Cultural Cimarronaje: Racial Politics in Cuban Art

By Elio Rodriguez

Certain artists dealing with themes of race and racial identity sought to produce socially engaged art that is critical of the market fetishization of Afro-Cuban religion and culture, as well as the silencing of race issues within Cuban society.

Excerpted from the new book Cuba Represent!: Cuban Arts, State Power, and the Making  of New Revolutionary Cultures, by Sujatha Fernandes (pp. 160 – 167)

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Alexis Esquivel

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Cuban visual arts suffered from a shortage in materials and an exodus of artists. In the mid to late 1990s, artists began to reconsolidate and rebuild the visual arts in the new conditions of production imposed by an external market. The visual arts are marked by a strong orientation towards the international art market and tourism. But the period of the late 1990s and early millennium has also seen the re-emergence of art that deals with contentious social and political themes. Certain artists dealing with themes of race and racial identity sought to produce socially engaged art that is critical of the market fetishization of Afro-Cuban religion and culture, as well as the silencing of race issues within Cuban society.

What many of us do via the arts is cultural cimarronaje. When Tosca sings, it is not a song, it is a cry; when Nancy Morejón recites with high lyricism, it is an arrow launched by the wind; when Mendive with his painting depicts a figure like Oggún, it is also a way of saying, "We are here;" when Chucho Valdés calls his disc Yemayá, it is a way of saying "We are here." What I am doing is something similar to a painting or a rap song.

-Roberto Diago, multimedia artist 

Alongside the movement of art collectives and public interventions that reappeared in the mid to late 1990s, another kind of cultural collective began to take place among artists concerned with themes of race and racism in Cuban society. Like rap musicians, Afro-Cuban artists confronted a situation of silence about race issues. Since the gradual disappearance of Grupo Antillano in the 1980s, there had been few artists who had dealt with issues of race, with the exception of Manuel Mendive.

Ironically, it was the circulation of postmodern notions of difference in the periphery that gave renewed impetus to this theme globally and which, as Nelly Richard argues, should have ideally made available "a range of material that can be discussed and reformulated (or rejected) according to local critical needs." The exoticization of Afro-Cuban themes by the global market, combined with the development of a folklore tourism and the prioritization of the African presence in the Americas by international foundations such as UNESCO, gave a degree of legitimacy to representations of African identity, and Afro-Cuban artists took advantage of these openings to express their concerns. Yet as Richard goes on to argue, the dependency that shapes center-periphery relationships means that in reality these interventions are themselves commodified.

The exhibition Queloide I (Keloid I), organized by curator and artist Alexis Esquivel in 1997, brought together various artists who had been working on issues of race, including among others Manuel Arenas, Gertrudis Rivalta, Douglas Pérez, René Peña, Elio Rodríguez, and Roberto Diago, in addition to Esquivel himself. The title, Queloide, meaning raised scar tissue, refers back to the scars left on the skin of slaves from whippings by foremen. The artists involved in the exhibition had a fairly fluid understanding of race, as a psychological and cultural construct that can act as both a barrier and a symbol of cultural survival. As Esquivel expressed to me in an interview, "Racial identity can be a refuge for the manifestation of personal identity, a base for individual orientation in an immense sea of cultural possibilities, but at the same time it can be a straitjacket, a jail that restricts free individual expression." Despite the lack of support from mainstream art institutions in Havana, Esquivel went on to organize another exhibition together with art critic Ariel Ribeaux at the end of 1997, entitled, Ni Músicos, Ni Deportistas (Not Musicians, Nor Athletes). The title refers to the social stereotypes that confine the cultural contributions of Afro-Cubans to music and sports.

The pieces in the exhibitions spoke to these themes from various perspectives. Esquivel’s work draws on the social and political significance of a rope known as the soga, which was used to separate whites and blacks at dances. The artist tied the rope in knots around his head, expressing the violence of racial discrimination and the restrictions it places on the individual. In the series, Queloides (Keloids), Peña presents close up photographic images of scars on black skin, evoking the title of the show in a visceral manner. The marking of black bodies by powerful histories and social stereotypes is a theme in Peña’s work. In another piece by Peña entitled Cuchillo (Knife), the replacement of the penis of the black man with a knife is a comment on the fears and myths of black male sexuality.

