by Javier Arellano Vences
In the exhibition A Decolonial Atlas: Strategies in Contemporary Art of the Americas, we encounter artists taking on the rigorous task of deconstructing social and cultural structures that have hindered communities across the American hemisphere.
Marton Robinson’s Money Talk (2012-2015), addresses extractivist economies and the critical participation of black labor in the formation of Costa Rica as a nation. More specifically, Robinson’s work focuses on an analysis of Costa Rica’s cinco colones bill. The cinco colones is decorated with the mural painting Allegory of Coffee and Bananas (1897) by the Italian artist Aleardo Villa which can be found at the National Theater of Costa Rica depicting a group of farmers, who appear to be European peasants, cultivating coffee at the shores of the beach. Its inclusion in the National Theater and on the cinco colones demonstrates that Villa’s painting functions as a historical document intended to reflect an official history of Costa Rica. In other words, the painting is part of the pictographic archive of Costa Rica, which in turn imparts value and authenticity to the subject matter being portrayed.
Additionally, there are several incongruencies within the imagery of the cinco colones note, such as the depiction of coffee growing at the beach instead of the highlands. Yet what is truly detrimental to history and contemporary society is the negation of the role of black labor in Costa Rica. Excluding the black workforce and solely incorporating images of white workers, thus constructing a false image and narrative, is a strategic maneuver that refutes responsibility for the racist discriminatory experiences that black workers had to endure under the employment of extractivist multinational corporations in Central America such as the United Fruit Company (UFC). Furthermore, the exclusion of blackness from Costa Rica’s national identity also appears to be the result of the fear “of the ‘black invasion,’ the eugenic nightmare shared by most white Costa Ricans” during the early twentieth century which saw immigration by Afro-Caribbean workers as something which is inimical to society.”[i] Thus by marking black migration as deleterious to the nation, the integration of black identity into the broader national image of Costa Rica is prevented.
This racist ideology even made its way into the ideology of leftist political groups such as the Costa Rican Communist Party, which under intellectual leaders such as Carlos Luis Fallas, would go on to tactically use black identity symbolically for their political agenda but refused to consult with black laborers who had their own history of disputes against the exploitative UFC. Fallas’s writings about his experience in the banana fields display anxiety and rage at having to work under black management which “had a level of education superior to that of Costa Ricans (white and mestizos), and dominated the best employment options.”[ii]
Counterintuitively, the Costa Rican Communist Party would also stereotype blacks as being members of only the lower social class while at the same time dismissing them from the workforce conflict.[iii] This would thus prompt black labor force activists to dismiss the communist rhetoric and ironically become more aligned with the UFC. These activists from the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) division in Costa Rica would go on to voice their concerns through editorials published in the local newspaper, The Atlantic Voice. The disregard shown to Afro-Costa Rican communities by the Costa Rican Communist Party would prompt editorial entries that sought to prohibit the use of black identity as a mechanism to achieve a political agenda. Such concerns are seen in editorial publications like the one that follows:
“Whether communism is right or wrong is no concern of ours. This is Costa Rican politics. But when communism attempts to ride on the back of colored labor to its political goal, without first consulting you on your disposition in the matter, then it is high time that you are warned to sit tight and watch your own interests, less you find yourselves worst sufferers in the end.”[iv]
The circulation of the cinco colones with Villa’s Allegory of Coffee and Bananas not only echoes the racist rhetoric of Costa Rica during the early twentieth century but continues to dismiss black identity from the workforce and from the foundation of the nation. By ignoring the importance of black labor in the official national narrative, issues that affect the current Afro-Costa Rican community, such as limited employment and lack of resources which do not allow for upward mobility, become harder to address. Not surprisingly, these concerns are complicated by inaccurate census data, and services catalogued by ethnic groups, gender, and differing populations. This lack of data causes Afro-Costa Ricans to be excluded from public services and other government-based aid.
Robinson’s Money Talk, however, dismantles the imagery in the cinco colones bill by making a direct intervention to reintroduce black identity into this official form of currency. Robinson accomplishes this by coloring in the figures black which physically imposes blackness atop the European figures, originally intended to dismiss the role of black identity and the exploitative economies of Costa Rica’s past. Additionally, the legacy of the original cinco colones is made more apparent once Robinson takes his modified bill into the open market, attempting to use his adapted currency in exchange for goods and services. As the artist has stated, the cash is usually turned down given that the defaced bills are seen as counterfeits because of the blackness of the figures.
However, as Robinson creates conversations through capitalist trade some bills are accepted and enter into circulation. At times they are accepted because he tells these individuals that he is an artist and the bills are his art. Nonetheless, what is critical is that black labor and Afro-Costa Rican identity begin to hold value in Costa Rican society through Robinson’s negotiations, while at the same time setting the foundation for an expanded oral history which disrupts the official and iniquitous history found in the cinco colones .
A Decolonial Atlas: Strategies of Contemporary Art in The Americas will be traveling to Tufts University this winter.
[i] Sharman, Russell Leigh. “Red, White, and Black: Communist Literature and Black Migrant Labor in Costa Rica.” Afro-Hispanic Review 24, no. 2 (2005): 137-49. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23054578.
[ii] Ibid. Pg.147.
[iii] Ibid. Pg. 146.