In a stereogram taken in 1876, a banana plant stands in the middle of a large, enclosed space in the manner of nineteenth-century botanical gardens or Universal exhibitions.1 Surrounded by four wooden panels holding it upright at its base, the plant with large leaves cuts a striking figure in the foreground of the image. Viewing this remarkable photograph through a stereoscope would have created a three-dimensional effect, distancing viewers from their immediate reality and immersing them in a kind of nineteenth-century virtual reality, giving the impression that they were actually standing in the exhibition space. This image foretold the significance that this seemingly harmless fruit would have for political relations, social currents and economic ties between North and South America.
The US public got their first taste of bananas at the United States Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. It was the first event of its kind in the United States, and it celebrated 100 years of independence from Great Britain. The exhibition comprised a number of pavilions in which the great technological advances of the age and a plethora of curiosities and wonders were showcased. For example, the exhibition saw the first public demonstrations of the typewriter as well as Alexander Bell’s telephone. Among the objects on display was the Statue of Liberty’s right arm with torch in hand, yet to be placed in its iconic stance. However, it was the banana plant in the aforementioned photograph that caught the public’s eye. Displayed in the Horticultural Hall alongside orange trees, date palms, fig trees, orchids and pineapples, the then exotic banana plant needed its own security guard to prevent curious passers-by from damaging or destroying the plant.2 At the exhibition, visitors could take home their first banana, wrapped in aluminium foil and sold for a dime.
This photograph demonstrates that, up until the late nineteenth century, this fruit remained relatively unknown beyond the places where it was grown. The current situation could not be more different: nowadays, the banana is found across the world and it also holds an important place in global popular culture. Take, for example, the banana taped to a wall by artist Maurizio Cattela, which sold for $120,000 at Art Basel Miami in 2019, or Chiquita Banana’s catchy jingle. But how did this fruit become a symbol for violence and sexual fetishes, synonymous with exoticism or “backwardness”? This research project, entitled Banana Craze, uses contemporary art as a means of investigating the social, economic and cultural issues caused by the mass cultivation of bananas across the Americas, particularly in Latin America and the Caribbean. This project brings together almost 100 artworks which uncover and examine the power struggles and long-standing tensions between the continent’s north and south by considering the roles of the major players: growers, exporters, and consumers. The project goes beyond a virtual exhibition. It is an active, growing, and constantly developing research project.
Today, bananas are the most consumed fruit in the world with approximately 116 tonnes produced every year. Although the highest consumption of the fruit occurs locally, since bananas are a staple food in the countries where they are grown, they are also exported on a huge scale generating around $12 billion dollars every year.3 Latin America and the Caribbean is the second largest banana-producing region in the world after Asia, but the region accounts for around 75% of global exports (Ecuador, for example, accounts for 30% of world banana market supply).4 Bananas are the most grown fruit in the southern subcontinent of the Americas followed by pineapple, mango, avocado and papaya. 80% of exports are sent to developed countries, mainly in Europe and the United States, which reflects an imbalance between countries in terms of dependency, a theme explored in many pieces in this project.5
Bananas did not originate in the Americas. In fact, there is no evidence to suggest that they were grown in the region before the arrival of Christopher Colombus. The first evidence of bananas dates back to 1000 BC in Southeast Asia. It is believed that Arab traders brought bananas to the Middle East and Africa in the 7th century AD. However, it was not until 1482, when the Portuguese came across plantations in countries such as the Gambia, Sierra Leone and Liberia, that bananas arrived in the Canary Islands. From there, missionaries such as Fray Tomás de Berlanga brought the plant to Hispaniola in the early sixteenth century. Initially, bananas were grown in the Caribbean as an effective and economical way of feeding the growing slaved African population. Berlanga took bananas with him when he became bishop of Panama. And so the cultivation of bananas started across the continent and the industry grew rapidly from there, so much so that people often believe that bananas are native to the region.6 The artworks in this project explore the significance of bananas in terms of identity in Latin America, reflecting their deep roots in local culture despite not actually originating in the region.