Manuel Arenas’ pieces, Carné de identidad (ID card) and Cuidado, hay negro (Watch out for the black man), recall the songs by rap artists in their protest of police harassment of black youth. In Carné de identidad, the image of a black man showing his ID card is at the center of the Cuban national emblem. Arenas related to me that the work intends to represent the irony of the "formal game of evaluation that directly or indirectly reduces the capacity of the black man to the strictly physical." The replacement of one of the symbols in the emblem by a penis dramatically demonstrates the conflation of official documents with the physical body in the game of requesting an ID: "it forces together symbolism of a nationalist and patriotic character in the primitive self-portrait of an erect penis." In Cuidado, hay negro, which recalls the typical signs in houses, Cuidado, hay perro (Watch out for the dog), Arenas invites intruders to be cautious: "I position the socially negated individual in a privileged place, endowing them with essential opportunities such as debating and expressing themselves." Arenas turns social stereotypes on their head, employing threatening imagery to reclaim the social existence of the black man.

The exhibitions were provocative because they offered a critique of the notions of race and blackness being fetishized by global markets and the state-promoted tourism industry. According to Esquivel, the exhibitions looked at race relations in Cuba "from a critical and analytical perspective, not only cultural and religious, as they have been traditionally addressed."

Esquivel describes the general suspicion faced by the artists:

This was a theme looked upon poorly by art critics in Cuba at that time and even today. As well, many of the more recognized artists of our generation advised us to abandon the project as it was considered very risky from a professional point of view. Raising these issues was looked at strangely; we were accused of being "radical blacks," resentful, and opportunists, in what was an intent to avoid airing an issue that seemed to have awakened contrary opinions.

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By Elio Rodrigiuez

But at the same time, the exhibitions put the artists on the cultural map and created a certain space of legitimacy for their work. Ribeaux wrote an essay based on the project, and his essay was awarded a prestigious prize in a competition held by the First National Biennial of the Theory and Criticism of Contemporary Art. Ribeaux’s essay was later published in the art journal Arte Cubano. Through the exhibitions, a range of topics were debated, including the reemergence of racism in the tourist economy, the role and possible value of Afro-Cuban culture for generating foreign exchange through a more "dignified" tourism, and the entrustment of cultural promotion to white Cubans who are often ignorant of Afro-Cuban cultural traditions. Queloides both represented and gave rise to an emerging body of art by Afro-Cuban artists that sought to engage with socio-political themes of marginality, race, and power.

Elio Rodríguez, one of the prominent artists of Queloides, deals with stereotypes and representations of race in the cultural marketplace of contemporary Cuba. In his series, Las Perlas de tu Boca (The Pearls of your Mouth), shown at the René Portocarrero Serigraphy Workshop in Havana in 1996, Rodríguez appropriates the iconography of North American cinema posters of the 1950s to present contemporary stories. In each of the posters, Rodríguez, a black man, casts himself as the "star" of the film, making the point that the image of blacks was usually excluded. The movie advertisements are sponsored by Macho Enterprise S.A., which according to Rodríguez, is a fictitious company he has created to "comment on the new times in which we live, of mixed enterprises, of negotiations, of lies." In one piece from the series, The Temptation of the Joint Venture, Rodríguez depicts the erotic meeting of a black man and a mulatta woman with a brightly colored tropicana headdress. The desire of black men for mulatta women is framed as a "joint venture," alluding to the desire of tourists for sexual encounters with Cubans and, as Rodríguez explained, "the coquetry of Cubans with the ‘foreigner’ at all levels." The joint venture is simultaneously a sexual adventure: economic negotiations are based in notions of Cuban eroticism and availability.

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By Elio Rodriguez

This idea is expressed in another piece by Rodríguez entitled, Tropical, which depicts a black man flirting with a white tourist. The revolutionary iconography of the red beret and cigar sported by the black man contrast with the halo of bananas that surrounds his head and his feminine sensuality as he wraps himself in a white sheet. The slogan, "I’ll wait for you in the dark of the night," and the eerie pair of eyes hidden behind a neon "Tropical" sign, underscore the vulnerability of the black man. In his 1998 lithographic series Mulatísimas, Rodríguez utilizes tobacco cases from the nineteenth century to comment on questions of gender, nation, and tourism today. For Rodríguez, "In the end, the present is no more than a rehashing of the past with new technologies and new strategies, but with the same problems." The modern transactions and negotiations of the special period are conditioned by racial discourses of the past.

