In a country where the idea of a nation weighs down on the shoulders like a heavy cross, where multiple identities, traversed on many occasions, crystalize into an obtuse binarism, the question arises as to whether a sense of belonging to an African diaspora exists among black women and men in Cuba. Do we feel Afro-Cuban and/or are we perceived as such?
To think of this diaspora as a symbolic space of provision for and (re)invention of identities is one possible way to go. However, this has proven difficult, seeing as a critical approach to these topics has been postponed, or in many cases even silenced, based on a very clear political discourse on the subject.
Thus, it is, at the very least, conflicting to use terms such as “Afro-Cuban”, “black culture” or “African diaspora”. In the following, I would like to make a brief outline of the ways in which this is reflected in Cuban visual arts.
Now, the first thing one should be aware of is: traditionally, any attempt at approaching the racial problematic in Cuba is faced with an alleged “national homogeneity” as a contrasting element. To a large extent, the persistence of this phenomenon is due to the fact that in 1962, Fidel Castro declared the problem of race and discrimination as resolved. One of the consequences of this was that any questioning or criticism was perceived as a counterrevolutionary act, as a dividing agent among the Cuban people.
This was no exclusive phenomenon in the social and political realm. It was further reflected in the artistic expressions in Cuba. In the specific case of visual arts, there existed historically cultural approaches to Afro-Cuban culture from folkloristic perspectives, or others where, to avoid conflict, the idea of a black identity was dissolved into a Cuban identity.
In the colonial period, between the seventeenth and nineteenth century, there are works of art which portray the “black world” of the island. Blacks and mestizos are depicted in marketplaces, town squares and factories, where they worked either as slaves or as paid laborers. Quotidian works of this type, including both paintings and engravings, were created primarily by Europeans visiting the island, some even based on travel accounts.
With regard to contemporary visual arts in Cuba, there is a group of artists whose work revolves to a large extent around the Afro-Cuban world, either from a perspective which deeply explores religions, rituals, myths and legends with nearly ethnographic precision, or, as a way of constant self-(re)invention as black individuals, Cubans and artists.