WITHOUT MASKS: Contemporary Afro-Cuban Art*
We have given a double title to this exhibition and its accompanying publication: a metaphoric one Without Masks) and a more descriptive one (Contemporary Afro-Cuban Art). Both titles express the thematic content of our project and the purpose we pursue. We wish to show, on the one hand, new and original representations and appropriations recent Cuban art has made based on our African heritage (preserved and developed by the religious communities known as Regla de Ocha or Santería, Ifá, Palo Monte and the Abakuá Secret Society), and on the other hand, to identify and include creations that reflect conflicting polemic areas of our national reality that have remained silenced for so long, and are little known outside of Cuba. We refer to the existence of racial prejudice, stereotypes, and discrimination which continue to injure the black and mulatto population of Cuba directly and our entire society and culture indirectly, in spite of the hypothetically non-aggressive and non-extreme nature of its manifestations, and the advances made in social equality since the Cuban Revolution of 1959. In addition to offering an opportunity to verify the continuous presence and vitality of those ancient cultural and religious traditions of African origin in contemporary Cuban art, this exhibition seeks to fulfill the intellectual, moral and political obligation to provoke reflection on the racial problems in Cuba, with the intention of contributing to its understanding and future resolution.
Beyond the purpose of “unmasking” the local manifestation of these problems, these artworks and texts should be perceived as part of a wider exercise of inquiry that, although based on Cuban reality and art, attempts to generate comparisons with racial relations in other national contexts and the presence or absence of artistic representations which reflect them. The existence of so many practitioners of religions of African origin in our society and in the Cuban intellectual and artistic circles may be surprising for many in a country where Marxist doctrine has inculcated scientific atheism for half a century. The existence of racial prejudice and discrimination may also come as a surprise in a society with policies based on the equal rights of all Cubans. Many believe that the State should assume all the blame for the alleged re-emergence of prejudices and discriminatory behavior against the black and mulatto populations since it is the State that ensures that the law is upheld, controls the mass media, the press, editorials, radio, and T.V., establishes curricula at all levels of education and organizes and implements Cuba’s cultural policy, and it is precisely through those instruments that the population must have been educated regarding that ancient colonial disease introduced into Cuba in the 16th century as a consequence of the slave regime. Neglecting or omitting such an important issue is truly the State’s responsibility, but I believe we should also examine the attitude adopted by each of us as citizens, our relations with our relatives, friends, schoolmates, and colleagues, to counteract racial prejudice. Racism may be disseminated through apparently innocent jokes, the habitual use of offensive epithets, paternalistic treatment, or negative stereotypes of black people. In fact, according to the Brazilian anthropologist Rita Laura Segato, “the most typical expression of racist prejudice and discrimination is the positive prejudice deposited on white people.”1 So we are all responsible, to a greater or lesser extent, for the unconscious and automatic reproduction of racial prejudice. If we criticize the Cuban state for abolishing racism “by decree” at the beginning of the Revolution or for thinking prematurely that the issue was settled once it established equal rights for all without analyzing the multiple social, economic, cultural and psychological causes that could keep it alive, should we wait for a decree authorizing us to confront this same racism? Or should we wait for the fulfillment of international agreements on the subject when we know that many of those instruments have proved to be slow and inoperative?
The individual nature of the artistic discourses gathered here, the private or family ownership of the collection and the independent and non-institutional character of its curator emphasize the importance of individual commitment in facing these problems. However, this does not imply that we should free the State from past responsibilities and future obligations in this regard. We believe that Cuba’s African heritage cannot continue to be reduced to the religious, symbolic, aesthetic, or festive elements of Yoruba, Bantú, and Carabalí rituals. Although these are unquestionably important, Ethnography and Folklore have made them central to the understanding of these legacies, detaching our heritage from the conditions of subordination, inequality, and discrimination under which the Black-Afro descendants of Cuba have had to develop their traditions, affecting their development and preventing their full dissemination and understanding by the whole of our population. For a long time, this view attached to religion has been assumed by many of our artistic creators, our history of art and museum collecting, thereby facilitating the public construction of an idealized, picturesque and passive image of the Afro-Cuban issue. Our African heritage – assumed and developed by blacks, mulattos and whites – does not permit being treated in a neutral, sanitized or nonproblematic manner, nor being turned indolently into exotic commodities for foreign and local tourism. This African legacy should not be emptied of its antihegemonic, critical, accusing contents, whose long history began several centuries ago with the uprisings of African and Creole slaves, with their participation in the struggles for independence, continued up to the present in various practices of opposition, resistance and cultural marooning. Nor can the issues of racial identity, negritude or black consciousness which have always accompanied the understanding of these African legacies be avoided as untimely or imprudent; nor is it possible to dodge the importance of reconstructing, disseminating and recovering the historical, institutional, familiar and personal memory that is exclusive to this historically disadvantaged sector of our population. Likewise, we believe that Cuban society and culture – and art as one of its expressions – should be understood beyond the limits set by the falsely unifying and non-differentiating “crossbreeding” concept that has generally served to characterize us, which reached its clearest definition in the culinary metaphor of the ajiaco (melting pot) popularized many years ago by the father of Cuban anthropology, Fernando Ortiz.2 In practice, the overvaluation of the crossbreeding concept has had a cushioning and demobilizing effect in the face of the racism that still exists against blacks. Can we say that the processes of biological and cultural cross-breeding have allowed the attainment in Cuba of a racial democracy, as some have surmised, where reference to skin color would make no difference? If we are truly a mixed, mulatto society why would anyone be interested in making the black component visible as something different? If we are all simply Cubans why continue to insist on the importance of our Afro- Cubanness?
