01/23/2008 07:09 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Samba, Castro and Voodoo--or Art

Last January the Craft and Folk Art Museum in Los Angeles hosted an exhibit I co-curated, which looked at the ways that different cultures approach the healing process. (I wrote about it then on Huffpost. Back in 2006, when first pondering how best to structure the exhibit, we'd decided to break it down by continent--that is until a friend pointed out that defining people, customs and cultures by continent was so 19th century(!). She had a point. Those demarcations play such an important part in fracturing us and in keeping the focus on our differences. By then we'd come to realize that the similarities were nothing less than stunning. We opted to mix it all up, group the objects by healing category, arrange the works alongside each other, and let people come to their own conclusions.

This year, I curated an exhibit for the Los Angeles Municipal Gallery at Barnsdall Park titled TROPICS: A Contemporary View of Brazil, Cuba and Haiti. (It opened last week and will run through April 20, 2008.) As I once again considered the best way to organize the exhibition, my first impulse was to group the work by country. Some people's children never learn! Around that time, I attended an art opening for a group show of works by Brazilian artists. I was standing in front of a 3-D construction titled "Geisha," when the artist, Rose Lobo, came up behind me and recounted a story about the time she'd exhibited that piece in a show with multinational artists. She'd listened in as two people discussed "Geisha," unaware that its creator stood close by. "She must be Asian," one of them said. Rose stepped up to introduce herself, and observed the look of surprise on their faces as they realized that a chocolate brown Brazilian woman had been inspired to create a Japanese-themed story through her art. This stereotyping is nothing new. If you are a Black writer, you must only be interested in writing about the black experience, right? If you are a musician from Cuba, surely you have no interest in rock and roll!

It dawned on me then that the way to structure this exhibition was to mix it all up again, and to let visitors view the work, discover the artist's origin (by reading the label), and then consider perception versus reality. Oh, I also invited several artists not from the three countries, but whose works are inspired by them, to participate, as well--just to broaden the conversation. Because there is plenty of room for dialogue on issues of surface perceptions, and origins--and how they influence the personal nature of artwork and hence, life itself.

Quick. What do you think of when you hear "Haiti?" Right. Poverty, Voodoo, political chaos. Brazil? I'm guessing you thought samba and bikinis. Cuba? I'll bet it was our man in Havana. But of course, there's more. Just for starters, there's art.