the west coast of Africa and traveling across the Atlantic, following the same ancestral route as many of the Caribbean’s current residents. These islands, which have already endured centuries of suffering and hardship, face the effects of climate change firsthand. With catastrophic weather events only expected to get worse, the cruise ships might one day stop coming; the barbed-wire barrier will no longer matter.
If “Labadee” poetically captures the harsh realities of Caribbean tourism on a picture-perfect day, what happens when the storm rolls in?
“Joiri Minaya: Labadee” continues through Dec. 8, 2019 at the Blanton Museum of Art. blantonmuseum.org