Our current emphasis on the cultural and religious components of African origin and the racial problems of the blacks and mulattos of Cuba has the main objective of granting visibility to those historically disadvantaged social sectors in the daily exercise of white privilege, which in one way or another is still present in contemporary Cuban society. This does not mean that we are assuming a sectarian or prejudicial position toward the white or Eurodescendant population, nor does it mean that we underestimate the importance of our Chinese, Arab, Latin American, Caribbean and even American3 cultural heritage which have also shaped the social and cultural identity of our still-evolving Cuban nation. We do not wish to participate in any type of segregation or racism. The wide, inclusive, integrationist Afro- Cuban concept we have attempted to create in this project, in which black, white and mulatto artists participate equally, is not a recent historical product. Nor is it something we may attribute exclusively to the democratic ideals derived from political practice, or the letter of progressive constitutions, or the consensus reached by whites and blacks during the wars against slavery and Spanish colonialism, and not even to the progress made in social and racial equality since the revolution of 1959. These inter-racial integrative or fraternity processes were practiced long before by many sectors of our population, especially the popular classes and, to a smaller extent, our religious groupings of African origin, as early as the third decade of the 19th century, when they accepted into their ranks all racial sectors of our population. This exhibition also seeks to make new and deeper studies of those cultural, aesthetic, symbolic and religious legacies that we share and take for granted, without forgetting that we have received them from black sub-Saharan Africa, which will afford the population of African descent the recovery and consolidation of its own history, racial identity, social pride, and intellectual self-esteem, all damaged by centuries of exclusion and contempt. At the same time, we would like to highlight and encourage the insurgent and rebellious nature – in the guise of social and political claims – that has always been present (openly or covertly) in the Cuban black and mulatto population as one of the alternatives to the Euro-centred, patriarchal, classist, elitist and racist mentality that still predominates in most world societies, including those like Cuba, where we thought it had been finally overcome. Although our emphasis on all things African in Cuba allows us to talk with ease about Afro-Cubanness, this does not mean that black and mulatto peoples are the only object of our quest: we would also like to verify how our alleged white or Eurodescendant culture took shape in the midst of cross-breedings and transculturations with social sectors of African descent. Our concern is not about white artists assuming blackness or Afro-Cubanness superficially as the theme of their works, but that these Cuban artists are white in the only way they can be in our country, which is full of social, cultural, religious, symbolic and aesthetic ingredients of African origin and this is a process that began five centuries ago! This Afro-Cubanness also refers to Cuban men and women with less melanin in their skin. We are inclined to favour displacing the concepts of Afro-Cubanness, crossbreeding and negritude from their merely biological and somatic positions (black or mulatto skin), emphasizing instead the social and cultural condition expressed in works, attitudes and a sense of ownership, since we believe that in the long run, the colour of culture is more important than the colour of skin. A person may be white from a somatic viewpoint and black from a cultural viewpoint and being black or mulatto is not enough to automatically become the heir to African traditions or to act consistently against racism that weighs down on the black and mulatto population of Cuba.
Without Masks: Contemporary Afro-Cuban Art was initiated in November 2007 with the full backing and financial support of South African businessman and collector, Chris von Christierson, and his family, who are now based in London. Since its inception, they have enthusiastically embraced the idea of a collection of Cuban art that would show the multiple imprints of Africa in Cuba’s artistic culture. A collection not for private enjoyment but dedicated to fostering greater knowledge through a series of public exhibitions and publications. Since the beginning, the intention has been for this to be a traveling exhibition, with special emphasis on regions inhabited by African populations, the African Diaspora, or by communities of African origin from different nationalities who coexist with other ethnic or racial groups, and where, consequently, our project could arouse greater interest and identification with the values and problems it portrays. However, these prerequisites are by no means exclusive and should not limit the project’s exhibition elsewhere. In fact, the ample dissemination of the cultural values emanating from Africa and Afro-America, as well as the multi-ethnic and pluricultural nature of the majority of the world’s societies today, together with the regrettable proliferation of ethnic, racial and religious conflicts, suggest wide reception of this project. Its social and cultural usefulness has been our main motivation.
