The scarlet nail polish glistens, sultry and glamorous. And then, it globs, which is less attractive, but perhaps more meaningful.
That’s a summary of “The Better to Caress You With (Para Acariciarte Mejor),” a performance video by Jessica Lagunas, who hails from Guatemala. The video is one of three cosmetic-themed pieces that Lagunas contributed to “Flow: Economies of the Look and Creativity in Contemporary Art From the Caribbean,” an exhibit currently at the IDB Cultural Center Gallery, a division of the Inter-American Development Bank.
“Flow” gathers work by 27 artists who represent some 14 countries that might be considered Caribbean. The aesthetic visions, broadly speaking, riff on ideas related to leisure pastimes, popular culture, and forms of self-expression, including beauty regimes. For “The Better to Caress You With,” Lagunas applied the polish to her nails over and over, during the course of a continuous staged performance, until the varnish ran out. In similar performances, she employed lipstick (“The Better to Kiss You With (Para Besarte Mejor)” and mascara (“The Better to See You With (Para Verte Mejor)”.
In the exhibit, the videos documenting these performances are clustered together on a wall. So the viewer can stand and gaze while the nail polish drips onto the sides of the artist’s fingers; the lipstick starts to look thick and messy; and the mascara, inevitably, clumps. Lagunas’s brooding comments on the burden of contemporary beauty standards was conceived in relation to “Latina aesthetics,” says Elvis Fuentes, who curated the exhibit with Meyken Barreto. “But it’s something that could be applied to many different cultures.”
Spectators who have spent any time haunting pharmacy cosmetic aisles will be intrigued to hear that the nail polish Lagunas used — it appears to be Revlon — generated a whopping 109 minutes 36 seconds of footage. Who knew there was nearly two hours of color in one of those little vials?
Other pieces in “Flow” operate in other media. Puerto Rican artist Miguel Luciano covered a plantain with platinum and set it on a necklace-style chain. Fuentes observes that Luciano is playing with the ideas of bling and “the culture of machismo that is associated with rappers.”
Cuban American Alessandra Exposito decorated chicken skulls with colors, tiny bull-style horns, and other ornamentation. In the curators’ view, the tiny objects fall into the centuries-old tradition of vanitas paintings, meditating on mortality.
A former curator at El Museo del Barrio in New York, Fuentes is an expert on the art of the region represented in “Flow.” He previously led the curator team on “Caribbean: Crossroads of the World” an epic show that ran at three New York museums. (An iteration of the show is currently in Miami). Approached by Debra Corrie, coordinator of the IDB Art Collection, to create a show for the D.C. gallery, Fuentes took inspiration from a book the IDB has published on the idea of the “orange economy” — the economy that includes culture and other creative spheres.
Adding in the idea of “the look” made a lot of sense, he says, because people in the Caribbean boast heritage “from so many different places,” making for a thought-provoking melange of beauty ideals, which the region’s art echoes and ponders.
A telling look features in one of the stories told about the celebrated 19th-century Kazakh composer Kurmangazy Sagyrbayuly: Imprisoned during a period of political unrest, the musician received a visit from his mother, who was so appalled by her son’s weepy mien that she slapped him.
“She said, ‘I thought that I gave birth to a warrior, but it looks like you are very weak!’” recounts D.C. area resident Tokjan Balderston, who was born and raised in Kazakhstan.
Kurmangazy — as he is referred to — later drew on the mixed feelings provoked by that stinging matriarchal slap to write one of his more famous pieces, titled after his mother.
The music of Kurmangazy will be on the program on July 3, when a bevy of Kazakh musicians performs a concert titled “Magic Songs of the Eternal Steppe” at the Kennedy Center. Two ensembles — the Kurmangazy Kazakh National Orchestra of Folk Instruments and the Baikadamov Kazakh National Choir — will join multiple soloists on the program, which will include music from Kazakhstan (a Central Asian country that was formerly a Soviet republic), as well as Western fare like “Winter” from Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons.” The evening is presented by the country’s Ministry of Culture, its U.S. embassy and the Kazakh American Association.
The musicians will arrive in town just days after performing at Carnegie Hall. The concerts in the two cities will likely provide some U.S. audiences with a first taste of traditional Kazakh instruments like the dombra (somewhat resembling a guitar) and the kobyz (a bowed instrument).
For Balderston, who describes herself as a founding member of the Kazakh American Association — and who has been helping with the promotion of the concerts — a highlight of the evening will be the orchestra’s rendition of Kurmangazy’s beloved piece “Saryarka (Golden Steppe).”
When she hears Kurmangazy’s music, she says, she feels swept up in “the spirit of Kazakhstan”—a spirit that is “independent, strong, powerful, free.”
“Flow” at the IDB Cultural Center Gallery, 1300 New York Ave. NW, through Aug. 29. Visit www.iadb.org/ en/topics/culture/cultural-center
“Magic Songs of the Eternal Steppe.” At the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall on July 3. Visit www.kennedy-center.org.
Wren is a freelance writer.