Multimedia artist Roberto Diago presents painting in the form of graffiti. Like rap music, graffiti is an alternative way of writing the history of the city and telling the stories that have been relegated to the margins. For Diago, it is black history, culture and voices that have been silenced: "Blacks don’t have references to our race in the media. When we appear in a soap opera, it is as slaves or servants in white people’s houses. In primary education they don’t study African stories, or speak of the gods that accompanied our slave ancestors who filled this island." In contrast to official national histories which seek to subsume black identity, Diago’s graffiti brings to the fore the notion of a black history. One graffiti painting produced by Diago in 2002 reads, "Cuba Si! Fucked. Black 100% My history." Another reads, "My history is your history."

Diago’s graffiti demands people’s attention and raises the profile of black Cuba in a context where it is hidden and ignored. As Diago said, "It is important for me as a black man and creator to express the reality that official discourse doesn’t reflect, to show my people that we have our own voice, even though the media doesn’t give us space." Diago recounts the inspiration he has drawn from black artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, not so much for his artistic techniques, but for "his cry as a young black intellectual." In contrast to the "mystical black," Diago wants to show the "social black," "the other part of Cuban life that at times they don’t want to show." Like Esquivel, Rodríguez, and Arenas, Diago is concerned with the social conditions of race as lived reality.

Following the Queloides exhibition, several of the artists involved began to create performances and interventions in public space. During the 2000 Bienal, Esquivel created a performance in the Plaza Vieja, the Historic Center of Havana, entitled Acción Afirmativa (Affirmative Action). In the performance, Esquivel assumed the position of a street vendor, positioned next to a large sales rack containing only a black doll, which he had purchased moments earlier in a tourist market. Esquivel proceeded with a sales pitch, where he attempted to sell the doll to various passers-by for more than fifteen times its value. One observer noted that Esquivel employed a pedantic discourse about the ideological value of the doll, saying that the doll represented black women who were most oppressed by slavery and was therefore more valuable than other items for sale in the tourist market. Another critic noted the ways in which Esquivel sought to present his doll as "committed art," parodying the false aura of radicalism used to attract foreign buyers and dealers. The artist related to me that there were a series of reactions to his sales pitch. Some people began to discuss with him the reality of racial problems in Cuba and others entered into a barter with him over the price of the doll. Esquivel’s performance was both a part of the Bienal and a comment on the kinds of "radical" discourses used to attract foreign buyers in the international marketplace of the Bienal, as well as more locally in the tourist market.

Another public intervention was carried out during the 2003 Bienal by Diago, who worked with Manuel Mendive and another artist Choco on an installation in a solar known as La California. As Judith Bettelheim reports, while Mendive did a performance, Choco installed collagraphs in a community room and Diago worked with children to construct miniature homes. According to Diago, the idea of the project was that "We all had to get in touch with the artist we have within us. From the kids to the elders." The project was continued after the artists left, by the men and women of the solar. As an artist originating from the tenements of a marginal barrio, it is important for Diago to make his art relevant to the lives of his community. Diago has also participated with rappers in discussions about black history, race, and racism in various workshops and colloquiums in Havana.

The re-emergence of art dealing with questions of race from a socio-political perspective parallels the rise of rap music as a voice for Afro-Cuban youth. However, visual artists were less optimistic about the possibilities for sustaining black voices within the arts, given resistance in the political establishment to their work. Esquivel said that cultural institutions pay lip-service to questions of race, while postponing the possibility of any real debate. Religious cosmology and folklore have "won an important commercial space," but those artists who work on the socio-political aspects of race relations have not had an impact in the art market." The combination of an unresponsive institutional sector and the exclusions of the market have limited the spaces within which black artists can express themselves. According to Esquivel, with the Queloides exhibition, a sector of Afro-Cuban artists passed quickly "from being simple to being profound" and they attained important coverage in major art journals, but the orchestrated silencing of the issues that has since followed "has confirmed a good part of the ideas that the works in the exhibition were proclaiming." Esquivel comes to much the same conclusions as did the Grupo Antillano artists two decades earlier, that there is very little space within the visual arts for talking about issues of race. A few individual artists have established themselves, but it has been more difficult to sustain a collective voice for addressing issues of race.

Sujatha Fernandes is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Queens College, City University of New  York.

More about the book: Cuba Represent!: Cuban Arts, State Power, and the  Making of New Revolutionary Cultures, by  Sujatha  Fernandes (Duke University Press, October 2006)