The collection currently consists of 99 works by 26 contemporary Cuban artists, covering a relatively short period, from 1980 to 2009, although most artworks were made in the last decade of the 1990s and the 21st century. We have chosen this brief period in Cuban art because it is in this interval that the treatment of the Afro-Cuban theme acquired deeper and better-informed approaches to religious subjects and a more reflexive and critical tone arose in relation to the theme of race. This contrasts with the relatively stereotyped, idealized, or picturesque approach of earlier periods (particularly the 19th century and a large part of the 20th century). The collection may be considered a work in progress, since it could in the future include works by other Cuban artists from different generations and explore other kinds of creative expressions not included in the present exhibition. The media represented in this collection include painting on canvas and wood, watercolor, drawing, printing (xylography, silk-screen, collography), collage, patchwork, installation, soft-sculpture, photography, video-installation, and video art. At this point, we cannot overlook an important issue: the collection does not currently include examples of Afro-Cuban ritual art, developed within the religious communities of Santería and Ifá, Palo Monte and Abakuá. These peculiar forms of art provide an essential understanding of those African legacies that are only represented or “translated” in the modern western-style artistic works shown in this collection. This is a complex matter requiring the utmost care since Afro-Cuban ritual art is not only made up of objects and images, but more complex practices involving the practitioners themselves in their various ritual activities and we would risk dramatizing or aestheticizing some of the creations by removing them from their original spaces and functions, always related to the sacred, and turning into a spectacle that which is a transcendental event for the members of those religious communities. However, we believe that in the future we should run those risks so that some elements of this impressive aesthetic-symbolic creativity may be known within a wider and less exclusive framework than what we have called here contemporary Afro-Cuban art.
This collection of contemporary Afro-Cuban art is exceptional in that it has assembled for the first time a large and varied group of Cuban artists devoted to exploring profoundly and with originality two great themes that have previously been regarded individually, namely the cultural and religious traditions of Africa in Cuba and the multiple problems related with the racial issue. While other exhibitions have been shown in Cuba and abroad regarding the cultural and religious traditions of African origin in Cuba, those devoted to racial subjects have been fewer. Three relatively small but important and truly inspiring exhibitions became the pioneers in dealing with the racial issue in our country: Queloides I, (Casa de África, Havana, 1997), Ni Músicos ni Deportistas, (Centro Provincial de Artes Plásticas y Diseño, 1997) and Queloides II (Centro de Desarrollo de las Artes Visuales, Havana, 1999). These two themes have been supplemented with other unusual artistic representation, such as the political-military presence of Cuba in the wars in Africa (Carlos Garaicoa’s works on Angola) or the allusion to African ritual traditions and deities in Cuban art (Santiago R. Olazabal), largely due to the re-Africanizing process that has taken place in recent years in certain religious circles in Cuba. We have included some artists who have broached the subject only occasionally but from new perspectives (such as Yoan Capote), others who have always worked with these Afro-Cuban traditions but in a discreet or barely perceptible manner, thus being left out of previous selections (such as Rubén Rodríguez). As far as we know, in spite of previous exhibitions related to the Afro-Cuban theme, there is no other private or institutional collection of this magnitude, in Cuba or elsewhere, dedicated to these topics in such an ample and diversified manner, nor with such a large-scale representation of relevant artists.
From the start we have followed rigorous criteria in the selection of the artists: most have achieved national and international acknowledgment, and the selected works have an aesthetic quality. However, our interest has also taken the focus beyond the aesthetic, favouring originality, and the profoundness of the sociological, historical, anthropological, religious, ethical, and political messages contained in the works. This has been encouraged by the presence in recent Cuban art of reflexive rather than contemplative or hedonistic approaches, and by recent debates in the academic circles in Cuba on the racial issue. Although we have inclined ourselves more to content than procedure, or to what the artists say more than the way in which they say it, we have taken care to make both requirements coincide. In the following 26 brief essays devoted to each artist and the works shown in this collection, I have given priority to interpreting, deciphering, explaining, and giving clues related to our contexts so as to allow the viewer a better understanding of the oeuvres. I have given less space to sharing the joy, the pleasure that the works elicit, or to celebrating their formal excellence or originality.
At the risk of decreasing the mystery of the artworks, I have included small photos (mostly taken by myself) to illustrate the texts, with the intention of making the sources of such works known. I confess to being more interested in cognitive than aesthetic issues. Aesthetics, style, and fashion are probably the sine qua non conditions of works of art, but I cannot conceive of artistic works unbound from knowledge and usefulness. As an art critic, I have always attended more to the viewers’ need to understand and less to please the requirements of a minority group of experts. From this perspective, I consider the complexity of aesthetic, formal, and stylistic artifices (those related with appearance) as some of the many “masks” that art should discard in preference for more important messages that the nude or less occult “face” would be able to transmit. Doing this would increase the receptive framework of art, which has a tendency towards elitist cultural production. This exhibition has placed on equal footing artists who are world-famous and artists who are practically unknown, those who are professional graduates of important academies and those who are self-taught, those who have received important awards, and those who have received only acknowledgment. We have also not taken into account the place of residence of the Cuban artists represented.
Lastly, I would like to clarify the order in which the artists appear in this publication. The 26 artists have been listed in an unusual way, not following alphabetical order, but instead following the hierarchical order established by age, and then starting with those who have passed away. This is a respectful attitude followed by our Afro-Cuban religious groups.
*Previously published as the Intro-essay to the book Without Masks: Contemporary Afro-Cuban Art. The von Christierson Collection, 2008.
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