Ever since the banana industry took off in the late nineteenth century, the fruit has held a prominent place in global visual culture. Although its popularization in the collective imagination was consolidated in the United States at the end of the 19th century, bananas have appeared in Latin American visual culture since the first plantations were established.7 Artistic representations of bananas first appeared in colonial times. Dutch artist Albert Eckhout painted Tupi woman in 1641 as part of a series of ethnographic portraits and still life paintings while in Brazil.8 This painting could almost serve as an encyclopedia illustration because it contains a vast quantity of contextual information about ethnography and landscapes. A Tupian woman is seen holding a baby in her arms underneath a banana plant, and in the background we can see several people working on a banana plantation. Casta paintings, such as Miguel Cabrera’s 1763 From Spaniard and Mestiza, Castiza, educated international viewers about the sociocultural diversity of the Americas through visual representations of unions between individuals from different ethnic groups. In these images, the way in which races were often characterised and depicted in different ways is mirrored by the variety of flora. In this particular piece, a wealthy couple is standing in front of a shoe shop while their son eats a banana.
Ever since the Latin American nation states came into being, countries across the region have viewed the bananas as a symbol of cultural identity. In the paintings of Puerto Rican artist Francisco Oller, whose style drew from French Impressionism, the banana becomes an important symbol of national pride as the unique traits and characteristics of the island are celebrated and valued, only a few years before it gained independence from Spain.9 In the avant-garde movements of the early twentieth century, bananas appear in the work of several artists. During the 1920s in Brazil, Tarsila do Amaral, Anita Malfatti and Lasar Segall frequently included banana leaves in the background of their compositions to allude to the influence that people of African descent had upon culture in Brazil.10 In Amelia Peláez’s cubist still life paintings a few decades later, bananas, as well as pineapples, tamarind, guava and other local fruit, represent Cuban modernity along with other objects that characterized domestic spaces in Havana, such as stained-glass windows and wrought iron.
Since the mid-twentieth century, numerous artists from Latin America and the Caribbean have reflected on the ubiquity of bananas in the global diet and have examined the exploitation of the region’s nations following the internationalization of the banana industry from the late nineteenth century to the present day. Banana plantations provide a starting point for exploration and reflection on the socio-political realities of Latin America, and this is why bananas are represented in Latin American visual art in so many different forms. 11 Despite the differences between the contexts and historical moments to which the artworks refer in this project, they also shine a light on the shared legacy of the artists. Indeed, since the early twentieth century, the massive scale of the banana industry has affected the development of banana-producing countries in different ways: from the links between the banana industry and climate change, to the impact of foreign-owned companies in the banana trade on social inequalities in farming communities and, finally, to the striking similarity between the journey undertaken by many Latin American migrants to so-called first-world countries and the transportation of bananas from the place to cultivation to the place of consumption.
Banana Craze is the first major study of how a natural resource such as the banana has shaped the past and the present of a continent, and how this phenomena finds expression through culture. Banana Craze brings together almost 100 pieces of contemporary Latin American artists in which the banana is the main feature. Starting with Cuban photographer Raúl Corrales and his 1960 piece Caballería (The Cavalry), in which a group of men ride on horseback celebrating the revolutionary government’s expropriation of United Fruit Company plantations, Banana Craze stretches to the present day and will continue progressing into the future.12 An artistic, cultural and philosophical approach is used to analyse these pieces and to allow a greater understanding of how the mass cultivation of bananas contributed to the growth of social inequality in Latin America, changing traditional ways of life and transforming the landscape and environment of the region. Not to mention how the banana trade contributed to the formation of xenophobic, racist, and sexist stereotypes of local inhabitants.
As a database, Banana Craze is articulated through alphabetical, chronological, geographical, and thematic search parameters that allow links to be made between pieces, artists and contexts. As an exhibition, Banana Craze has three sections: identities, ecosystems, and violences. In the section on identities, the pieces centre around stereotypes emanating from places of power, and around the creation of new cultures, such as Latinx, which have emerged as a result of migration. In the part about ecosystems, the artworks focus on how excessive agricultural exploitation of certain areas has conditioned the experiences and subjectivity of local inhabitants. In the section on violence, the body of artworks primarily deals with political repression, the violation of rights and the exploitation of workers. The digital nature of this project enables pieces to be grouped together in various categories, by theme, or by date or place of creation, enabling the creation of a wide-ranging network of understanding.
Banana Craze offers a full and comprehensive look at bananas in contemporary art, spanning decades and encompassing many countries as well as embracing artistic practices shaped by migration. In addition to the online exhibition, Banana Craze also includes publications, discussions, a bibliography and documentary sources, music, and films.13 The aim of Banana Craze is to preserve the memory of the banana in Latin America, to celebrate its cultural legacy, and to encourage discussions about contemporary artistic practices that embrace this reality.