C&AL: How would you describe the relationship between contemporary Cuban artist and the government?
ADF: It’s impossible to describe that relationship in the singular. Some artists are barely tolerated (like Sandra Ceballos), or even openly repressed (like Tania Bruguera). Others, like Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, are not even recognized as artists by the cultural authorities. Sadly, the proclamation of decree 349 of 2018 gives new legal basis to censorship and represents a bureaucratic and backward assault on creative freedom. [Note of the editor: According to this decree, all artists, including collectives, musicians and performers, are prohibited from operating in public or private spaces without prior approval by the Ministry of Culture.] But many other artists have developed strategies to dodge censors and bureaucrats (who are often one and the same).
C&AL: How have racial dynamics developed on the island in recent years and how is this reflected upon in contemporary Cuban art?
ADF: Racial inequality has increased significantly in Cuba over the past two decades; in part because the families financially supporting the Cuban private sector largely belong to a white community. This sector is home to openly racist employment practices. You only have to read job advertisements that favor white people with no shame whatsoever. But there are also major shortcomings with regards to public attention to the issue. I agree with the outstanding dancer Carlos Acosta – a glory of Cuban culture – when he says that no deep debates have taken place on this subject, an issue that continues to be uncomfortable for many Cubans, especially for the authorities. There is no shortage of voices. What is missing are platforms of expression, particularly ones that involve the government. As intellectual and activist Tomás Fernández Robaina puts it, the problem is not silence – it’s deafness.
C&AL: How are Afro-Cubans represented in the contemporary art scene?
ADF: To me it seems like a permanent fight. There are Afro-Cuban artists like Manuel Mendive who, after many years of serious work, managed to become a permanent fixture in galleries and institutions. But that has taken a lot of effort. People often forget that there were stages in his career where Mendive faced great obstacles to exhibit in Cuba. There are curators and critics who persist in articulating a Eurocentric and white vision of Cuban culture. Nevertheless, I want to highlight, and celebrate the fact that in recent years, the National Museum of Fine Arts has hosted two important exhibitions that touch on issues of race and identity in Cuba: Sin máscaras, curated by Orlando Hernandez (2017) and Nada personal, curated by Roberto Cobas (2019).
C&AL: Can you tell us something about the reception of Cuban art in the United States today?
ADF: My impression is that the American public remains eager to know more about Cuban art and that this interest goes beyond an initial curiosity for the exotic and the forbidden. Lately, we have been moving towards a more sustained interest from collecting, museums and galleries. Contemporary art auctions illustrate that interest as does my own experience. In recent years, the exhibitions I have organized (Queloides, Drapetomania and now Diago) have been shown in San Francisco, Chicago, Pittsburgh, New York, Philadelphia, Boston and Miami. Right now, the University of Miami’s Lowe Art Museum is exhibiting not only Diago’s retrospective but also a show by another prominent Cuban artist, Carlos Estévez.